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Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

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Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

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613 pagine
9 ore
Nov 9, 2000


With this book, Nancy Isenberg illuminates the origins of the women's rights movement. Rather than herald the singular achievements of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, she examines the confluence of events and ideas--before and after 1848--that, in her view, marked the real birth of feminism. Drawing on a wide range of sources, she demonstrates that women's rights activists of the antebellum era crafted a coherent feminist critique of church, state, and family. In addition, Isenberg shows, they developed a rich theoretical tradition that influenced not only subsequent strains of feminist thought but also ideas about the nature of citizenship and rights more generally.
By focusing on rights discourse and political theory, Isenberg moves beyond a narrow focus on suffrage. Democracy was in the process of being redefined in antebellum America by controversies over such volatile topics as fugitive slave laws,
temperance, Sabbath laws, capital punishment, prostitution, the Mexican War, married women's property rights, and labor reform--all of which raised significant legal and constitutional questions. These pressing concerns, debated in women's rights
conventions and the popular press, were inseparable from the gendered meaning of nineteenth-century citizenship.

Nov 9, 2000

Informazioni sull'autore

Nancy Isenberg is the Mary Frances Barnard Chair in History at the University of Tulsa.

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Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America - Nancy Isenberg

Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

Gender and American Culture


Linda K. Kerber

Nell Irvin Painter


Nancy Cott

Cathy N. Davidson

Thadious Davis

Jane Sherron De Hart

Sara Evans

Mary Kelley

Annette Kolodny

Wendy Martin

Janice Radway

Barbara Sicherman

Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

Nancy Isenberg

The University of North Carolina Press

Chapel Hill and London

© 1998 The University of North Carolina Press

All rights reserved

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Set in Galliard by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.

Manufactured in the United States of America

The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and

durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book

Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Isenberg, Nancy Sex and citizenship in antebellum America/

by Nancy Isenberg. p. cm. — (Gender and American culture)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8078-2442-9 (cloth : alk. paper).

—ISBN 978-0-8078-4746-6 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Women—Suffrage—United States—History.

2. Women’s rights—United States—History.

3. Feminism—United States—History. I. Title.

HQ1236.5.U6183     1999 98-13349

305.42′0973—dc21   CIP

Frontispiece: Ye May Session of ye Woman’s Rights Convention—Ye Orator of ye Day Denouncing ye Lords of Creation.

02 01 00 99 98 5 4 3 2 1


To my mother, Jeannie MacDougall Isenberg,

and the memory of my father, Paul Isenberg




1 Firstborn Feminism

2 Citizenship Understood (and Misunderstood)

3 Visual Politics

4 Conscience, Custom, and Church Politics

5 The Political Fall of Woman

6 The Bonds of Matrimony

7 The Sovereign Body of the Citizen





In graduate school I discovered early that modern historians had paid scant attention to women’s rights conventions other than the famous 1848 gathering in Seneca Falls. At the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, I read the proceedings of the 1850 convention held in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was impressed by the intellectual sophistication of the arguments presented. Knowing that my adviser, Gerda Lerner, had long felt that Ohio in general, and the Salem convention in particular, had been unjustifiably placed in a position subordinate to activism in New York, I resolved to do a more thorough investigation of the antebellum women’s rights movement. Throughout this period Gerda’s example, her determination and inventiveness, invigorated my work. Committed to creating a feminist environment in the history department, she established and supported the Women’s History Program at the University of Wisconsin. Also at Wisconsin, I benefited from my studies with Paul Boyer and Charles Cohen, scholars who shared my intellectual commitment to the field of American religious history. Linda Gordon and Elaine Marks reaffirmed the importance of feminist politics and theory. Hendrik Hartog read the dissertation and the manuscript and added invaluable suggestions.

Since then, I have been impelled to reconceptualize feminist theory for the nineteenth century by examining the ways in which church, state, and family all contributed to the notion of citizenship. The Commonwealth Center at the College of William and Mary, which provided a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, allowed me time to pursue my growing interest in political theory. While in Williamsburg, I profited from my association with Thad Tate, Chandos Brown, Richard John, and the fellows and staff at the Institute of Early American History and Culture, especially Saul Cornell. Also in Williamsburg, Kathy Brown and Ted Pearson, good friends since Wisconsin days, remained always supportive. Attending a summer institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, I met Liz Faue, now my valued friend, who has provided a necessary balance of humor and cynicism as I worked on the book. Ellen DuBois, Nancy Hewitt, Linda Kerber, Kathryn Sklar, and Deborah Van Brockhoven read portions of the manuscript and offered useful insights. I am especially grateful to Jan Lewis’s judicious and extremely helpful advice in strengthening the final version of the book.

