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

Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States challenges twenty-first-century assumptions of nineteenth-century women's history by tracing the ways women's history was politicized, particularly in light of the growing activism of women and the first woman's rights movement.

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

Teresa Anne Murphy

2013 | 240 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History / Political Science / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Domestic Citizenship and National Progress
Chapter 2. Revolutionary Responses
Chapter 3. The Challenges of Radical Reform

Chapter 4. Women's History and Woman's Rights
Chapter 5. Domestic Histories
Chapter 6. Caroline Dall's Usable Past: Women and Equal Citizenship


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 not only more general histories but also the histories of women that had been circulating since the time of the American Revolution.

Women's history had developed as a genre in the waning years of the eighteenth century when a sense of nationhood and related ideas of belonging began to expand in regions throughout Europe and the Americas. The genre emerged, however, not with a cry of defiance or shout for woman's rights, but as a lengthy exploration of women's intellectual and political shortcomings. European men who wrote women's histories in the eighteenth century drew on the assumptions of stage theory that had tied the general advance of civilization to manners and, more specifically, the deportment of women to make a strong plea for the importance of female domesticity in national development. In works that circulated widely in the colonies and the early republic, European authors such as Antoine-Léonard Thomas, William Russell, William Alexander, and John Adams argued that the citizenship of women should be constructed in a very different way from that of men.

Women's activities during the American Revolution spurred some revisions of those narratives, but it was not until the 1830s that a sustained and spirited challenge began to unfold. Lydia Maria Child, in particular, was inspired by female reformers who were questioning the assumptions that had driven the narratives of women in the past. As debates about women's legal, civil, and political rights began to unfold during these years, proponents and critics more explicitly used examples drawn from history to legitimize their positions either in support of or in opposition to full citizenship for women. With the political stakes of historical interpretation clearer than ever, the genre exploded. Sarah Josepha Hale and Elizabeth Ellet, harboring political agendas of their own, expanded the ideas of differentiated citizenship for women that had been promoted in the eighteenth century; in the process, they shaped powerful narratives of nationalism. With these efforts under way, it becomes clear why Higginson was so excited that Caroline Dall began to experiment with competing histories of women's citizenship that supported demands for universal rights.

This book is an attempt to understand and explicate Higginson's excitement. It traces the evolution of women's history from the late eighteenth century to the time of the Civil War. And it pays particular attention to how competing ideas of women's citizenship were central to the ways in which those histories were constructed. 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. Earlier histories that criticized the economic practices, intellectual abilities, and political behavior of women in the past created a narrative of exclusion that legitimated the differentiated citizenship considered suitable for women. Moreover, because citizenship was at the heart of these histories, they were never just about women, but also about the larger polity in which women lived. Women's history was, necessarily, a history of nations.

It is not always easy to see the contours of this debate in many of the popular works that were created during this time. Women's histories also were created as entertainment for women, especially in the newly emerging literary market of the late eighteenth century. Eventually played out in the popular press of the nineteenth century, and sometimes in lyceums or other public forums, women's histories were not an academic pursuit. Of course, the same was true of the more general histories written throughout most of the nineteenth century. History was not institutionalized as a discipline until the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the great historians of the nineteenth century, men such as George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, were men of letters who wrote for a general audience. But they did, at least, have some formal training. The female authors who began to write histories of women during this time period—Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Josepha Hale, Elizabeth Ellet, and Caroline Dall, for example—did not. Many of these nineteenth-century female authors also wrote to support themselves, so their work was produced quickly and was not always as polished as the histories produced by their male counterparts. Making the contours of debate even harder to discern were their tendencies to copy from the writings of each other, or of earlier writers, and to reshape the material with slight inflections to create differences of interpretation. In doing so, they adopted the practices of eighteenth-century European writers of women's histories such as Thomas, Russell, Alexander, and Adams. To readers today, those subtle differences may be difficult to detect, particularly because such borrowings were almost never acknowledged.

