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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 activis 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.


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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 activis 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.

30 review for Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mir

    Isenberg's variation on the political history of the antebellum women's movement seeks to "reconceptualize feminist theory of the nineteenth century by examining ways in which church, state, and family all contributed to the notion of citizenship" (ix). She identifies two major questions addressed in her work: How did feminists frame their understanding of rights within antebellum theories of representation? and How did this struggle over rights incorporate several distinct but overlapping legal Isenberg's variation on the political history of the antebellum women's movement seeks to "reconceptualize feminist theory of the nineteenth century by examining ways in which church, state, and family all contributed to the notion of citizenship" (ix). She identifies two major questions addressed in her work: How did feminists frame their understanding of rights within antebellum theories of representation? and How did this struggle over rights incorporate several distinct but overlapping legal and political debates? Using the theories of Habermas and Arendt, she addresses these question on a primarily linguistic basis, examining the evolving discourse that struggled to define and redefine the category of "Citizenship" in its manifold meanings. Although her approach is in some ways anachronistic, it is valuable for its convincing attempt to explore language, discourses, and ideology. This study represents a demand for a more complex and nuanced historiography. The author's first critique of the historiographic treatment of women's rights movement is her complaint against the undue emphasis that has long been placed on the Seneca Falls Convention and the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The privileging of Stanton's role she attributes largely to Stanton's own writings, particularly her History of Woman Suffrage, which through length and primacy of publication has remained an authoritative account of the movement since Stanton's own lifetime; Isenberg argues that this text is not, in fact, an accurate account of the movement's career, but rather an "allegorical interpretation of the past" (2) and that it presents a schema of the movement that locates an undue amount of motive force in Stanton herself, marginalizing the role played by other individuals and organizations. More generally, Isenberg argues that histories of the women's movement have not paid enough attention to its evolution over time and development of more sophisticated political critiques. Nor, she says, have they sufficiently analyzed the intellectual and political changes of the 18th century which informed the movement, especially Republicanism, and the ways these ideas influenced the separation of male and female spheres. Rather, she chides, scholars tend to treat the unequal status of women as a given, thus lending it a dangerously legitimizing sense of inevitability. Too often, Isenberg suggests, debates over women's rights are presented as simple male/female dichotomy, with women demanding the vote and men refusing. First of all, gender categories cannot be so simply conceived: "the category of 'woman' or 'female nature' was fractured by class and caste differences, which measured men and women in terms of normative assumptions..." More important to her thesis is the argument that the debate was not characterized by demand and rejection but by an ongoing discourse revolving around and developing the question of what constituted full citizenship. Isenberg here tries to examine this question in the same terms that both feminists and their opponents agreed upon. To be a citizen was 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 contemporary debate on this topic centered on issues of capacity and consent, representation, protection, and the public sphere. Traditional understanding of citizenship focused the risk and sacrifice which a citizen was expected to accept on behalf of the state; women could not. Despite focusing on the nature and content of nineteenth-century debates, Isenberg often slips into anachronism, failing to distinguish her own modern use of terms such as "rights" and "citizenship" from that of her subjects. She also tends to present the discourses of the women in her study as if they themselves would have been familiar with the theoretical language and concepts that she uses to analyze them. This leads to some odd disjunctions, such as describing a 19th-century feminist as concerned over the "need for ontological certainty." On the other hand, she does do a great job illuminating the intellectual movements of the day, such as Romanticism and Transcendentalism.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Russell

    Isenberg presents a well-balanced look at women’s rights in the nineteenth century; she looks at how women were limited to social aspects of American culture, but were continuously limited in terms of political agency. By starting with the legal issue of coverture, Isenberg looks at women in their limited role in the household, and how it expanded to the realms of social interaction, church life, and political action.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Wegmann

    Brilliant, but tough. It's a long read, even at 170-odd page. Worth the time, though. Brilliant, but tough. It's a long read, even at 170-odd page. Worth the time, though.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Melanie Kirdasi

  5. 4 out of 5

    Norrie

  6. 5 out of 5

    Laura Webb

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    Jacob Hiserman

  9. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  10. 4 out of 5

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  11. 5 out of 5

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    Glen

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elisabeth Davis

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rico Abrahamsen

  15. 5 out of 5

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    Desiree Nelson

  17. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  18. 5 out of 5

    Liz Kizior

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    Graeme

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    Mia Reilly

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    Jeff Thompson

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    Melanie Reimann

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    Alexis Coe

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    Gaila Sims

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris

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