I want to acknowledge the following institutions for funding my research: the American Antiquarian Society and its director, John Hench, for the Frances L. Hiatt Fellowship; the Library Company of Philadelphia and its librarian, John C. Van Home, its associate librarian, James Green, and its chief of reference, Phillip Lapsansky, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for the summer research grant; the Wisconsin State Historical Society for the Alice E. Smith Fellowship; the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship; and the Institute for Research on Women, Rutgers University, for the appointment as a visiting scholar. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Ann Gordon, editor of the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who provided access to materials and directed my attention to crucial sources, when the project was located at the University of Massachusetts.

At the University of North Carolina Press, I am particularly thankful to Lewis Bateman for his generosity and confidence in my work. My sister Susan deserves my deepest respect; she is a pillar of support, and she has never failed me. Earl Mulderink has seen this manuscript from its very conception, and at various stages he scrupulously read chapters and made suggestions that contributed immeasurably to the final product. Andrew Burstein read each page with care, adding sensible suggestions that undoubtedly have made this a better book. His enthusiasm, counsel, and intellectual affinity are irreplaceable.

Portions of Chapters 2 and 4 were previously published in ‘Pillars in the Same Temple and Priests of the Same Worship’: Woman’s Rights and the Politics of Church and State in Antebellum America, Journal of American History 85, no. 1 (June 1988): 98–128.


Then, again, men say, "She is so different from man, that God did not mean

she should vote." Is she?—then I do not know how to vote for her. (Applause.)

One of two things is true. She is either exactly like man,—exactly like him,

teetotatty like him,—and if she is, then a ballot-box based upon

brains belongs to her as well as him: or she is different,

and then I do not know how to vote for her.

—Wendell Phillips, National Woman’s Rights Convention, 1860

In the year of Abraham Lincoln’s election, the year the Constitution was to face its most strenuous test, antislavery activist and women’s rights supporter Wendell Phillips insisted that it was impossible for any man to know how to vote for—that is, on behalf of—a woman. He was speaking to an audience numbering in the hundreds, an audience concerned with a profoundly American yet dramatically uncertain concept: equality.¹

Americans during Phillips’s lifetime had a curious love-hate relationship with the principle and practice of equality. They eulogized the Declaration of Independence, granting it sacred status as national scripture, crediting the revolutionary text with having elevated equality into a self-evident truth. But equality, then as now, was not unambiguous; it has always meant different things to different people. In antebellum America it could apply to certain legal rights, or to birthright citizenship (the national entitlement of native-born Americans derived in part from the divine right not to be born subject to the rule of another), or to the broad meaning of due process and equal standing in the court system (protection against artificial distinction, exclusive privileges, and grossly unfair treatment). It is just as clear that the idea of equality coexisted with conditions sanctioned by civil law that upheld unequal stations: equal rights were routinely denied to slaves, children, and the so-called dangerous classes of free blacks, paupers, resident aliens (particularly non-Caucasian or Catholic foreigners), criminals, and those considered insane.²

The largest portion of the population in antebellum America, freeborn women, introduced another serious problem for those trying to make sense of equality. As early feminist³ writer and organizer Paulina Wright Davis remarked in 1852, women represented an enigma. Freeborn and thus logically entitled to their privileges and rights as birthright members of the United States, women nevertheless constituted a politically and legally disabled caste. The enigma, then, was this: freeborn women had the appearance of citizenship but lacked the basic rights to be real citizens. Equality remained a concept that somehow did not apply to women. Defenders of this enigmatic status for women disliked and ridiculed the idea of woman’s rights, assuming that, at best, women were to be accorded select privileges—the informal and personal guarantees they gained through men, especially male relatives, who served as their charmed representatives in the courts, the halls of Congress, indeed in all public affairs.

Equality was a difficult concept because it was premised on a false dichotomy. Women had to act exactly like men to secure equal rights, and yet they were supposedly so different that they had to be treated as a special sexual caste. Phillips, for one, recognized the potency of this defensive ideology, but he proceeded to expose its flawed constitutional logic with a subtle, sardonic touch. Differences between the sexes rested, he noted at the 1860 women’s rights convention, on the mistaken belief that men and women were so different that they could not be considered coequal citizens. If this were true, then women stood outside constitutional guarantees and claims to natural and inalienable rights, those attributes of citizenship most critical to the American legal and political tradition. Did women acquire their special status from some other source (and here Phillips mockingly suggested divine authority), or did they share a common identity with men as human beings endowed with a comparable capacity for reasoned judgment? He asked, Did God ordain woman’s eternal differences from man to be permanent, unchanging, and beyond the rule of law? Or did nature (human nature as the source of natural rights) grant women the same potential for use of their brains, to make reasonable decisions, and to fulfill the requisite requirement for the vote?

As much as he credited women and men with an equal potential to vote responsibly, Phillips did not really wish to pursue this argument. He aimed instead to demonstrate a false dichotomy. The argument over sexual difference versus natural parity was, to him, purely rhetorical, an artificial construction that had emerged from a public discourse about rights. The terms of this dynamic discourse were far broader than most historians have acknowledged, drawing on religious, legal, and political practices as well as key notions of publicity and representation that, taken together, defined antebellum political culture.

