Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, Rosemarie Zagarri (2009).
This week we tried a different approach to our readings, each of us read and will be responding to a different book. I read Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, which builds on the work done by the other two books read this week (Fiery Frenchified Dames-Susan Branson, and Women of the Republic- Linda Kerber) to explore the ways that women tried to use politics as a means of gaining agency outside of the home. It is important to note that Zagarri, like Kerber and Branson, are only addressing the roles of white women who would have been enfranchised had they been male, by meeting the requirements of land and income of the time. This is a welcome approach given my frustration with Revolutionary Conceptions and the way African American women were dropped into the narrative but not fully explored; however it would have been beneficial I believe for Zagarri to address why this approach works best for her examination.
Zagarri begins by outlining her argument, during the Revolution women were encouraged to participate openly in support of the colonists through boycotts, supplying troops, wearing homespun, and even attending public political events. This was possible both as politics moved out of pubs and taverns (inappropriate venues for a respectable woman) and into the streets where everyone was able to view and participate. This encouragement to participate in the new nation was embodied in Republican Motherhood, though as Zagarri is quick to point out, only as long as women continued to be the moral center of the family. Zagarri writes that “in many ways the story of postrevolutionary America is the story of how American women and men sought to define- and ultimately limit and restrict- the expansive ideals they had so successfully deployed against Britain” (4); this definition of ideals shifted shortly after the revolution and was completed by the 1820s.
It is at this point that Zagarri argues that the extreme division of the nation along the lines of Federalist and Republican caused women to become more partisan in their political ideology, no longer deferring to the men in their lives for guidance. This, along with the growing fear of enfranchising free blacks, led to the “backlash” for which the book is titled. Women began to be pushed back into the home. I particularly like the way that Zagarri highlights the way that women of the time responded to the “backlash” by changing their focus to civil society, “provid[ing] a conceptual middle ground between the extremes of party and electoral politics, on the one hand, and politics defined as all unequal power relations, on the other” (8). By participating in charitable societies, reform organizations, and benevolent societies women were able to “contribute to the polity in different ways…Thus at the same time women’s ability to participate[ate in party politics and electoral affairs began to decrease, women began to find venues for participating in politics by another means” (8-9). This is of particular interest as it relates to my research this semester on the women of the American Colonization Society, reinforcing my working theory that the women joined the Society as a means of participating in politics and escaping the private sphere.
Zagarri’s book is admittedly not one that I would have chosen for myself outside of this course, but I am so glad that I was able to read it. Her discussion of the ways women were able to retain their political agency inspire of the “backlash”is very compelling.