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A NEW TYPE of WOMANHOOD Discursive Politics and Social Change in Antebellum America
By NATASHA KIRSTEN KRAUS
Duke University Press Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One TRUE WOMANHOOD, THE ECONOMY, AND WOMAN'S RIGHTS
We might share, with the late Theodore Parker, a prejudice against woman's occupancy of the so-called manual fields of production; but we should still have to be informed of the impropriety of her holding in her hand a clean bank note, and holding it in her own name, if she pleases, and on the NATIONAL WOMAN'S RIGHTS BANK. I would not have her hold it as gracelessly as the male miser, but with sufficient firmness to be able to "keep in her own proper sphere," and save herself from the possible lordship of man or the rights of a privileged angel; from the contingency of being driven into the streets for bread, and thus becoming either a female drudge, or a gilded prostitute. -BRYAN J. BUTTS, MATERIAL INDEPENDENCE OF WOMAN, 1871
THIS BOLD CALL FOR WOMAN'S ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE, issued in 1871, declares a distinctly new conception of Womanhood-a version of Womanhood just taking hold on a wider historical canvas. Previously, in the antebellum United States, the very idea that Woman might engage in independent economic activity was anathema to any understanding of her "keep[ing] in her own proper sphere." The reigning conception of Womanhood implicitly but significantly placed her outside of the economic and market spheres-spheres crucial to a new social order being defined by the rise of industrial capitalism in the Northeast. The popular imagination could not conceive of a reputable Woman who paid attention to financial or business matters, even domestically. Any suggestion that Woman might engage with economic matters required that its very possibility be demonstrated in surrounding arguments, constructing an understanding of how a Woman might take economic action and yet remain reputable-how she might remain a True Woman. But Butts's 1871 declaration includes no such argument. In fact, he positions Woman's financial independence and economic action as central to maintaining her dignity in daily life, claiming that she should "[hold] in her hand a clean bank note, and [hold] it in her own name ... with sufficient firmness to be able to ... save herself from the possible lordship of man ... [and] from the contingency of being driven into the streets for bread." His implicit, and accurate, assumption that the public could make sense of this juxtaposition without further discussion marks a social change of great significance.
For the last decade of the antebellum era, from 1848 to 1860, a woman's rights movement demanded women's rights of contract and suffrage. While defined as a national movement by both contemporaries and its own literature, its members were primarily northern women, though the southern Grimke sisters were just two among many exceptions. In demanding property rights, broader rights of contract, and suffrage, it fought for women's and Woman's right to be a legitimate economic and civil actor and a legitimate political actor. Resisting and reshaping the figure of Woman inscribed in an increasingly national discourse of True Womanhood-usually described by historians as a belief system that prescribed and proscribed respectable femaleness during the antebellum and postbellum periods (see, for instance, Newman, 1999, 32)-comprised an integral but often ignored portion of the movement's struggle. The antebellum woman's rights movement's entwined challenge to the figure of the True Woman and fight for women's economic and contractual rights would prove as revolutionary as contemporary challenges to the tenets of slavery.
To a great extent, the mid-nineteenth-century nation drew on the cultural site of True Womanhood and, specifically, its placement of Woman outside the market economy as one of the few stable points in a time of dramatic social changes-a time during which social disorder seemed a constant danger. Accordingly, the cultural legibility of Butts's pamphlet and others like it suggests that popular codes of Womanhood had been at least partially rewritten by 1871. His line of argument assumes a popular imagination that could conceive of economic conduct and self-sufficiency as aspects of reputable Womanhood. Butts assumes that a relationship between a True Woman and the economy is no longer unthinkable in and of itself, and instead that the critical issues to be considered are how exactly this relationship will be defined and what its delimitations and demarcations will be. Further on, he addresses the ubiquity and scale of questions regarding the boundaries of Woman's reputation and economic action: "It is our purpose to put into the mouths of all the women in the nation the effectual reply: 'We will support ourselves, Gentlemen!' To this end, we hail an increase of wages and time for self-culture for both sexes, which will tend to render labor honorable" (Butts 1871, 13).
