Review of Mary Kelley "Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic" (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2008) by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz for H-Education

Mary Kelley. Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. x + 294 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-5921-6.

Reviewed by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz (Appalachian State University)
Published on H-Education (May, 2011)
Commissioned by Jonathan D. Anuik

In Learning to Stand and Speak, distinguished historian Mary Kelley offers a magisterial treatment of women’s intellectual activity in the decades between the American Revolution and the American Civil War. In a rich and thoroughly researched book dominated equally by lively examples and theoretical conceptualization of the public sphere, Kelley makes a sweeping argument about the effect of expanded learning and education on U.S. women, particularly the small percentage of women whose families’ economic, social, and cultural capital allowed them to take advantage of the growth of female academies and seminaries.

In the early chapters of her book, Kelley traces the expansion of education for women in postrevolutionary America. Between 1790 and 1830, 182 academies and at least 14 seminaries were established for women, with 158 more in the three decades that followed. Colonial education had generally featured reading, writing, and ciphering at home or in dame schools, with elites possibly having access to ornamental education and other accomplishments. The academy movement that followed the American Revolution transformed this, allowing thousands of women access to a rigorous education with a curriculum intentionally mimicking that offered at a growing number of single-sex, male colleges. After its founding in 1837, Mount Holyoke, for instance, offered grammar, ancient geography, history, physiology, rhetoric, geometry, and botany--and those were courses only available for students entering the institution. Algebra, moral philosophy, physics, ecclesiastical history, chemistry, zoology, logic, and astronomy soon followed. The course of study proved typical; Kelley describes a nationwide network of principals and teachers who created a uniform curriculum, one designed to cultivate reason. For example, the Petersburg Female College in Virginia advertised its intent to teach students to “THINK--to reason, investigate, compare, methodize, and judge” (p. 92). Kelley notes that some students chafed against the rote memorization and recitation, but she also describes the intensity and pride with which academy students approached exams, exhibitions, and the overall experience. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s years at Litchfield Female Academy were so important that she carefully preserved a composition she had written there despite the many moves in her adult life.

What Kelley offers is not so much a history of U.S. schooling but of women’s learning. She scoured commonplace books, letters, literary society records, and diaries in a host of archives to compile evidence of women’s continued devotion to learning in the years after graduation. Women joined and formed literary societies and reading circles as well as mutual improvement associations to continue the intellectually rigorous work they had begun while in school. Alone and collaboratively, women’s habits of reading--and reading reflectively--demonstrated their continued commitment to improving their minds, and Kelley’s depictions of women’s efforts to remain intellectually active is quite moving. In her commonplace book, Caroline Chester, a student at Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy, confided that books were the means by which “we learn how to live” (p. 166).

What was the effect of all of this education in and outside of the classroom? It resulted in part in women’s increased involvement in public life. Kelley describes academy education as a springboard to women’s participation in reading circles, literary societies, mutual aid and benevolent associations, and work as writers and editors. All of these comprise part of what Kelley defines as “civil society,” a segment of the broader public sphere. Kelley also traces the effects on women’s subjectivities. Book reading, involvement in literary societies, and other continued, intellectual engagement allowed a woman to claim an identity as a “learned woman” (p. 190). Kelley traces how women used their schooling and resulting status to launch themselves into roles as writers, editors, and reformers--all entry points into the public sphere. Kelley’s title comes from a letter that Lucy Stone penned to Antoinette Brown Blackwell in 1892, referring to the literary societies to which they had belonged as the place they had “learned to stand and speak” (p. 132). Intellectual tools as well as the confidence to claim a public voice are gestured to by this quote.

But only a few women were as bold as Stone. For the most part, educated women advocated entry into the part of the public sphere that Kelley describes as “civil society,” composed not of organized politics or the market economy but of discursive and institutional spaces. The expansion of opportunities for female education was part of an American Revolution-era bargain, Kelley notes: its expansion of educational opportunities for women was a watershed, but a woman’s access to education remained “contingent upon her fulfillment of gendered social and political obligations” (p. 25). Women were required to put their learning to use within the household, educating their (male) children to possess the civic virtue necessary for life in the new Republic. Most academies recognized this, describing their schooling as designed to prepare women for conventional roles and for social improvement, now defined as appropriate work for women because of their special moral authority. Written histories, such as those by Lydia Maria Child and Sarah Hale, highlighted women’s intellectual equality alongside “deference to male authority,” and few women were willing to voice any public admiration for the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft (p. 203). Kelley also offers this striking example: “Lydia Maria Child, in a year in which she carried on her career as an antislavery activist and a prolific writer, ‘Cooked 360 dinners. Cooked 362 breakfasts. Swept and dusted sitting room and kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber and stairs 40 times’” (p. 247).

That said, Kelley takes the optimist’s view of it, arguing that in the end the academy experience proved formative for both radicals and other women, allowing them “to flourish as never before” (p. 7). Particularly in its depictions of women’s personal commitments to education and in their work as writers and teachers, Learning to Stand and Speak makes a strong case for this. Her book should be of interest to a broad audience of readers: from those interested in U.S. education and perhaps even more, in the history of U.S. women in the pivotal era between the American Revolution and the American Civil War, to feminist theorists, and to those interested in well-written and engaging history.