Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States

Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States

Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States

Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States

Synopsis

Women's history emerged as a genre in the waning years of the eighteenth century, a period during which concepts of nationhood and a sense of belonging expanded throughout European nations and the young American republic. Early women's histories had criticized the economic practices, intellectual abilities, and political behavior of women while emphasizing the importance of female domesticity in national development. These histories had created a narrative of exclusion that legitimated the variety of citizenship considered suitable for women, which they argued should be constructed in a very different way from that of men: women's relationship to the nation should be considered in terms of their participation in civil society and the domestic realm. But the throes of the Revolution and the emergence of the first woman's rights movement challenged the dominance of that narrative and complicated the history writers' interpretation of women's history and the idea of domestic citizenship.

In Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States, Teresa Anne Murphy traces the evolution of women's history from the late eighteenth century to the time of the Civil War, demonstrating that competing ideas of women's citizenship had a central role in the ways those histories were constructed. This intellectual history examines the concept of domestic citizenship that was promoted in the popular writing of Sarah Josepha Hale and Elizabeth Ellet and follows the threads that link them to later history writers, such as Lydia Maria Child and Carolyn Dall, who challenged those narratives and laid the groundwork for advancing a more progressive woman's rights agenda. As woman's rights activists recognized, citizenship encompassed activities that ranged far beyond specific legal rights for women to their broader terms of inclusion in society, the economy, and government. Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States demonstrates that citizenship is at the heart of women's history and, consequently, that women's history is the history of nations.

Excerpt

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Caroline Dall in the spring of 1854 to let her know he was bowled over by her biographical sketches in The Una, which he collectively labeled “Essays toward the History of Woman.” the questions that were being raised by the woman’s rights movement, questions inspiring Dall’s writing, were the most revolutionary ones of their generation, Higginson claimed. Encouraging Dall to continue her historical writing, Higginson argued that the challenges posed by woman’s rights would force the wide-scale revision of all history and all scholarship. “On Slavery or Temperance, for instance, nothing new can be said. But in regard to Woman about all that is true is new. For instance, all statistics must be compiled over—& all history re-written.” Given the rather modest nature of some of Dall’s historical sketches, Higginson’s praise might seem a bit hyperbolic. But Higginson was right. the demands for full citizenship that permeated the movement for woman’s rights in the 1850s required a wide ranging reevaluation of social relations. and social relations, in order to be legitimate, needed a history.

While suffrage is the demand usually associated with this movement, a broad notion of citizenship actually suffused the concerns of woman’s rights activists in the antebellum period. As Nancy Isenberg has pointed out in her important study of this question, activists took on not only issues of voting, education, and jobs, but also problems of property, the media, and public performance in challenging ideas about what a female citizen could and should be. Full citizenship implied universal rights, but the acquisition of those rights necessitated changes in the terms by which women were included in society. Full citizenship meant the ability to participate equally with men in the political, economic, and intellectual life of the nation. Higginson was right in thinking that supporters of woman’s rights would need to revise current statistics and rewrite history in order to make the argument for such societal changes. and this rewriting would involve . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.