Republican Motherhood and Women’s Emerging Roles in the Classroom

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee, a 19th century woman administrator at Berea College. Hannah is also an editor for the Re/Visionist. 

The first time I had a male teacher was for my 7th grade math class. To be completely honest, it was startling and I was not a fan of his teaching style. Less about the work and more about the rules, Mr. Whatshisface (I cannot remember his name for the life of me) made the class unbearable and unenjoyable. I’m sure some of it had to do with his unusual military approach to teaching. Despite the fact that every other non-male teacher in the building seemed to have the attention and respect of their students with little to no major disciplinary action, Mr. Whatshisface was unable to attain either. For me, it solidified in my 7th grade mind that women were naturally better teachers than men. Imagine my surprise when high school rolled around and nearly one third of the teachers were men. 

I didn’t notice at the time (though it seems apparent now) that when children were young, they were predominantly taught by female teachers. Alternatively, when children aged, they were taught more and more by male teachers. Why? I’m sure you noticed it, too. It becomes even more prominent in college when male professors begin to be about equal or greater than the number of female professors. 

There are a lot of reasons why people theorize that women and men teach different age groups. Most of these theories are based in sexism, such as ‘women are a moral center for the family, and therefore make a good teacher for young children.’ (Total BS – “moral” is relative and non-women have every ability to be that ‘moral’ compass.) Another focuses on women being ‘nurturers’ and thus being better suited to teach young children. (Since when can men not be nurturing?) And then when you’re ready for your kid to be thrown into the real world, have them be taught by a man who will be ‘harsh and realistic.’ 

Whatever merit these ideas do or don’t hold, none of them look at where traditional forms of education (i.s. Reading, writing, math) got started. When colonists first began invading the Americas and settling, education was not a major priority unless you were a Puritan (they sure loved reading the Bible). Most people were just working to survive. Once communities had existed for more time, families that had more wealth began teaching their children at home. Who was the primary teacher for those children, you may ask? The head of the house: good ole dad. Culturally, since the man was the head of the household, it was believed that they should be responsible for the moral, social, and intellectual upbringing of their children, both boys and girls. This was all taking place in the early 18th century before the United States was born. 

Though living conditions were better and life got somewhat easier, it became clear pretty quickly that the education of young children took a great deal of time. So gradually, the duties of educating young children in these well to do homes was handed down (yes, that choice of wording was intentional) to the mothers. No worries, though, because now we are entering the cultural phenomenon of “Republican Motherhood.” 

Republican Motherhood was the idea that mothers were now responsible for the upbringing of a new and virtuous nation via raising children who would emulate republican ideologies in order to support that new nation. Republicanism during this time period versus now are very different ideas, so take note that “Republican Motherhood” had the intention of raising children who would engage in democracy and work to support the country. Because of this, several educational institutions were opened up in the 1790s in order to educate women, so they might better educate their own children. 

Fast forward to the mid-nineteenth century. Public education is becoming more common and available to most white children. As long as you lived near enough people to have a school and you were white, there was a good chance that a school might open up near you. Now, the debates about coeducation and class separation are thought provoking and worth taking a look at, but what we are here to focus on is how women were relegated to certain types of teaching roles. Women were often hired as teachers for children for both single sex and coeducational classrooms. The predominantly male administrators seemed to have no problem with this. But when women began applying for jobs to teach young men, there were serious doubts. This debate about women teaching young men would eventually lead to women being almost completely isolated from jobs teaching boys in adolescence. 

The pattern of women being isolated to teaching younger students began long before I entered the 7th grade. As our culture has shifted to value education less and college / job training more, women have become ever more present in the K – 12 educational world. Our culture suggests that the most important learning comes after we finish grade school and thus women in those roles are degraded, underpaid, and overworked. It’s difficult to sum up the issues of our educational system in a quick 1,000 words, but hopefully this gives some perspective. Nothing ever just happens by accident. Women being undervalued as teachers has a starting point. 


Tyack, David B. and  Elisabeth Hansot. Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Schools. Yale University Press: 1990. 