In this woman's rights agenda, not only would women become economically self-sufficient across the country, but the very status of labor performed outside of the domestic arena-the form that labor was increasingly taking in a burgeoning capitalist economy-would become honorable for all, men and women alike. The moments that would define Woman's new relation to the economy would also redefine the economy's relation to humanity by making ignoble industrial and commercial work reputable. Reshaping the relations between Womanhood, contract, and the economy so that women could hold an acceptable place as both laborers and autonomous economic agents would, by definition, necessitate a restructuring of the nineteenth-century economy and concomitant systems of social meanings, reordering both the political economy and the moral economy of the times. Redefining Woman's position would reorder the capitalist economy, the disorienting rise of which had thrown society in and out of financial panics and thrown families and individuals in and out of poverty throughout the 1800s. Butts's address recognizes True Womanhood's centrality to contemporary understandings of the nation and the economy. It further recognizes that changes in the social meanings of any one of these categories would implicate the others and would effect significant changes in the meanings of people's daily lives and the broader social world.
The antebellum woman's rights movement tacitly recognized the same complexities of social meaning surrounding Womanhood in its various forms of activism, and, as a result, it had already effected important shifts in Womanhood's relation to the economy and the nation by 1871. Butts's pamphlet handily lays out crucial aspects of the terrain on which these social meanings had played out and would continue to play out. But his clarity was possible only because certain underlying assumptions of the antebellum social order-assumptions that required that they remain unspoken for their effectiveness-had already been explicitly challenged and powerfully rewritten by the antebellum woman's rights movement. And the movement's success was possible only because a fortuitous concatenation of social forces and events joined it in applying pressure to the stabilizing, yet inherently unstable, gendered assumptions that lay at the heart of modern democracy and capitalist economy. In combination, these forces produced interimplicated ruptures in social meanings and institutions of the time, reshaping the complex relations between Womanhood, property, contract, the economy, and the nation.
READING HISTORY ASUNDER
The antebellum United States was a place of dramatic social transformations. People across what we now understand to be the United States-states and continental territories alike-reaped the benefits of new railroad and canal transportation. New forms of manufacturing provided increased material wealth and access to the basics of subsistence. At the same time, industrialization and the new forms of transportation dramatically transformed cities, towns, and rural areas in other ways. Not only people traveled by rail and waterway; consumer goods, foodstuffs, raw materials, and cultural goods, such as newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, and novels, also did. These reading materials-combined with traveling speaker circuits and a greater ability of the general citizen to travel from place to place-transmitted cultural ideas and beliefs from region to region at a rate and intensity unprecedented in American history. In the midst of this growth and change, and in fact because of it, the country was repeatedly shaken by economic crises. In addition, social movements such as woman's rights and abolition took root in this rich climate and were ultimately successful. To anyone versed in the time, this is a familiar tale told in a familiar fashion-a story of change driven by industrial and technological innovation. Social histories are generally framed, as most stories are, for narrative coherence. But structuring a narrative in this way holds particular implications when the stories are histories. It means that histories are usually written in a way that makes society's changes from one point in time to another seem cohesive when they may not be and favors a history of progressions-whether of rationality, Western-style democracy, or human ethics. While understandings of history as progressive have fallen out of fashion over the past several decades and sociologists and historians have accepted that discontinuous shifts and ruptures play a crucial role in the path societies take, nonprogressive history remains difficult to narrate. In this book, I propose a new conceptual approach to thinking about society-one that seeks out moments of rupture in imbricated social meanings and institutions, and through it renarrates the successful struggles of the 1850s woman's rights movement. This renarration approaches history by what, in another context, Jonathan Arac (2006) calls "reading asunder."
The familiar history of the antebellum period is, in part, a product of the conceptual and theoretical frames through which it has been viewed and told. In the following pages, this familiar history is retold; it is reimagined with a different narrative focus and a different conceptual frame. On a broad scale, I ask, What happens if we renarrate histories to focus on social rupture instead of social coherence and to emphasize the interimplication of shifts in the conceptual and material underpinnings of society? On a narrower scale, I probe the historical minutiae of a particular societal moment of transformation-the northern United States from 1848 to 1860-for insight into how processes of societal rupture and transformation work through systems of social meanings and institutions that are intertwined at the level of their very constitution. Specifically, I renarrate the place in antebellum America of the 1850s woman's rights movement, paying attention to the economic, industrial, and legal changes of the day as well as the movement's entanglement with the language of True Womanhood and popular conceptions of Womanhood, contract, the economy, and the nation. Focusing on the space occupied by white women of the middling-classes, I plumb New York State legislative debates as well as pamphlets, speeches, petitions, and newspaper reports of the 1850s woman's rights movement. By reviewing this historical information in a new conceptual context-through a theory of what I call structural aporias-we can see shifts and ruptures in the antebellum social order taking place before our eyes. While the historical "facts" are not always new, exploring them from this new theoretical perspective lays bare social processes operating during one moment of historical rupture in a way previously unnarrated.