Here, then, is what Wendell Phillips did to reconfigure the terms of debate. He was not claiming merely that women were equal and not different from men. He was advocating that women required the vote on the constitutional grounds that democracy protected the idea of equal representation. Indeed, Phillips reasoned, if women were different, then they deserved an equal right to have their views receive a fair hearing, since men could not represent their interests. And if women were teetotally the same as men, or at least similar in their mental capabilities, then they deserved equal access to the political process through the franchise. Equal protection (the constitutional guarantee of freedom from harm, invasion, and divestment of rights) combined with the right of self-representation (the essence of the phrase consent of the governed, which defined the people) carried more constitutional validity for Phillips than the tired, if not tyrannical, rhetoric of sexual difference.

This book examines the many ways in which women’s rights advocates encountered antebellum political culture. It shows how early feminists defined themselves as public critics. What united antebellum activists into a social and political movement was their shared community of discourse. And so this work emphasizes throughout its understanding of the intellectual and linguistic meaning of woman’s rights, unabashedly arguing that supporters of the movement developed a coherent feminist critique. The orientation of antebellum feminists was premised on a sophisticated theoretical model that could explain citizenship, the public sphere, and the constitutional limitations that had evolved in the nineteenth century that curtailed women’s rights to due process, redress, self-protection, and civil liberty, and rights within the home, church, and state. To conflate women’s rights with liberal individualism or focus solely on the effort to achieve the vote ignores how feminists constantly engaged in a contest over rights; they entered political struggles over legal ideas and cultural beliefs peculiar to the antebellum period. This study shows, too, that the restriction of women to the home, known as woman’s sphere, was not the only ideological framework defining women’s proper role in society. Inherited arguments—religious, political, and legal—already existed that were used by opponents of women’s rights to justify women’s difference and their subordinate status. Antebellum feminists were neither a disgruntled minority nor defenders of woman’s sphere. Their preeminent value to society was as a critical public that exposed gendered assumptions.

Throughout the nineteenth century, citizenship was complicated by competing and contradictory definitions of political identity. One civic ideal celebrated active participation, measured not only by the vote but by jury and militia service, while another, more legalistic understanding defined citizenship as a passive inheritance of birthright entitlements. The legal capacity to act as an independent citizen (to own property, make contracts, and exercise self-representation before one’s peers in court) was held up against the right of consent, a right based on a fictive membership in the original social contract—on being one of the sovereign people. Each of the guidelines Americans used to declare rights engendered the idealized citizen in decidedly masculine terms. Female activists and male supporters of women’s rights keenly understood that the citizen of the republic, whether common man, citizen-soldier, or partyman, was presumed to be above feminine weakness, to be a civic person capable of self-mastery, independent judgment, manly honor and virtue, and freedom from dependence.

The first major question of my study, then, is: How did feminists frame their understanding of rights within antebellum theories of representation? By putting the focus on rights, I place the issues of suffrage and citizenship in a much broader cultural terrain, the intersection of law and society. Changes in American jurisprudence and radical reforms of the common-law tradition contributed to debates over women’s legal standing and civil liberties. In an era when many were promoting constitutional revision and when individual states called conventions to redraft their original compacts, antebellum activists recognized that public woman’s rights conventions offered a more important avenue for political transformation than an entrenched party organization. It was impossible to conceive of women as full and enfranchised citizens without first changing the rules, beliefs, and biases derived from republicanism. Thus, the women’s movement refracted a range of crucial issues in reassessing the meaning of the term rights-bearer in American legal thought and practice.

My second question is: How did this struggle over rights incorporate several distinct but overlapping legal and political debates that characterized the antebellum period? Examined independently, the church, the state, and the family were complementary arenas in defining rights. In highlighting civic duty, discipline, and religious liberty, Sabbatarianism opened a crucial discourse for delineating church-state relations and reviewing the moral and gendered fabric of society. Almost all the supporters of antebellum feminism ventured into church politics, joining dissident churches and calling for a new kind of religious forum that recognized women’s coequal representation. At the same time, masculine political authority, or the power of the state to exercise brute force, emerged as a recurrent controversy in protests waged against fugitive slave laws, capital punishment, prostitution, and the Mexican War. Feminists drew several lessons from these pressing political campaigns as well. They saw that the meaning of treason, divestment, and the relegation of women to a civilly dead status still informed the ways in which their legal and political rights were circumscribed. Fugitive slave laws demonstrated the similarity between common-law definitions of runaway slaves and wives: their shared loss of personal liberty. Prostitution, cases of seduction, and the death penalty all underscored the sexual double standard in the law, reinforced by women’s exclusion from juries and from the field of honor, both of which defined the domain of state-sanctioned vengeance through execution. Finally, sexual politics entered into racial conquest through the doctrine of manifest destiny used in support of the Mexican War. By defining Mexican women as trophies of war, and yankee soldiers as valiant knights, the rhetoric of military conquest reinforced the image of women as ciphers (weak, dependent, and without civic agency) and white men as citizen-soldiers, strong, independent, and worthy of the vote, who demonstrated their right to rule through the natural and manly capacity to dominate the land and master all its resources.

