Over the weekend I appeared on the PBS show To The Contrary with Bonnie Erbe —a roundtable discussion about public policy pertaining to women. Among the topics we talked about was a new survey released last week by the Pew Research Center that reveals a changing picture of motherhood. Over the past two decades, the survey found, women having children tend to be older and more educated.

Our discussion revolved around whether or not this is a trend we can expect to see continue and the significance of these findings.  One of the panelists (Ilana Goldman) stressed the importance of educated mothers – and not just white women:

 “What’s clear from international development agencies around the world is you want educated moms. The better the moms are educated – no matter where you are – whether it’s warm or cold, whether its low or its high, countries do better, economies do better, governments do better, if the mother is educated, the children do better. That’s the important thing. . .Let’s celebrate the education we have with the white women who are going out and having their families, and let’s think about how we can get  better education to these Latino women who are having their families.”

Although Goldman and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, in this case I couldn’t agree more. So I suggested we start by teaching women about republican motherhood.  I received a good laugh from the other panelists, but it wasn’t quite the response I expected. Perhaps my comment was lost in the political context of Washington, and I should have been more clear. I was talking about “small-r” republican motherhood

The phrase was coined by Linda Kerber in 1976 in her famous essay in The American Quarterly, “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment-An American Perspective.”  Kerber explores the way Enlightenment philosophers  left women out of their conversation about the relationship between the individual and the state.  And while some early republican thinkers acknowledged this absence of women in political thought, there was uncertainty about what kind of role, if any, women should play in the early republic. 

Ultimately some more progressive theorists of the time began to talk about the role of women, but they weren’t yet prepared to think of women as decision-makers. Instead, the ideal “republican woman” was a mother. And as Kerber describes her, she served a vitally important role:

“The Republican Mother’s life was dedicated to the service of civic virtue; she educated her sons for it; she condemned and corrected her husband’s lapses from it. . .the theorists [of the early republic] created a mother who had a political purpose and argued that her domestic behavior had a direct political function in the republic.”

Of course today women have an opportunity to be directly involved with their country – a concept that was  hard to grasp in the late 18th and early 19th centuries — so the notion of republican motherhood may seem antiquated. But the fact is, as the Pew study reveals, it’s still very much in style.

Even though today opportunities outside of the home abound for women in this country, Americans still place a high value on an educated mother. And on motherhood in general. In a Mother’s Day survey, Rasmussen Reports found that 64 percent of Americans continue to believe “being a mother is the most important role for a woman to fill in today’s world.”