Hilary Clinton, Courtesy of: South Florida Times

Hilary Clinton, Courtesy of: South Florida Times

In a year, the White House may open its doors to the first female president. In the early nineteenth century this idea would have been unthinkable. Women had a clear purpose: it was to be at home, in the domestic sphere. But is this really true? Shortly after the American Revolution the idea of Republican Motherhood was born. This was the notion that women needed to be educated in order to raise virtuous, civically moral, and patriotic sons who would go on to serve the republic. While at the same time teaching republican ideology, the belief in a free and democratic society, to their daughters to ensure they would pass it along to their sons. This meant women were leaving the home and seeking education, thus redefining the domestic sphere.

One ring eagle butter mold with patriotic shield, late eighteen or early nineteen-century. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

One ring eagle butter mold with patriotic shield, late eighteen or early nineteen-century. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

Republican ideology was taught in the home and came in many forms. One way we see this idea manifest is through butter molds. This butter mold, constructed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, features an eagle and patriotic shield, similar to the great shield. Typically in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries butter molds were crudely constructed by something similar to a pocketknife through what was called chip-carving. There were patterns for such carvings, and little originality was seen between items. The patterns could be used for things such as dower chests, ceramics, and so on. The designs usually contained eagles, doves, tulips and hearts, and geometric designs. [1] While fairly bland in idea and design, patriotic butter molds served a larger purpose. They were a way for families to show others that they were politically responsible, and remind their sons of their civic duty.

Mother and children making butter, Courtesy of: Explore PA History

Mother and children making butter, Courtesy of: Explore PA History

Butter molds are an interesting decorative piece; however, they shed little light on the role of women in the public sphere. It is actually the history of butter making that shows the emergence of women outside the home. Generally, the male role in butter making was simply to care for and manage the cows. It was the women who milked, sorted cream, packaged the butter, and in many cases traveled to markets to trade the butter they made. In fact, butter was a way in which rural farmers took part in the rise of capitalism in America. They now had a product that could be sold all year long. And women were a vital component of the rise of what would become the butter industry. [2]

Carly Fiorina, Courtesy of: The New York Times

Carly Fiorina, Courtesy of: The New York Times

Republican mothers from the early nineteenth century are clearly different then the republican mothers we know today. However, it was these women who were the first to introduce political values and teachings in the home, thus justifying political sensibility for women and challenging the idea of domesticity. Without this movement a female presidential candidate may not be possible today. So while butter molds may seem like an insignificant part of our history, they are actually one of the bricks on the path to equality. Women are an asset to our children, families, and our country, whether they are making butter or running for president.

-Melissa Olsen

  1. The Complete Encyclopedia of Antiques (London: Hawthorn Books, 1959), 615.
  2. Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (Yale: Yale University, 1986), 93.
  3. Sita Ranchod-Nilsson and Mary Ann Tetreault , Women, States, and Nationalism: At home in the nation? (London: Routledge, 2000), last modified 2015, https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=cLiBAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=republican+
  4. mothers&ots=BbI7d8OBJj&sig=BPcAugjB_JuyeM3wCpN1VCk-nBE#v=onepage&q=republican%20mothers&f=false
  5. Rosemarie Zagarri , Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother, American Quarterly Vol. 44, No. 2, (Johns Hopkins University Press, June, 1992), 192-215, last modified 1992, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2713040
  6. Linda Kerber The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment-An American Perspective, American Quarterly. pp. Vol. 28, No. 2, (An American Enlightenment, 1976), 187–205.
  7. Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1980) 5-35.
  8. One ring eagle butter print, late eighteen or early nineteen-century, Wood, Diameter 3.25 Inches. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Parke Bernet Auction, N0184.1973. Photographed by Melissa Olsen
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