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The Crimes of Womanhood

Defining Femininity in a Court of Law

A. Cheree Carlson

Publication Year: 2008

Cultural views of femininity exerted a powerful influence on the courtroom arguments used to defend or condemn notable women on trial in nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century America. A. Cheree Carlson analyzes the colorful rhetorical strategies employed by lawyers and reporters in the trials of several women of varying historical stature, from the insanity trials of Mary Todd Lincoln and Lizzie Borden's trial for the brutal slaying of her father and stepmother, to lesser-known trials involving insanity, infidelity, murder, abortion, and interracial marriage. Carlson reveals clearly just how narrow was the line that women had to walk, since the same womanly virtues that were expected of them--passivity, frailty, and purity--could be turned against them at any time. With gripping retellings and incisive analysis, this book will appeal to historians, rhetoricians, feminist researchers, and anyone who enjoys courtroom drama.

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv


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p. vii

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p. ix

This book was a long time from start to finish. Were it not for the efforts of many friends and colleagues it would have remained unfinished. My deepest appreciation to all of you, with a special shout-out to: Michelle Holling, who was there at the start. Marouf Hassian and Tom Nakayama, who stepped into the breach. ...

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Introduction: Womanhood on Trial

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pp. 1-13

This is a book about stories. More precisely, it is about stories told by white male lawyers to white male juries concerning women of all kinds. One might even consider them “morality tales” recast for their contemporary, and presumably more sophisticated, audiences. In these stories, virtuous women are betrayed by libertines, and innocent men are seduced by fallen women. ...

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1. Narrative Intersections in Popular Trials

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pp. 15-20

In the introduction, I argued that the ideal way to explore the power of literary icons of womanhood is to investigate cases where definite decisions were made, in arenas where the reasoning process is still relatively available to the researcher. Trials are especially good starting points for such an investigation. ...

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2. Framing Madness in the Sanity Trial of Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard

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pp. 21-38

Emily Dickinson, a figure known almost as well for her eccentricity as for her poetry, has encapsulated in these lines a dilemma that plagued both law and medicine in the nineteenth century. At what point does nonconformity cross the line into madness? And when does it become necessary to attach that chain? ...

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3. The Mad Doctors Meet McNaughton: The Battle for Narrative Supremacy in the Trial of Mary Harris

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pp. 39-68

The narrative elements of a popular trial can be manipulated by either side in an attempt to persuade juries that a particular woman is a criminal or a victim. The Packard case is a simple example. It is easy for the modern reader to dismiss the antiquated notion that failing to obey one’s husband is either a crime or a sure indication of madness. But it is also easy to dismiss the case...

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4. "True Womanhood" and Perfect Madness: The Sanity Trial of Mary Todd Lincoln

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pp. 69-84

If one were to use the jury decisions we have seen so far, it could be inferred that in the nineteenth century, women of gentle birth were expected to be demure, picture-perfect icons of domesticity. To violate social norms was to face penalties ranging from social ostracism to legal action. Women who stood out too far from the crowd were often ruined socially, slandered by...

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5. Womanhood as Asset and Liability: Lizzie Andrew Borden

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pp. 85-110

Nearly every study of the Borden case includes this verse, and there is no reason for this chapter to stray from convention. That this bit of schoolyard doggerel can still occasionally be heard on the playground attests to the staying power of the legend of this woman. That it got the details completely wrong attests to the power of a narrative to survive despite its contradiction...

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6. Bodies at the Crossroads: The Rise and Fall of Madame Restell

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pp. 111-135

Up to this point, the principals involved in the legal cases this volume has covered have been accused of only one crime. Their cases rose to prominence rapidly and were as rapidly forgotten. Ann Lohman, alias Madame Restell, was different. Her rise and fall took over thirty years and was documented carefully—by her adversaries. “Madame Restell” was a professional abortionist. ...

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7. "You Know It When You See It": The Rhetorical Embodiment of Race and Gender in Rhinelander v. Rhinelander

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pp. 136-155

In the fall of 1925, a scion of one of the oldest, wealthiest families of New York publicly declared that his bride of barely a month had defrauded him. She was hiding the fact that she was “colored,” explained his lawyers, and had he known this he never would have married her. His wife’s lawyers found this claim disingenuous. He had spent the last three years in and out of her...

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Conclusion: Womanhood as Narrative

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pp. 157-166

In the search for a common thread uniting the use of gendered narratives in legal arguments, one eventually comes to the conclusion that the only surety is that there was no surety. The overarching narrative framework that dictated feminine roles was a clear as any rhetorical construction could be, yet that clarity provided no safe formula that could be used by an individual—female...


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pp. 167-172


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pp. 173-183


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pp. 185-189

E-ISBN-13: 9780252090769
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034015

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 785781210
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Crimes of Womanhood

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sex discrimination against women -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History.
  • Female offenders -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History.
  • Women -- United States -- Social conditions -- History.
  • Femininity in popular culture -- United States -- History.
  • Femininity -- Social aspects -- United States -- History.
  • Trials -- United States -- History.
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