The politics of the family raised a related but different set of constitutional issues. Temperance and health reform advocates exposed the dangers of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and the complicated common-law legacy for denying wives the right of redress for private wrongs. Labor protests over the modern wage contract made plain the intimate connection between the sexual economy of the household and the market. Feminists likened wives to upper-servants and exploited workers, exposing how the common law defined married women as debtors or indentured servants. Married women’s property rights and land reform revealed the common-law roots that linked inheritance practices—rules of paternity—to child custody laws.

By examining activists’ rights consciousness or rights discourse, I have placed the language of women’s rights within the much larger context of the meaning of citizenship, the public sphere, representation, and consent and dissent. Suffrage was not a self-evident truth, but a complicated political goal infused with political and cultural ramifications of legal standing, civic personality, consent of the governed, and the legacy of imposed statuses derived from inherited political identities. That women did not receive the right to vote until 1920 reflects the layers of ideological uncertainty that persisted throughout the nineteenth century and that successfully rationalized women’s exclusion from the ranks of full citizenship as a legitimate political practice even in a democracy.

Chapter 1 focuses on how the story of the origins of the movement has been told. Although there was more than one story, historians have tended to reduce the beginning of the movement to a single account of the quest for suffrage. Undue attention has been given to the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, ignoring other conventions and activists outside New York and holding up Elizabeth Cady Stanton exclusively as the dominant strategist of the early movement. In discussing citizenship, Chapter 2 compares the first conventions held in New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts, addressing how activists collectively developed critiques of consent, national citizenship, and equal protection. In both chapters I offer evidence that the process of developing a rights discourse went well beyond a liberal faith in individualism or abstract rights.

Chapter 3 pursues the dilemma of women’s relationship to the public sphere. It employs the theories of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas to frame a new debate about rights and publicity. Rather than embrace the simple division of male (public) and female (private) spheres, I propose that the public sphere inherited a complicated framework of assumptions and practices from eighteenth-century republicanism and the Enlightenment that contributed to the gendered construction of nineteenth-century democracy. Publicity had several different meanings: it connoted public opinion, public appearance, and the question of whether any individual had the political legitimacy to assume a public persona or to act in an official capacity as a public representative. Furthermore, the category of woman or female nature was fractured by class and caste differences, which measured men and women in terms of normative assumptions about physical appearance and public speaking as well as women’s exposure to and concealment from the public eyes of men. In searching for a stable past, historians have simplified the gendered complexity of publicity, a category fraught with contested meanings.

Chapter 4 addresses another critical problem in the literature on women’s rights, namely, its relationship to religion. Some scholars have viewed antebellum activists in the process of secularizing religious beliefs, implying that when moral reform was politicized, it had to be secularized. Other scholars who emphasize the political underpinnings of religion often exclude women, or separate women’s contribution because it is seen as less concerned with politics, inherently more parochial, or focused on family-related issues. In fact, religion in the nineteenth century violated these neat boundaries and challenged concepts normally conceived of as secular, such as public opinion, representation, and equality. The church was not a neutral social or moral space; it could and did function politically. Early women’s rights advocates defined themselves as dissidents, developing a critical perspective of religious castes (particularly men’s control of church offices such as the clergy and elders) and church creeds (inherited law that prescribed blind obedience to customs that inhibited religious liberty).

I also reexamine the commonly held view that women’s rights emerged principally from the antislavery movement. In his influential study on the origins of women’s rights, The Beginnings of Sisterhood: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1800–1850, Keith Melder described a series of stages, beginning with educational reform, benevolence, and then abolition, which culminated in the campaign for women’s rights. But there was not, in fact, a neat sequence of stages. Chapter 5 reframes this interpretation by exploring the decade of the 1840s and looking at the range of critical political issues that captured the attention of activists in the later women’s movement. Rights arguments were surely not restricted to antislavery, and as Debra Gold Hansen concluded in her recent work on female abolitionists, Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, not all women active in this reform decided to join the campaign for women’s rights. The social histories of Nancy Hewitt on Rochester and Judith Wellman on Seneca Falls both point to the distinctive political and religious influences that forged the early women’s rights coalitions. With the appearance of Hewitt’s Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822–1872 in 1984 and Well-man’s article The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention: A Study in Social Networks, in The Journal of Women’s History in 1991, the linear progression from benevolence to antislavery no longer seemed viable, given that activists simultaneously engaged in a wide range of political campaigns.

