A Public Fight for Private and Political Rights

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Nancy Isenberg’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (1998) ultimately provides a unique, but crucial, examination of the early women’s rights movement. Isenberg shifts her focus from Seneca Falls and the movements for suffrage and antislavery to a wider examination of other crucial rights that women in the antebellum period related to issues of citizenship. In this book, Isenberg seeks to answer these two questions: “How did feminists frame their understanding of rights within antebellum theories of representation?” and “How did this struggle over rights incorporate several distinct but overlapping legal and political debates that characterized the antebellum period?” (xiv). Thus, she examines (and challenges) public and private spheres in their connection to politics and laws that directly influenced the lives of antebellum women.

In particular, Isenberg focuses on the spaces of church and family in their influences on early women’s rights reformers, re-examining the beginning of the women’s rights movement as written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her History of Woman Suffrage (1881) and confirmed by historians in the many years after. She argues that “the early feminist movement is significant not for its mythic tales of origins but for the way it exposed the gendered construction of American democracy” (13). This construction, she emphasizes, meant that women, particularly white women, exercised very few privileges and civil liberties allotted to their male counterparts. Of particular importance to this discussion, Isenberg mentions, are the concepts of consent and self-protection, two principles essential to antebellum republicanism and citizenship yet ultimately denied to women. Discussing the importance of consent of the governed in connection to property rights, Isenberg illuminates these political spaces as ones that excluded women under coverture. Thus, women’s political concerns were technically represented in the form of their fathers and husbands, who were supposedly heading to the polls with the interests of their wives and daughters in mind: “As male guardians of private property, fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers carried women’s wishes to the polls and counsels of government” (27). Isenberg explains that in the public view, women, through marriage, consented to this arrangement and therefore legally resigned themselves to a life of submission.

Throughout her book, Isenberg relates these issues to women in the public sphere (specifically discussing political and social conventions, dress reform, women’s health, and modesty), the church and state relationship, prostitution, capital punishment, the Mexican American War, and marriage. In each of these discussions, Isenberg illuminates laws and social norms that prevented women from actualizing their identities as American citizens; furthermore, she explains how women participated publicly in these discussions of national (and international) concern. These women in antebellum America fought not only for their own rights, but for the rights of those with lesser standing in society, such as prostitutes, Native American women, and Mexican women (the latter two groups becoming spoils in the case of the Mexican War). Expanding the discussion of the beginning of women’s rights outside the origins of abolition, Isenberg shows that women reformers’ concerns were both widely varied and very much in tune with larger issues pertaining to the rights of American citizens in general.

One of my favorite things about this class is that we can draw connections between the works we have been reading over the course of the semester. Often times, our books mention other authors we have read, using those authors’ previous scholarship to build their own arguments and evidence upon. For instance, in her work on the lives of early American women, Kathleen Brown discussed slave women’s reproductive value to their slaveowners, nodding to Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women. As I was reading Isenberg’s chapter on women and the church, I noticed that her view of the church and state relationship post-Revolution was very different from Brekus’s. As I mentioned in my post on Pilgrims and Strangers, Brekus claimed that the revolution weakened the connection between church and state, thus making women’s preaching a strictly religious concern that did not endanger the larger social or political world. Isenberg, on the other hand, refers to a “dangerous and unholy alliance between the church and state” in which “the courts and the government forged a national and legal consensus on Christian morality” (78, 83). In Isenberg’s argument, the church continued to function bureaucratically, which caused sectarianism and opposition to women’s involvement in the public. While Brekus did give a compelling argument, Isenberg provided much more evidence that though legally separated, the church and state remained, for quite some time, co-dependent.

Sex and Citizenship in Early America is most definitely a valuable addition to historiography not only on the private, social, and political lives of antebellum women, but also on the early women’s rights movement specifically. While mentioning famous actors in the movement (such as Lucretia Mott), much more of the book introduces names not so-well known but still actively seeking equality in a variety of ways. Fundamentally, this book is enlightening because it shows these women’s lives were affected by many factors outside of their denied access to suffrage.



One thought on “A Public Fight for Private and Political Rights

  1. Great analysis of Isenberg’s argument, showing women’s active participation in antebellum American public life on a variety of issues that intersected with women’s rights.

    For your own research purposes, did consent also mean sexual consent, or just political consent? What about self-protection?

    I’m not sure Brekus and Isenberg have contradictory interpretations of church and state. Disestablishment created opportunities for women and churches, but it did not mean that religious influence in the public sphere lessened–in fact, it may have increased as a result of disestablishment (voluntarism, state somewhat removed from morals enforcement), which was followed by the second great awakening. Brekus also notes that as newer religious movements became more established/institutionalized, they often restricted roles for women.


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