New meanings, however, were slowly created. The women's histories that were produced in the late eighteenth century promoted an ideal of domestic citizenship for women that was valued as a break from a less advanced past, and hence a sign of modernity, as well as a distinguishing characteristic of national virtue at a time when a market economy and new forms of political organization were reshaping the countries of Europe and the New World. Any attempts to interrogate the past for alternative models of more direct female citizenship were easily dismissed as examples of savagery and a danger to governments that were already viewed as fragile in the revolutionary period. It is not surprising that Mary Wollstonecraft simply dismissed history as worthless for her project of critiquing the condition of women and that Judith Sargent Murray's few historical essays that tried to create an alternative history of female citizenship were quickly forgotten. What was crucial for a re-visioning of women's history was the sustained assault on the limitations of women's status as citizens that began in the 1830s. The involvement of women in political activities, particularly the radical antislavery movement, inspired much of Lydia Maria Child's argument in her History of the Condition of Women. But radical activism also inspired women such as Sarah Grimké and Margaret Fuller to expand on Child's insights and other writers' work in order to push the boundaries of women's history to include a few African American women.

The new ideas about female citizenship that began to infuse the writing of women's history in the 1850s engaged those questions on a terrain that was as broad as that of eighteenth-century histories, yet also different. Concerns about the market and the structure of national government were key components in eighteenth-century histories of women, while concerns about industrialization, expansion, and sectional tensions suffused the writing of women's history by the middle of the nineteenth century. In response to these changes, the nature of nationalism had begun to shift from a civic emphasis on political commitment to a more personalized emphasis on ethnic belonging. As scholars such as David Waldstreicher have noted, nationalism in the very early years of the republic was often focused on a kind of civic nationalism that celebrated the political values of the movement for independence. Describing nationalist rhetoric as a "political strategy" deployed in different ways by different groups, Waldstreicher argues that "the invention of modern democracy in the late eighteenth century was inextricably tied to the creation of newly coherent national peoplehoods whose will, it was believed, ought to be expressed in national political institutions." By the 1850s, however, this form of nationalism was sharing ground with (if not being replaced by) a more culturally and ethnically based nationalism oriented around place and home. In this latter form of nationalism, motherhood and gender hierarchy did not simply facilitate the civic debates that formed the nation, they also represented an embodied form of the nation. This was an ideological transformation that domestic writers such as Hale and Ellet, with their versions of women's history, not only engaged, but also helped to create. It was also a transformation that made it all the more difficult for woman's rights activists to create an alternative history of citizenship that critiqued the economic and political disabilities women had faced historically. As numerous scholars have noted, nations require histories, but what kinds of histories would they be?

Since the emergence of the academic field of women's history in tandem with the late twentieth-century movement for women's rights, scholars have tried to establish a historiography for the field. Julie des Jardins, for example, has carefully analyzed the ways in which women from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century crafted challenges to the dominant historical narrative at the same time that they themselves faced professional challenges. Creating that historiography for the earlier part of the nineteenth century is more difficult, however, because women's history at that time was a popular genre rather than a professional endeavor. As Kathryn Sklar pointed out in one of the earliest essays on this topic, the context in which women wrote during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries mattered. She suggested that women wrote by drawing on family and community connections and later, in the context of a Victorian literary world, women were as likely to produce novels and poetry as they were to produce history. Understanding this earlier social context, however, does not lead necessarily to an understanding of the political significance of the work.

Indeed, one of the most important studies of nineteenth-century women's history argues that it involved no political engagement. Nina Baym, analyzing the prodigious amount of history writing produced by women in early America, has argued that both the reading and writing of mainstream political history were important ways in which women could join debates about larger political issues. She has dismissed women's growing interest in their own history, however, as a domestic retreat from the analysis of more important political issues of their times. It was a long slide downward, she argues, from Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, written at the end of the eighteenth century, to Lydia Maria Child's History of the Condition of Women, published in the 1830s.