Still, certain political campaigns of the 1840s have not been fully explored. Forgotten political and legal issues include the campaigns against capital punishment and against seduction and prostitution, and the growing opposition to manifest destiny found in protests against the Mexican War. Moreover, that strain of antislavery agitation which had the greatest impact on women’s rights activists was the debate over fugitive slave laws. This was, in part, because the theory behind the divestment of fugitive slaves paralleled women’s status under the common law. When women’s rights activists discussed slavery during their conventions, the plight of the fugitive slave captured their particular attention.

Chapter 6 builds on this perspective and the work of scholars such as Norma Basch, Jeanne Boydston, Elizabeth Clark, Peggy Rabkin, and Amy Dru Stanley, who collectively have recognized that women’s sphere in the home did not remain isolated from the economic and legal changes occurring during the nineteenth century. Women’s rights advocates did offer a compelling series of critiques of marriage law, focusing mainly on the fiction of marriage as a union of one flesh. The husband’s sexual rights, his right to his wife’s wages, and his custody rights all reinforced a sexual economy of rights. Influenced by the legal and political discourses developed by temperance, labor, health, and land reformers—all popular campaigns in the antebellum period—women’s rights advocates looked at marriage, the household economy, and property rights in children from a critical perspective. Law and society were not divided into two domains, and neither were the rights of husbands and wives disjoined, for the intrusive qualities of the law continually interacted with the private domain of the family. The home was never an autonomous or distinct culture.

This study hopes to change how scholars understand the origins of the women’s rights movement in America. Because the antebellum campaign for women’s rights palpably influenced the later suffrage movement, we must reconsider how gender informed American constitutionalism. The suffrage issue must no longer be isolated and privileged above all others. Political or legal rights were not narrowly defined but were thoroughly intertwined with ideas about religion and the family. Within this context, the critiques offered by early feminists exposed contradictions in the democracy’s idealized self-image and disparities in the constitutional principles of protection and due process. The genius of the antebellum women’s rights movement lay in these critiques and in linking rights to all the personal and political issues that affected women in the family, the church, and the state.

Equality and difference alone could not circumscribe the many issues and theoretical debates that antebellum activists contemplated. This was why they coined the term co-equality. Both sexes were deemed to possess equivalent capacities at birth (and, in a biblical sense, at creation). Activists saw men and women as co-equals, simultaneously the same and different. If we understand coequality as a democratic ideal, then the early women’s rights movement emerges as much more than a political campaign for suffrage. Indeed, the concept of co-equality must be acknowledged as the cornerstone of American feminist theory.

Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

Chapter 1: Firstborn Feminism

As an autobiography is more interesting than a sketch by another, so is history written by its actors, as in both cases we get nearer the soul of the subject.

—Preface, History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1 (1881)

In May, 1881, the first volume of our History appeared; it was an octavo, containing 871 pages, with good paper, good print, handsome engravings, and nicely bound. I welcomed it with the same feeling of love and tenderness as I did my firstborn.

—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More (1898)

Within two years after the first women’s rights convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had already begun writing a history of woman suffrage. Her account, revised and expanded several times, reappeared in various forms during Stanton’s life, most notably in the History of Woman Suffrage.¹ When the first volume appeared in 1881, William Henry Channing praised the narrative as a wonderfully rich book, which reads like a ‘romance of history.’ Channing saw the History to be based on substantial facts, a text capable of countering charges that the movement sprang from visionaries … chasing cloud-castles of theory.² The editors agreed and measured the value of the narrative by its persuasive arsenal of facts as well as its emotional appeal to readers.³ Whether read as positive history (based on facts, documents, and the weight of evidence) or as romantic drama (based on story, characters, and subjective impressions), Stanton’s master narrative was more than a compendium of useful information. This firstborn child, this historical interpretation she so tenderly embraced, marked the author-activist’s self-conscious delineation of the origins of the suffrage movement.

To date, the History retains a privileged place in the historical canon as a rich and eclectic selection of primary sources. Despite the difficulties posed by the length and organization of the work, few scholars seriously consider how its internal logic might influence contemporary interpretations of the movement.⁴ Certain interpretative codes and traditions inform the picture of reality presented in the History. Instead of simply offering a documentary, the History explains the origins of things, providing an allegorical interpretation of the past.⁵ Possible gaps in the arsenal of facts therefore reflect more than careless oversight or the inability of the editors to write an impartial history.⁶ The process of creating a total historical account means that some of the cultural imperatives that defined the movement have been lost or masked, because all stories and myths of origins create the illusion of completeness.

Contemporary scholars, especially those publishing from the 1950s until the 1970s, for the most part inherited the story of origins from the History. The decisive event leading to the Seneca Falls convention was the London World Anti-Slavery Convention held in 1840. Although the American Anti-Slavery Society sent a delegation of women to be seated at the convention, their efforts to secure formal recognition were rebuffed. The members of the convention ruled that only men would speak, relegating the women to the gallery. Lucretia Mott was one of the excluded delegates, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended because she accompanied her husband, Theodore Stanton, to the convention.

