The Fair Sex: White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early American Republic

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Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2002

Once the egalitarian passions of the American Revolution had dimmed, the new nation settled into a conservative period that saw the legal and social subordination of women and non-white men. Among the Founders who brought the fledgling government into being were those who sought to establish order through the reconstruction of racial and gender hierarchies. In this effort they enlisted “the fair sex,”&#—white women. Politicians, ministers, writers, husbands, fathers and brothers entreated Anglo-American women to assume responsibility for the nation's virtue. Thus, although disfranchised, they served an important national function, that of civilizing non-citizen. They were encouraged to consider themselves the moral and intellectual superiors to non-whites, unruly men, and children. These white women were empowered by race and ethnicity, and class, but limited by gender. And in seeking to maintain their advantages, they helped perpetuate the system of racial domination by refusing to support the liberation of others from literal slavery.

Schloesser examines the lives and writings of three female political intellectuals—;Mercy Otis Warren, Abigail Smith Adams, and Judith Sargent Murray—;each of whom was acutely aware of their tenuous position in the founding era of the republic. Carefully negotiating the gender and racial hierarchies of the nation, they at varying times asserted their rights and demurred to male governance. In their public and private actions they represented the paradigm of racial patriarchy at its most complex and its most conflicted.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Combining methodologies from history and political science, Pauline Schloesser has developed a most sophisticated and convincing interpretation of how the founding fathers constructed a theory of racial patriarchy supported by an ‘ideology of the fair sex.’ Her analysis of the political thought of Mercy Warren, Abigail Adams, and Judith Sargent Murray demonstrates that even these three independent thinkers accepted the gender and ethnic hierarchy handed them by the founders in order to protect their own racial and class privilege as white women.”
-Joan Hoff,Professor of History, College of William and Mary

“This book should be viewed as a jumping-off point to examine the theory of racial patriarchy at different times and places throughout American history.”
-The Journal of American History

“Provides an excellent theory for understanding the mutual constitution of race and gender in the formation of ‘women’s identity.’”
-Women & Politics

“Pauline Schloesser’s work on racial patriarchy is pathbreaking in its association of concepts that previously have been studied in near-isolation from each other. The book makes compelling use of primary sources, most notably private correspondence, to provide a sense of how women in elite positions saw themselves and their society in the context of both race and gender relations. The book establishes the presence of a social contract in which Anglo-American women were encouraged to accept subordination within an existing conservative order in exchange for a position of moral and intellectual superiority, most notably over non-whites. Schloesser’s innovative concept of racial patriarchy, along with an impressive foundation in research, make The Fair Sex a major work in political theory and American intellectual history.”

-Patrick James,Political Science, University of Missouri Columbia

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814797624
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 243
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Pauline Schloesser is Associate Professor of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

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Table of Contents

1 Race, Gender, and Woman Citizenship in the American Founding
2 Toward a Theory of Racial Patriarchy
3 The Ideology of the “Fair Sex”
4 The Philosopher Queen and the U.S. Constitution: Mercy Otis Warren as a Reluctant Signatory
5 From Revolution to Racial Patriarchy: The Political Pragmatism of Abigail Adams
6 Gleaning a Self between the Lines: Judith Sargent Murray and the American Enlightenment
7 Conclusion
About the Author

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