As Baym has searched for the political implications of women's history written in the nineteenth century, she has focused particularly on how authors constructed their subjects as historical agents. She has found expressions of female agency in the historical narratives of Elizabeth Ellet and Sarah Josepha Hale, both authors who were unsympathetic to the woman's rights movement. Indeed, Baym has noted the tolerance Hale displayed for both the sexual and political activities of women in earlier centuries whom she profiled in Woman's Record. By way of contrast, Baym argues, even though Lydia Maria Child was active in antislavery reform and more supportive of woman's rights than either Hale or Ellet, there were no female agents in Child's work.

Baym has thought hard about the women's histories that emerged during this period. But in the end, she is forced to throw up her hands on the political ramifications of these books. She concludes that what united these authors instead of politics were shared beliefs about the innate spirituality of women and women's intellectual as well as biological differences from men. The new genre of writing about women in history was a distressing kind of spiritual identity politics in which their authors ceded their right to broader political commentary. No wonder she sees the overall genre as an intellectual decline from the political engagement of writers such as Warren.

By examining women's history from the standpoint of debates about citizenship, this book attempts to understand the politics that Baym could not find. It begins with the argument that ideals of domesticity and gender differences that ran through the genre of women's history were always a part of a larger political debate. The stage theory that used domesticity to celebrate the superiority of European cultures over other cultures imbued domestic practices with an elaborate set of political associations that began in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth. Thus, one of the contentions of this book is that the depiction of domesticity always had political implications, and sometimes those implications were quite overt.

Moreover, the political implications of depicting female agency are not as straightforward as they might seem. The issue is an important one, as various scholars have demonstrated. Writing about women's patriotism at the time of the Revolution, Linda Kerber argued in Women of the Republic that women conceived of their patriotism in active terms while male leaders tended to view women's patriotism as more passive. As Peter Messer has pointed out, a major turning point came after the Revolution, when women began to be written into the history of the United States as active historical agents, and this changed how they were imagined as part of the nation. But it is important to note that, during the nineteenth century, growing debates about female citizenship raised questions about the precise nature of female agency. Under what historical conditions had it been possible? How was it exercised? Was it desirable or dangerous? When Sarah Josepha Hale singled out some of the political activities of women in the past, for example, she did so within a larger framework in which she used their behavior to demonstrate that the past was less advanced than the present. Lydia Maria Child, by contrast, focused not so much on particular heroines from the past, but on a larger set of questions about the historical conditions that allowed women to exercise their agency. Concerns about citizenship necessarily raised questions about the terms by which women were included in the polity. Thus, the construction of female agency in historical writing carried with it important political attitudes that cannot be determined by simply looking for the presence of female agents.

Ironically, nineteenth-century concerns about citizenship also led to an interest in queens and other elite women in the past. This interest in monarchs and other "great women" on the part of nineteenth-century authors who were hardly monarchists themselves, has not gone unnoticed by scholars. Bonnie Smith, for example, has argued that women who focused on elites rather than the more common folk in their writings were producing a literature of trauma. These female authors faced a variety of traumas in their own lives, including poverty and emotional insecurity, not to mention physical and even sexual abuse. They were caught between two contradictory discourses of the early nineteenth century: one that promoted equal rights and the other that legally subjected women economically and politically. Their focus on powerful women such as queens allowed writers to avoid conscious recognition of their victimization. Thus, they had little interest in writing about women who were poor, powerless, or exploited. What the debates about citizenship make clear, though, is that queens and other elite women in the past were being analyzed for their abilities to exercise political power. There were no assemblies of female citizens from the past to be analyzed in this debate, only monarchs. Evaluating how those female rulers and their countries had fared thus became an important proxy in debates about whether more common women had the abilities necessary to enter the political arena.

For a similar reason, educated women in the past were equally fascinating. Learned women had exercised power and influence far beyond what was normally expected of their sex. As Mary Kelley has argued recently in her important study of female learning in the early republic, access to education gave women access to civil society, and civil society was a key component in the emerging political life of the United States. Elite women organized civil society around their salons in the late eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century, large numbers of educated women had expanded the boundaries of civil society to encompass a range of voluntary organizations that were reshaping the political world that continued to exclude them. When authors such as Sarah Josepha Hale wrote extensively about learned women in the pages of Woman's Record, she celebrated their role as leaders in civil society and she provided her readers with important role models.