Theory Boys

By Kathleen Quaintance

Kathleen is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College who has just returned from the Oxford Program.

When I speak disdainfully of a ‘theory boy,’ if you are somewhat (even reluctantly) involved in the world of academia, you’ll know who I’m talking about. He’s an archetype that’s all too familiar in an academic setting. He spends a lot of time speaking — perhaps he just likes the sound of his own voice? — and he is preoccupied with performing what he thinks is intellectual behavior. He speaks authoritatively and confidently, and is often less than diplomatic —  attributes which women are taught, consciously and unconsciously, to suppress. ‘Oh, you’re reading that?’ he gestures at your book, rolling his eyes under his beanie and returning to his copy of Being and Nothingness before you have a chance to defend yourself. I am not the only one who has attempted to classify him – the feminist literature professor Toril Moi was perhaps the first to officially coin the term ‘Theory Boy,’ back in 2003. 

Her analysis is observational and rooted in her own experience (a breed of analysis in which the Theory Boy is inept), and describes what she has observed as a professor to graduate students. Many of her female students expressed to her that, in the classroom with the Theory Boy, they felt as if “…they are not listened to, that they are not taken seriously, and that they get the impression that their perceptions of the matter at hand are of no interest to anyone else.” (1) If you or your loved ones happen to be caught in the theory boy’s audience, you may feel this way. You could suffer from a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome. Unfortunately there’s no class-action lawsuit we can take against the Theory Boy. Indeed – the theory boy is not a monolithic breed of problematic man, he is a symptom of a larger issue. His actions replicate what Toril Moi defines as “a particularly clichéd ideology in which theory and abstract thought are thought to belong to men and masculinity, and women are imagined to be the bearers of emotional, personal, practical concerns.” (2) 

Sixteen years later, Moi’s description still seems eerily familiar. In the seminar setting, women are often confronted with feeling as if their contributions are overlooked in favour of those who speak with the kind of conviction that does not allow for another perspective. When Moi confronted the theory boys in her own graduate seminar, she found that they were shocked to hear that they were being inadvertently sexist. Unacceptable as their actions may be, they were simply speaking to a Western masculine tradition of strong monologic rhetoric, one that they had been stewing in since birth.

In the seminar room, you bring up a good point, but grow weary when you believe no one has heard you, for they were all squirming in their seats trying to think of the clever point they were going to raise themselves. Theory Boy to the rescue: he repeats your exact point to a lively response from the group. Later, you bring up another brief point, being very careful to keep it precise and succinct: you’ve even written down verbatim what you want to say in the margins of your notes. You’re afraid that if you spend too long speaking, someone is bound to interrupt you. To your relief, you’re able to finish speaking, but as soon as you’re done, the Theory Boy swoops in again with the infamous words, ‘Piggybacking on that point…’, and spends the next five minutes pretending your ideas are his. 

Annoying as he may be, the theory boy is not the root of the problem, he is the symptom: the problem is a broader pedagogical tradition of the intensely individual “genius.” It’s a regurgitation of a white male canon. The proclamations of the men in this canon are what have taught the Theory Boy to postulate as endlessly as he does. He co-opts other people’s points (often women’s), because he has learned that he must have his own bafflingly academic monologue in order to be considered a valid intellectual individual – individual being the key word here. He wants to establish himself and his thought and has little time for real dialogic conversation. He holds court in the classroom, monologuing like a Shakespeare character with a vocabulary consisting only of academic theory terms, without the courtesy of asking everyone else if he can borrow their ears.

He does this because he strives for symbolic capital, and thus it seems that symbolic capital is awarded to those who speak in abstractions, and taken from those who bring up  observational analysis, rooted in lived experience. It is no wonder that these two categories have traditionally been assigned a gender: past philosophies have implicated that the abstract theory of the “masculine” mind trumps the truths of “feminine” embodiment. Perhaps this is why, when discussing an issue in an academic setting, people who abstractly theory-babble are somehow lauded as more intellectual than those who share their real-life experience with the issue at hand. The theory boy has learned what will gain him heaps of symbolic capital, so he performs a role to ensure he continues to roll around in it. Maybe you are ignoring the theory boy and thinking about what the next clever thing you’re going to say – this might actually make you theory-boy-adjacent, because his hallmarks are a flaunted academic prowess coupled with poor listening skills. 