Until the past twenty years, studies of feminist movement and organizing left the 1850s woman's rights movement largely unwritten or treated it as a minor footnote to later efforts. Histories of feminism had tended to assimilate all nineteenth-century woman's rights struggles into a progressive trajectory of struggle for suffrage, influenced in great part by the early and voluminous History of Woman Suffrage, a history of women's struggles from 1838 to 1920 compiled by leading female activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries once suffrage had become their central battle (E. C. Stanton, Anthony, and Gage 1889/1970). As late as the mid-1980s, most studies of women's nineteenth-century activism focused on narrowly defined antecedents to woman's suffrage, including these activists' abolition work (Berg 1978; Bolt 1993; DuBois 1978, 1998; Flexner 1959; Kugler 1987; Melder 1964; O'Neill 1969), and mostly neglected the 1850s movement. In the 1980s, scholars in a number of fields began to write subtle social histories of women in the nineteenth century. Their detailed analyses of the importance of women's complex inter- and intraclass relations to nineteenth-century social transitions provided a much needed historical backdrop to any study of how women's activism affected antebellum social meanings and institutions (Baker 1984; Epstein 1981; Ginzberg 1986, 1990; Hewitt 1984; Ryan 1981). In addition, several legal histories of women's antebellum struggles for economic rights provided the minute details of how marriage law fit into the legal system's day-to-day operations and the specific ways women had to engage the legal system in their attempts to change property laws, as well as how those narrowly legal battles progressed (Basch 1982; Chused 1983, 1985; Rabkin 1975, 1980; Shammas 1994; Speth 1982; Thurman 1966; Warbasse 1987).
Over the past decade, scholarship began to refocus on the antebellum woman's rights movement. In resurrecting the movement as worthy of sustained attention on its own terms, scholars analyzed the philosophical antecedents in play in the movement's claims to individual freedom, equality, and rights (Hoffert 1995); examined women's legislative petitions for economic rights from before 1848 as a case study in the relationship between civic membership and legal rights (Ginzberg 2005); traced the international origins and networks of the movement (Anderson 2000); depicted how antebellum women's acts of petitioning served as a way of writing themselves into legitimate political subjecthood (Zaeske 2003); emphasized the broad political and cultural critique at the movement's core (Isenberg 1998); and compiled useful texts combining overarching analysis with primary documents from the time period that were not previously easily accessible (McClymer 1999; Sklar 2000). Reva B. Siegel (1994) worked to reclaim the radical nature of the movement's economic arguments by analyzing external demands and internal discussions.
Still, the 1850s woman's rights movement has not fully gained recognition as not only one among many moments of women's organizing, but one that forced a fundamental shift in foundational societal structures-in imbricated social meanings and institutions-and one without which suffrage could not have been achieved. I aim to refocus attention on the antebellum movement from this perspective. In doing so, my work stands on the conceptual shoulders of scholars whose work did not speak directly or solely to the 1850s, but provided a foundation for rethinking the importance of refiguring social meanings of womanhood, and its crucial imbrications within a larger web of social meanings, to our daily lived experience and the structures of the societal institutions in which we live that experience. Denise Riley (1988, 1992) persuasively demonstrated how meanings of "woman" or "women" not only differ by time and place but always exist only in relation to an entire discursive field of social meanings. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (1985), Linda K. Kerber (1980, 1997), Joan B. Landes (1988), and Joan Scott (1989, 1992) traced reconstitutions of conceptions of womanhood and examined the discursive operation of gender in historical context. Avery Gordon (1997) and Robyn Weigman (1995) powerfully showed how these historically constructed discursive fields daily haunt the social meanings and institutional practices of our lives and matrices of desire. Equally important, Amy Dru Stanley (1998, ix) traced the nineteenth-century rise of and changes undergone in "contract as a worldview ... [that] transcended the boundaries of law as a basic participatory act and meaning in daily social life." Others examined the gendered intertwining of marriage, citizenship, and the nation in United States history (Cott 2000; Kerber 1998) and intricately traced some of the imbrications of womanhood, race, empire, and nation in the late nineteenth-century United States (Newman 1999). Through their labors, these scholars, as well as many others, have helped to create a space from which this work could arise.
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