Kelley has stressed the importance of viewing learned women in relation to civil society as a way of breaking down the binary that associates women with the household and men with the state. Civil society, she rightly points out, connected the two spheres. But as Kelley also notes, civil society could be seen as the feminine other to the masculine state. This is one point that becomes clear in the debates about women's history that erupted at the time of the first movement for woman's rights. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson bluntly argued in 1853, the question was no longer whether women should be educated, but what women would be allowed to do with their educations. Citizenship was a contested issue in the writing of women's history, and those questions of citizenship ranged far beyond the participation of women in civil society.

In order to fully understand these issues of citizenship, it is necessary to return to the eighteenth century. Part I of this book analyzes how the discourse of women, history, and nation was created and contested in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly around the notion of what might best be called domestic citizenship, though that particular term was not used in the eighteenth century. In the United States, it would coalesce around the idea of republican womanhood. The discourse unfolded in works such as Antoine-Léonard Thomas's stinging critique of French women, which was translated by William Russell, and William Alexander's more laudatory (if no less constricting) history; both of these works quickly made their way from the European continent to major cities across the Atlantic such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. These histories of women were close cousins to the conjectural histories of civilization being written at the same time: histories that used the status and condition of women as an index of progress. Focused more on specific historical societies rather than the general relationships between economic conditions and culture, women's histories simultaneously tied contemporary nations to the past and differentiated them from one another in the present. They were thus an important part of the move from the universalistic tendencies of Enlightenment history into the more nationally focused concerns of romantic history.

Part I concludes with a discussion of Lydia Maria Child's History of the Condition of Women. Child's work, hastily written and confusing though it may be, took deadly aim at many of the assumptions that had structured the discourse of domestic citizenship in the commonly read histories of women. Because of her engagement with that literature, some of its assumptions about the cultural superiority of modern western civilization carry through in her analysis. But what many of Child's contemporaries recognized then, and what we need to recognize now, was the way in which she challenged so much of the literature's common wisdom whether in undermining notions about domesticity or in disrupting a narrative of national progress. Thus, it is little wonder that Sarah Grimké and Margaret Fuller found Child's work to be such a powerful resource as they launched their critiques of gender inequality in the 1830s and 1840s and began to forge new definitions of female citizenship with new interpretations of women's histories.

Part II focuses on the ways in which women's history was used more overtly in debates about women's citizenship as woman's rights activism began to take hold in the 1830s. It examines how women's history was invoked and elaborated repeatedly in verbal duels focused on competing visions of female citizenship in venues that ranged from debates in Congress over female petitions to conventions to rewrite state constitutions to national woman's rights meetings and local lyceum presentations. Although none of the history that was created in these contexts was very coherent, its uses were powerful, and it sparked a new wave of women's history writing.

Sarah Josepha Hale and Elizabeth Ellet created a compelling and popular variation of this genre by elaborating histories of domestic citizenship that promoted ideals of nationalism rooted in the defense of home and family. Their domestic histories thus crossed boundaries into the politics of nationalism at the same time that they argued for the importance of the personal and familial ties that women tended. Their heroines not only promoted civilization and Christianity, but also created a people and a nation that were the essence of democracy.

Woman's rights activists such as Caroline Dall responded by producing histories that centered on a very different vision of female citizenship. Dall wrote with a growing conviction that women's history had contributed to a public discourse that debilitated women. With an unapologetic and confrontational style, she created historical sketches of women meant to validate the activities and claims of woman's rights activists. As the 1850s came to an end, Dall became one of the first popular historians to begin experimenting with the data-driven analysis promoted by the new social science associations in Europe and the United States. Dall, unlike the professional historians who would follow her in later decades, still aimed for a popular audience and wrote unabashedly in defense of her reform ideals. Ultimately, her focus shifted to contemporary issues, leaving the past behind. But as would be clear in the historical writings of scholars who followed her, she and other activists had laid the groundwork for rewriting women's history in a way that championed full citizenship. Dall had begun to work out a historical perspective that could be used in advancing a more progressive agenda for woman's rights.

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