This is why theory boys are not always male: they are simply people who have learned a way to glean this symbolic capital and have become addicted to multiplying it, in a perverted sort of academic greed. But it is unsurprising that theory boys tend to be men, because they are socialised to engage in this kind of behavior. Boys coached in childhood that they must always win, particularly those with white privilege which has indicated to them that they are destined to always win, may very well grow up to be academics obsessed with this kind of word-regurgitation.

Theory boys are not destined to be rooted in this role forever, but there has yet to be any remotely hegemonic suggestion that he would be better off listening, contemplating, or considering; as opposed to his monologic routine. Theory boys reproduce theory boys in a vicious cycle: in undergrad, theory boys read theory boys; eventually become mentored by them, and in later in their academic careers, they cite each other, sit on panels together, and score tenure alongside people who talk just like them. This relation, according to feminist theorist Sara Ahmed, is “…often paternal: the father brings up the son who will eventually take his place. Patriarchy: it’s quite a system. It works.”  (3) 

There is, however, a potential antidote to the negative symptoms of the theory boy. It’s by no means a quick fix, rather, it would require a complete overhaul of how we are taught to intellectualise in the Western male tradition (unlikely), but just learning about it just might relieve you slightly. Eve Sedgwick dissects a particularly helpful dichotomy in her essay, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.’ According to Sedgwick, critical theory has often relied on what Ricoeur called a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ This just means that theorists are concerned with being right by defining the way things are without any wiggle room, squashing all potential counterpoints. Think of Freud insisting that his theories create a framework for the operation of pretty much all social relations – that’s a hermeneutics of suspicion. These theory boys, trying to replicate their theory boy forefathers, seek universality and totality in their definitions. Sedgwick calls this ‘strong’ theory, but ironically it’s not actually strong: it doesn’t leave room for the contingencies that academic analysis should value. 

The opposite of this (and, maybe, our solution) is weak theory, which I prefer to call ‘soft’ theory, because it can be powerful. Weak theories can be described as ‘situated knowledges,’ in that they preserve nuance, which would otherwise be trampled and crushed by strong theory. Strong theory tries to be universal, but weak theory realizes that is an impossibility and instead focuses on local observations rather than all-encompassing proclamations. Strong theory seems to be much easier: it’s easier to strongly argue for the subjugation of bodies under matrices of power than it is to propose alternative solutions – yet the theory boy thinks he’s quite clever for bringing up Foucault for the hundredth time. If soft theory were valued, the woman who describes her lived experience in relation to a topic would not be scoffed at by the man who only speaks in abstractions. 

Soft theory is a creative feminist reimagining of what our theoretical conversations could be, if we committed ourselves to opening up the dichotomies that silently control our seminar rooms. It isn’t about diplomacy or trying to avoid hurt feelings, it is a way to find bits of colour in problems that are often considered black and white. Next time you’re in a seminar with a theory boy that won’t shut up, remind yourself that you’ve got the upper hand when it comes to nuance and creative analysis, and you don’t have to lean on a paranoid hermeneutics of suspicion to articulate your thoughts.

End Notes

  1. Moi, Toril. ‘Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School’, in The Grind: The Duke Graduate Student Newsletter, vol. 4 issue 1, Fall 2003. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ahmed, Sara (2014) ‘White Men’ Feminist Killjoy Blog


Moi, Toril. ‘Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School’, in The Grind: The Duke Graduate Student Newsletter, vol. 4 issue 1, Fall 2003

Burton, Sarah. The Monstrous ‘White Theory Boy’: Symbolic Capital, Pedagogy and the Politics of Knowledge, Sociological Research Online, 20 (3), 14<> DOI: 10.5153/sro.3746

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,’ in Touching Feeling : Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham ; London, 2003. Print.

Ahmed, Sara. ‘White Men’ (2014) Feminist Killjoy Blog