Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York

Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York

Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York

Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York

Synopsis

On a summer day in 1846--two years before the Seneca Falls convention that launched the movement for woman's rights in the United States--six women in rural upstate New York sat down to write a petition to their state's constitutional convention, demanding "equal, and civil and political rights with men." Refusing to invoke the traditional language of deference, motherhood, or Christianity as they made their claim, the women even declined to defend their position, asserting that "a self evident truth is sufficiently plain without argument." Who were these women, Lori Ginzberg asks, and how might their story change the collective memory of the struggle for woman's rights?

Very few clues remain about the petitioners, but Ginzberg pieces together information from census records, deeds, wills, and newspapers to explore why, at a time when the notion of women as full citizens was declared unthinkable, too dangerous to discuss, six ordinary women embraced it as common sense. By weaving their radical local action into the broader narrative of antebellum intellectual life and political identity, Ginzberg brings new light to the story of woman's rights and of some women's sense of themselves as full members of the nation itself.

Excerpt

Every event in history is a beginning, a middle, and an end; it just depends on where you pick up the thread and what story you choose to tell. In studying the history of an idea, we might ask how it changed from being considered unthinkable to merely outrageous, from radical to common sense, and thus how transformations in beliefs and ideologies occur. In social history, too, changes that span lifetimes affect individuals at different points, and seemingly abstract events (the “industrial revolution” or the “panic of 1837”) bump into and alter a person, a family, a community, or a state in very different ways. We can understand the ideas and identities that drive people’s politics, religious beliefs, and actions as products of the individual mind, but also of the interactions that take place daily among people living amidst wars, migrations, elections, newspapers, sermons, and friends. I want here to underscore the histories of ideas as they emerge from the experiences (personal, local, and national) of actual people. And I want, further, to show how those ideas enter wider conversations—all of which contribute to the complex story of people’s political identities and of political and intellectual change. To put it another way, this is a story that describes how people, shaped by their particular communities, time, and place, have an idea, chew it over, say it aloud, and prod it onto the path of debate and action.

This book explores nineteenth-century women’s political identities by addressing two disparate but simple notions. First, it shows how, in myriad and often oblique ways, people argued that the idea of women as full citizens was unthinkable, too dangerous even to contemplate. It does this, in part, by offering a framework for rethinking how people’s full membership in their state or nation is shaped not only by formal mechanisms, the literal “rules” of legal status, but by rhetorics of religion, sexuality, and respectability. Second, it shows that some women embraced the idea—and insisted on the significance—of women’s full citizenship notwithstanding . . .

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