As Keith Melder wrote in his 1977 study, The Beginnings of Sisterhood, the 1840 London antislavery convention occupied a special place in the history of the suffrage movement.⁸ The mythic lore of the World Anti-Slavery Convention rested on the fateful meeting of Mott and Stanton. In Century of Struggle, published eighteen years before Melder’s account, Eleanor Flexner contended that through the chance acquaintance of Stanton and Mott at the London gathering the seed of the Seneca Falls convention was actually planted.⁹ Stanton gave this meeting particular significance. In the History, which reprinted her lengthy eulogy to Mott, she described her initial encounter with Mott as an entire new revelation of womanhood.¹⁰ In an interview with Mary Clemmer for a brief biography of Mott, and in the History, Stanton further claimed that when I first heard from the lips of Lucretia Mott that I had the same right to think for myself that Luther, Calvin, and John Knox had, I felt at once a new-born sense of dignity and freedom.¹¹ Clemmer shared Stanton’s sentiments; she pictured Mott as a prophet and oracle, and she added another allegorical dimension to her religious portrait. More than a message or medium, Mott represented for Clemmer the mother of Israel and chosen matriarch of the suffrage movement. Stanton extended her use of biblical allusions for Mott to Christ himself, noting that she felt unworthy to touch the hem of her garment when they met in 1840.¹²

Stanton conveyed more than respect for the saintly Quaker, because she transformed Mott from a historical actor into a prophetic sign. More importantly, Stanton infused her reminiscence of their meeting with the language of a conversion experience. Granted the status of a visionary and divine messenger, Mott led Stanton to discover a new-born sense of dignity and freedom. This allusion reappeared in the contemporary scholarship. Flexner described Mott as an almost ethereal presence endowed with a gentle manner, luminous countenance, and soft voice. By changing the beloved saint from prophet to mentor, Flexner reinterpreted Mott’s influence as helping to free the gifted and eager mind of Stanton, her younger disciple.¹³ Through her efforts to mask the religious implications of Stanton’s account, Flexner nevertheless concealed its political and figurative message. By depicting Mott as the high priestess and herself as the first disciple, Stanton legitimatized the delegation of authority from one generation to the next. Stanton also carefully distinguished Mott from herself as a historical and political agent. Although they both shared the capacity for political action, Mott’s role was to initiate the movement, while Stanton inherited the mantle of leadership. Like Peter, the chosen apostle of Christ, Stanton positioned herself in her master narrative as the heir and founder of the suffrage campaign.

Stanton’s story raises a series of important questions about the relationship between history and feminism. Was her religious vocabulary atypical among women’s rights activists? What were the origins of the theory that linked religious and political representation, especially as a strategy for incorporating women into the social compact? Did Stanton’s account include all the facts, or did her focus on the 1840 meeting displace other plausible explanations for the beginning of the movement? And what does a story of origins have to do with feminist theory in general?

Few scholars have questioned the historical accuracy of Stanton’s account, and most have endorsed the central tenet that the Seneca Falls convention signaled the origin of the movement. Held in a town in west-central New York State where Stanton had moved in 1847, the convention is portrayed primarily as Stanton’s political debut, since she is given most of the credit for organizing the event. Even the most recent work on the convention, such as Judith Wellman’s examination of the different coalitions brought together at Seneca Falls, still positions Stanton as the most strategically important organizer of this historic event.¹⁴ The Declaration of Sentiments, which Stanton drafted at a table resembling the desk at which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, was enshrined (by twentieth-century suffragists and, later, in Flexner’s work) as the founding treatise of the movement.¹⁵ Stanton added to this narrative tradition by highlighting the inevitable and foreordained nature of the first convention. It was destiny that Mott and Stanton should meet again in 1848. Recollecting their reunion almost eight years after their meeting at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, Stanton wrote in her autobiography that they decided then and there, to call a ‘Woman’s Rights Convention.’ Subsequently the Seneca Falls convention, Stanton believed, set the ball in motion, triggering conventions in other cities, towns and states.¹⁶ A seed planted in 1840 had by 1848 flowered into the national woman suffrage movement.

Historians have recognized the discrepancies between Stanton’s version and competing accounts of the events leading to the Seneca Falls convention. Keith Melder acknowledged that Mott had a different recollection of their encounter at the London convention and that she met Stanton again in 1847 in Boston.¹⁷ Yet despite this qualification, Melder followed Stanton’s master narrative when writing his historical account. Other scholars, such as Flexner, have elevated Stanton into the leading intellectual force behind the movement.¹⁸ Anne and Andrew Scott agreed, arguing that Stanton’s decision to model the Declaration of Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence led to the invaluable insight that women should have an ‘inalienable right to the elective franchise.’¹⁹ In Feminism and Suffrage Ellen DuBois granted the Declaration of Sentiments an unparalleled if not prophetic status, claiming that this one text anticipated every demand of nineteenth-century feminism.²⁰ Suffrage, the one great leading idea [that] was a suggestion of her brain, as Theodore Tilton asserted in 1869, became another credit to Stanton’s singular achievement and historic immortality.²¹ Similarly, but for more pragmatic reasons (suffrage as the most logical pursuit for obtaining political rights in a democracy), DuBois asserted as well that suffrage quickly rose to a preeminent position after the Seneca Falls convention as the cornerstone of the women’s rights program.²² By the late 1970s the Seneca Falls convention, Stanton, and suffrage had been fashioned into a coherent and complete explanation, as if other activists, conventions, and principles were less crucial for explaining the origins of the women’s rights campaign.

