Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing

Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing

Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing

Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing


Owning Up provides a new model for interpreting the U.S. discourse on privacy. Focusing on the formative period of the nineteenth century, Adams shows that conceptions of privacy became meaningful only when posed in opposition to the encroaching forces of market capitalism and commodification. Even as Americans came to regard privacy as a natural right and to identify it with sacred ideals of democratic freedom, they also learned to think of it as fragile and under threat. Owning Up argues that narratives of violation and dispossession played a fundamental role in the emergence of U.S. privacy discourse and in the influence this discourse continues to exert within U.S. culture. Using biographical and autobiographical writing by and about women writers including Sojourner Truth, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Keckley, and Louisa May Alcott, Adams traces the figure of imperiled privacy across five decades. Where previous studies of early American privacy have focused on white femininity and middle-class domesticity as defining features, Owning Up contends that privacy is an empty category. Without a fixed content of its own, privacy acquires meaning only by being articulated-and constantly re-articulated-against threats of invasion and loss. Chapters look at how such narratives operate within particular political and economic contexts, including antebellum reform, racial reconstruction, free labor ideology, and laissez faire social Darwinism. The analysis concludes at the end of the century with calls for legislation to protect the individual's "right to be let alone," a culminating moment in the discourse of threatened privacy that informs the American sense of self to this day.


I sell the shadow to support the substance.

—Sojourner Truth

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, American privacy was in crisis. Or so declared Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis in an 1890 issue of the Harvard Law Review, announcing that “enterprise [has] invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life” and “gossip … has become a trade.” These developments, the lawyers explain, threaten not only to dispossess the individual of his most cherished entitlement, but also to corrupt collective values and relations:

Man … has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude
and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but
modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his
privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than
could be inflicted by mere bodily injury. Nor is the harm wrought
by such invasion confined to the suffering of those who may be
the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other
branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop
of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more,
and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering
of social standards and of morality. (77)

Titled “The Right to Privacy: The Implicit Made Explicit,” Warren and Brandeis's essay marks the first attempt to establish privacy as a category . . .

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