Modern Intellectual History



Articles

VENUS ON THE SOFA: WOMEN, NEOCLASSICISM, AND THE EARLY AMERICAN REPUBLIC 1


CAROLINE WINTERER a1
a1 Department of History, Stanford University

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winterer c   [Google Scholar] 
 

Abstract

What did early national Americans mean when they articulated fears of “luxury and effeminacy,” those twin sins of a republic that idolized the classical virtues of manly self-restraint? This essay argues that the fear of luxury and effeminacy circulated not just as airy metaphor but as palpable reality, specifically in the figure of the female recumbent on the sofa. The article traces separately the careers of Enlightenment Venus, who especially in her recumbent form embodied fears of passion in a republic built on reasoned consent, and the sofa, a piece of neoclassical furniture that rose to great popularity at this time and was envisioned as both effeminate and luxurious in fictional and nonfiction writing. The essay then joins the two figures of recumbent Venus and the sofa, showing how they were mutually enabling, and how they entered into early national conversations about labor and race. It concludes by examining how two educated American women, the self-described Roman matrons Mercy Otis Warren and Martha Bayard Smith, incorporated the image of the supine woman and her implied sofa into fictional writings about classical polities in danger. By knitting political ideologies, imaginative worlds, and neoclassical objects, the essay suggests a way for historians to flesh out the intellectual history of early national women, showing how they could participate in a conversation about modern politics and classical antiquity from which we have assumed they were largely disbarred.



Footnotes

1 Versions of this article were given as talks at a number of institutions in 2003–4, and I thank the organizers and participants for their useful suggestions: the Departments of History and Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the Departments of Education, Classics, Women's Studies, and History at Wellesley College (and especially Barbara Beatty); the Department of Art History at Duke University; and the Department of History at Stanford University. I also thank the colleagues who generously read and commented on earlier drafts of this article: John Carson, Christopher Celenza, Carolyn Eastman, Rebecca Plant, Kathryn Ringrose, James Turner; the members of the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar at the National Humanities Center; Charles Capper; and the three anonymous referees for this journal. The research and writing of this article was supported by a fellowship at the National Humanities Center (2003–4) and a Howard Foundation Fellowship (2003–4) from Brown University.