Interestingly enough, as she developed her own history of the movement, DuBois lessened the significance of the 1840 London meeting between Mott and Stanton. Instead she argued that Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the leading activists after the Civil War and that their friendship, which began in 1851, was the most enduring and productive alliance of the movement. Why did Mott and the 1840 meeting fade from DuBois’s view? This occurred, in part, to privilege Mott’s alternative mythic role as the voice of caution rather than inspiration, a role that DuBois emphasized by quoting Sarah Pugh’s words of 1871 in the last line of her study: Only twenty years ago even L. Mott doubted the wisdom of Elizabeth Cady Stanton claiming the ballot for women; now thousands follow her lead. Throughout her study DuBois contended that the radical edge of feminism truly came of age when the movement severed its ties from antislavery and religious reform. Like a child, the nascent movement had to separate and distinguish itself from all parental influence. A leading antebellum figure in the crusade for the abolition of slavery, a distinguished Quaker minister, and the matriarch of the movement, Mott had to be superseded in order to announce a new beginning for American feminism in the postbellum decade.²³

DuBois’s rejection of Mott and antebellum feminism is hardly a satisfactory solution for explaining the early movement. The choice of either accepting or altering Stanton’s story is a problem that nineteenth-century activists confronted as well. Perhaps the most important challenger was Paulina Wright Davis, who wrote her own history for a suffrage celebration in 1870. By claiming that the 1850 Worcester convention had initiated the national movement, Davis provoked a small controversy, leading one younger suffragist to question her historical facts in the Woman’s Journal that year.²⁴ But Davis was not alone in her belief that the Worcester gathering, as a national convention, represented a turning point in the early campaign. Channing and, more recently, Melder concurred with her conclusion, and both dated the real birth of the independent movement as 1850, acknowledging the Worcester meeting as an important development in its own right.²⁵ Davis’s story was different for another reason, as she situated the origin of the movement in agitation for reform in 1831. In that year, she wrote, a new spirit broke out in the churches, and women spoke and prayed as they were moved by the spirit. Davis also revealed that the idea of holding a convention circulated among a wider circle of activists in 1847, a fact missing from Stanton’s account.²⁶ The evidence makes clear that Davis, Mott, and other activists organized a series of public meetings for women in Philadelphia from 1846 until 1849.

Thus, Davis and Channing were suggesting that other reformers, alliances, and issues contributed to the organization of the early conventions. In doing so, both pointed to the glaring problem of the eight-year gap in Stanton’s chronology between the 1840 London meeting and the 1848 Seneca Falls convention. The significance of dates did not escape either Stanton or Davis. At the 1870 celebration Mott and Stanton gave their approval to Davis’s history of the antebellum movement, and Stanton remarked that the movement in England, as in America, may be dated from the first National Convention, held at Worcester, Mass., October, 1850.²⁷ When Stanton drafted the version for the 1881 History, the sequence of events changed. She wrote that the movement for woman’s suffrage, in both England and America, may be dated from this [1840] Anti-Slavery Convention.²⁸

This study is a history of the women’s rights movement prior to the Civil War. It is a history of feminism and its incisive engagement with antebellum political culture. My approach begins with the assumption that although suffrage became the major plank of the late nineteenth-century campaign, antebellum activists had not only conceived of women’s rights in broader terms, but they also developed a rich theoretical tradition that contributed in significant ways to a national discourse on constitutional practices in a democracy. Feminist theories of representation had their beginning not in the idea of suffrage alone but in disputes surrounding changes in the polity of the church and the family. This approach exposes inherent problems in previous attempts to explain the origin of the movement as a single event involving a few leaders and centering only on the issue of suffrage. Indeed, the broader cultural meanings of representation and constitutionalism must be examined as part of a complicated relationship between gender and the political order that characterized the antebellum period.

