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No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship

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This pioneering study redefines women's history in the United States by focusing on civic obligations rather than rights. Looking closely at thirty telling cases from the pages of American legal history, Kerber's analysis reaches from the Revolution, when married women did not have the same obligation as their husbands to be "patriots," up to the present, when men and wome This pioneering study redefines women's history in the United States by focusing on civic obligations rather than rights. Looking closely at thirty telling cases from the pages of American legal history, Kerber's analysis reaches from the Revolution, when married women did not have the same obligation as their husbands to be "patriots," up to the present, when men and women, regardless of their marital status, still have different obligations to serve in the Armed Forces. An original and compelling consideration of American law and culture, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies emphasizes the dangers of excluding women from other civic responsibilities as well, such as loyalty oaths and jury duty. Exploring the lives of the plaintiffs, the strategies of the lawyers, and the decisions of the courts, Kerber offers readers a convincing argument for equal treatment under the law.


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This pioneering study redefines women's history in the United States by focusing on civic obligations rather than rights. Looking closely at thirty telling cases from the pages of American legal history, Kerber's analysis reaches from the Revolution, when married women did not have the same obligation as their husbands to be "patriots," up to the present, when men and wome This pioneering study redefines women's history in the United States by focusing on civic obligations rather than rights. Looking closely at thirty telling cases from the pages of American legal history, Kerber's analysis reaches from the Revolution, when married women did not have the same obligation as their husbands to be "patriots," up to the present, when men and women, regardless of their marital status, still have different obligations to serve in the Armed Forces. An original and compelling consideration of American law and culture, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies emphasizes the dangers of excluding women from other civic responsibilities as well, such as loyalty oaths and jury duty. Exploring the lives of the plaintiffs, the strategies of the lawyers, and the decisions of the courts, Kerber offers readers a convincing argument for equal treatment under the law.

30 review for No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship

  1. 5 out of 5

    Siria

    A really fascinating look at women's history in the United States from the late eighteenth century through to the nineties, framed not in terms of the struggle to gain equal rights, but in terms of the struggle to gain equal obligations under the law--whether to vote, to serve on juries, to fight on the front lines in combat situations, etc. Meticulously researched and cogently argued, Kerber looks at how the refusal to legislate for women's obligations within these spheres had a negative impact A really fascinating look at women's history in the United States from the late eighteenth century through to the nineties, framed not in terms of the struggle to gain equal rights, but in terms of the struggle to gain equal obligations under the law--whether to vote, to serve on juries, to fight on the front lines in combat situations, etc. Meticulously researched and cogently argued, Kerber looks at how the refusal to legislate for women's obligations within these spheres had a negative impact on their ability to exercise what rights they did have, and on the movement to gain equal rights. It gave me a number of tools with which to re-evaluate the fields of women's history I've already studied, and gave me a basic education in American women's history, which I was only vaguely acquainted with before; not to mention that it made my jaw drop a number of times in sheer disbelief. I found the comparisons between the civil rights movement and the feminist movement to be especially interesting; how advocates from the two separate movements (or both) learned to identify with one another, their points of commonality and their differences with one another. Highly, highly recommended if you have any interest at all in this area of history. Don't let the fact that it focuses on constitutional law put you off; normally, legal history ranks only slightly above economic history with me for topics to switch me off, and I still sped through this and wished for more.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    A complex and nuanced look at the relationship between the rights and obligations of citizenship and the way that gender (and to some extent race) has impacted the relationship. Kerber clearly shows that these issues have not been resolved but are still being debated today.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lynette

    An amazing and eye-opening book featuring several actual court cases that shaped women's history from the revolutionary period to the 1970s. Highly readable and insightful.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    When Sarah Jay, John Jay's wife, was drafting the toasts that would celebrate the American Revolution in Paris, one of her toasts was "May all our Citizens be Soldiers, and all our Soldiers Citizens." (236). Given that at the time, women could almost never be soldiers, that seemed to suggest that they could not be citizens either. And later legal development certainly suggested that women's citizenship could be lost by the conduct of their husbands. Kerber brings out some of the usually-suppress When Sarah Jay, John Jay's wife, was drafting the toasts that would celebrate the American Revolution in Paris, one of her toasts was "May all our Citizens be Soldiers, and all our Soldiers Citizens." (236). Given that at the time, women could almost never be soldiers, that seemed to suggest that they could not be citizens either. And later legal development certainly suggested that women's citizenship could be lost by the conduct of their husbands. Kerber brings out some of the usually-suppressed strains in the Whig myth* of increasing freedom and dignity for all. She explores how women's freedom from obligations, particularly from the military and jury service, was tied up with women's lack of autonomy before the law. From this book I learned that the constitutions of nine of the original thirteen states articulated the duty of the citizen to serve and the power of the state to compel him to do so. (242). Since women had not duty to serve they were also, in a deep sense, not citizens. The book takes its title from testimony given by Eagle Forum member Kathleen Teague before the House Armed Services Committee on the subject of whether women would be subject to the draft. Seems she said that "'The right to be treated like ladies' . . . is a right 'which every American woman has enjoyed since our country was born.'" xxiv. This book examines the unspoken premise there, that women do not have direct obligations to the State but merely to their families. A premise that, in 1789, was largely law. The consequence was, in almost every way, that women lacked autonomy and dignity before the law. *"When I began to write this book, I expected that I would find the succeeding generations brought successive issues to closure; that the fragility of women's independent citizenship in the early republic would be resolved by the married women's property acts of the mid-nineteenth century . . . . The story I have told is not what historians once called 'Whig history': a single narrative of progress from the era of the Revolution to the present. Instead, it is a set of complex accounts, often circling on themselves, in which we are challenged to be attentive to the relationship between obligation and rights, and through which we can understand that women, like men, have always been part of the national political culture. We cannot embrace the rights without acknowledging the obligations, Nor do we have the option of limiting ourselves to the voluntarily embraced duties; there waits a steel hand in a velvet glove to enforce obligations." (308).

  5. 4 out of 5

    AskHistorians

    Kerber flips the history of "women's rights" on its head - looking at the history of women's obligations as citizens, and the conflict between women who want formal equality and women who want "special" protection.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jacqueline

    This is a wonderful book, and should be of great interest to all those who think about the equality of women and men. Linda Kerber addresses the meaning of citizenship, and how citizen's obligations to the United States have been linked to gender and been understood over time.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Niki

    A must read for everyone to understand women's role and rights in American society

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kate Arms

    A fascinating look at how women have been treated as under fewer obligations to the state throughout US history.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Galen Miller

    Great perspective, albeit a slow read. Depressing with the redundant actions restricting women's freedoms.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Juliann Rowe

  11. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Schmeiser

  12. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  13. 5 out of 5

    Megan

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey

  15. 4 out of 5

    Anuj Jayakar

  16. 4 out of 5

    James

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

  19. 4 out of 5

    Seán

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Marshall

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  23. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kelsey Miranda

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ruth Herman

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kelsey

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kristen Payne

  29. 5 out of 5

    Marisa

  30. 5 out of 5

    Marie Rowley

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