On International Women's Day in this Women's History Month, let's not forget that field of writing women's history has its own turbulent and surprising past. In an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States, Teresa Anne Murphy reveals that some of the earliest writers of American women's history were men, and that the first women behind advancement in the field were more celebrated as poets and keepers of domestic traditions than as serious scholars. Texts written by the editor of Godey's Lady's Book or the author of The Practical Housekeeper may not qualify as works of history by today's standards, yet these writers laid the groundwork for women with broader political and historical agendas. (All the links in the excerpt were added by the editor of this blog.)
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. . . .
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?
Teresa Anne Murphy is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States will be available in April.