A political history of feminism may seem conventional. Enfranchisement has always been considered the preeminent concern of the women’s rights movement. Suffrage has been treated as a simple, even self-evident term by most scholars, who have asserted its importance without defining exactly what it means within a broader ideological framework. Interest in this subject has been revived by the scholarly work on republicanism and its usefulness for explaining nineteenth-century political culture. Although republicanism has a chameleon-like quality, which makes it vulnerable to broad and ambiguous definitions, most antebellum reformers, lawyers, and legislators followed the lead of legal commentator James Kent in identifying republican governments with the right of protection. Common law and the federal constitution recognized this right as the fundamental agreement between the state and its citizenry. While the federal government promised to guarantee to every state in this union a Republican form of government, and [to] protect them against invasion, every state promised to guarantee to individual citizens the protection afforded by law. Drawn from social contract theory, the right of protection laid out specific terms: in return for allegiance, the state was obligated to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens.²⁹

Republicanism influenced the meaning of political status, as allegiance implied the ability of citizens to bear arms and, if necessary, risk their lives for the state.³⁰ Risk and sacrifice continued to define citizenship throughout the antebellum period, although it assumed two new forms in the requirements for suffrage: militia service and taxation. Granting the ballot to every man who fights and pays, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, provided a republican theory for universal white male enfranchisement.³¹ Physical risk and economic sacrifice implied that citizens had a substantial stake in society, whether it took the form of capital (property or taxes) or physical sacrifice (subjection to violence or death).

The allegiance/protection equation was derived from English common law. In explaining the theory of the social compact, Sir William Blackstone wrote in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England that the whole should protect all its parts, and that every part should pay obedience to the will of the whole.³² Identifying who actually constituted the whole and the parts became the linchpin of antebellum struggles over representation. Although single women paid taxes and had a stake in society, their contributions were dismissed as rare exceptions to the common-law rule of women’s legal and economic dependence.³³ Married women, who were used as the standard for all women in legal and political rationales for women’s disenfranchisement, did not own property or control their wages in their own right.³⁴ Under the terms of coverture, the common-law rule that placed the wife under the wing, protection and cover of the husband, marriage for women implied not only economic dependence but civil death. According to Blackstone, the very being, or legal existence of woman is suspended during the marriage.³⁵ As Hannah Arendt contended, civil dis-appearance was simply another word for civil death, since life itself was defined by participation in the polis.³⁶ Denied full legal and political standing, women retained the status of subjects, not citizens, and they were permitted to exercise only a few privileges, such as the right of petition.

The discourse of republicanism posed many difficulties for women attempting to redefine female citizenship into an active and public role. Such difficulties became apparent when women and free blacks assumed center stage in the debates over suffrage in the antebellum state constitutional conventions.³⁷ Repeatedly, delegates at the constitutional conventions claimed that women and free blacks lacked the independence of character and judgment necessary for voting. In theory, a republican form of government required a uniform population of citizens who shared an active public life. Following the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1828, the age of the common man created the illusion of a homogeneous electorate. In contrast, women and free blacks represented two distinct and disabled castes, both viewed as potentially dangerous factions capable of undermining the family or the nation-state.³⁸

In the antebellum period, important constitutional distinctions were drawn between basic legal entitlements and political privileges such as the vote. Free blacks, however, were not only disenfranchised; they were excluded from other areas of public service as well. Blacks might be accounted free men and pay taxes, one delegate to the 1837 Pennsylvania state constitutional convention insisted, but they had never been permitted to serve on juries or in the militia.³⁹ That same argument was applied to women.⁴⁰ Despite the promise of broad-based entitlements, the common man served as a false universal, concealing the ways masculinity and race defined citizenship.⁴¹

Theories of representation therefore retained the republican feature of distinguishing between ranks and orders, but new boundaries were drawn across the democratic population. Instead of class-based distinctions centered on property ownership, the new political order required citizens who exercised the capacities for self-ownership and self-mastery.⁴² Certain public virtues were used to justify suffrage qualifications. These included autonomy, which implied freedom of movement, economic independence, and the ability to circulate freely in civil society, and accountability, which implied the ability to defend one’s actions and words before the scrutiny of the public. Not surprisingly, both women and free blacks came to symbolize the absence of these political virtues. Thus, the tyranny of the majority gained new meaning as race and gender visibly distinguished the white male citizenry from its lesser parts.

Women’s historians have not addressed fully how these political changes influenced the separation of male and female spheres. Republicanism has proven useful to studies about women in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as evidenced by the work of Linda Kerber, Jan Lewis, and Rosemarie Zagarri, but less effort has been made to apply its theories of citizenship to representative democracy as it unfolded in the Jacksonian era.⁴³ Generally the antebellum period has been defined by a division between the public and the private, a split rooted in the rise of industrialization rather than changes in the American polity. Much of the scholarship in the past two decades has focused on women’s activities within the family or the domestic sphere, or it has extended this framework by examining the domestication of the political or public domain. By creating a model of a distinct female culture, historians have paid less attention to the gender dynamics of the public sphere. Too often, scholars have assumed that the private domain was, in Kerber’s words, the only locus for the battle of the sexes.⁴⁴ Similarly, feminism has been portrayed as a cultural ideology that emerged within the context of this separate female world. Here women developed a consciousness and common identity of womanhood that propelled

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