Spiritual Mothers Educating Republican Daughters: Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the Sisters of Charity, and St. Joseph's Academy for Girls



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In 1809, Elizabeth Bayley Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first American community of women religious. A year later, she and the sisters established St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, a small agricultural community in northern Frederick County, MD. Seton is credited with founding the parochial school system in the United States. She and the Sisters of Charity also contributed to society in the early republic by educating a new generation of republican women.

American philosophers developed the concept of republican motherhood following the Revolutionary War to reconcile republican values with how women perceived their relationship to the state. Reformers like Judith Sargent Murray and Benjamin Rush argued that women needed to be better educated to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers in the new republican society. In response, ladies’ academies began to open throughout the country. Particularly successful were the institutions established by Catholic women’s religious communities.

Although not mothers in the traditional sense, the members of the Sisters of Charity had a unique opportunity to educate girls about republican values. Practicing a “maternity of the spirit” that stems from their marriage to God rather than a mortal man, the sisters could act in an independent manner unavailable to many other women, as evidenced by their financial records, organizational documents, and correspondence. An analysis of these documents will provide a new perspective on how Seton and the Sisters of Charity impacted society through the education of young women in the early nineteenth century.



Elizabeth Ann Seton, Daughters of Charity, Republican motherhood, Early national period, Women’s education.