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Revolutionary Backlash

Women and Politics in the Early American Republic

By Rosemarie Zagarri

Publication Year: 2011

The Seneca Falls Convention is typically seen as the beginning of the first women's rights movement in the United States. Revolutionary Backlash argues otherwise. According to Rosemarie Zagarri, the debate over women's rights began not in the decades prior to 1848 but during the American Revolution itself. Integrating the approaches of women's historians and political historians, this book explores changes in women's status that occurred from the time of the American Revolution until the election of Andrew Jackson.

Although the period after the Revolution produced no collective movement for women's rights, women built on precedents established during the Revolution and gained an informal foothold in party politics and male electoral activities. Federalists and Jeffersonians vied for women's allegiance and sought their support in times of national crisis. Women, in turn, attended rallies, organized political activities, and voiced their opinions on the issues of the day. After the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a widespread debate about the nature of women's rights ensued. The state of New Jersey attempted a bold experiment: for a brief time, women there voted on the same terms as men.

Yet as Rosemarie Zagarri argues in Revolutionary Backlash, this opening for women soon closed. By 1828, women's politicization was seen more as a liability than as a strength, contributing to a divisive political climate that repeatedly brought the country to the brink of civil war. The increasing sophistication of party organizations and triumph of universal suffrage for white males marginalized those who could not vote, especially women. Yet all was not lost. Women had already begun to participate in charitable movements, benevolent societies, and social reform organizations. Through these organizations, women found another way to practice politics.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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pp. 1-10

More than three decades after the American Revolution ended, a Maryland newspaper published an article with the reassuring headline ‘‘Revolutions Never Go Backward.’’ Expressing the hope that the world had ‘‘wearied’’ of revolutions, the author maintained that people throughout the world were now ready to ‘‘settle down in quiet, for the purpose of enjoying what little good there may be, mingled with the evil in this...

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Chapter 1. The Rights of Woman

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pp. 11-45

In 1798, less than ten years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the writer Charles Brockden Brown, often considered the country’s first professional man of letters, published an article on a controversial topic in his periodical, the Philadelphia Weekly Magazine. Entitled ‘‘The Rights of Woman,’’ the piece depicted a dialogue between a young man,...

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Chapter 2. Female Politicians

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pp. 46-81

In 1821 former president John Adams wrote a letter to his grandson admonishing him for his enthusiasm over expanding the franchise. Always the social conservative, Adams feared that abolishing property qualifications among white men might open the door to new challenges, particularly from women. ‘‘You make very light of the argument for the...

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Chapter 3. Patriotism and Partisanship

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pp. 82-114

In 1798 a play called Politicians; or, A State of Things featured two female characters, Mrs. Violent and Mrs. Turbulent. Throughout the play both women expressed their political sentiments in the strongest terms. Mrs. Turbulent, a Republican sympathizer, declared that President George Washington was ‘‘never equal to the situation he was placed in: vastly...

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Chapter 4. Women and the ‘‘War of Politics’’

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pp. 115-147

As she reflected back on her life, Catharine Maria Sedgwick recalled the trials and tribulations of growing up as the daughter of a Federalist congressman. She remembered the 1790s as a time when party feelings divided towns, dissolved friendships, and pitted neighbor against neighbor. At home she witnessed the battle firsthand. Partisan antagonisms...

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Chapter 5. A Democracy—For Whom?

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pp. 148-180

In July 1829 Sarah Josepha Hale’s Ladies’ Magazine published ‘‘Political Parties,’’ a fictional story that revealed just how much had changed regarding attitudes toward women and politics since the time of the American Revolution. The story tells the tale of one Miss Pope, an elderly woman who looks back over her life and recounts her youthful...

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Epilogue: Memory and Forgetting

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pp. 181-186

When Frances Trollope, a British visitor, toured the United States in 1828, she found few women in evidence at public celebrations and gatherings. Recalling her attendance at a Fourth of July festival in Cincinnati, she observed that women had ‘‘but little to do with the pageantry, the splendour, or the gaiety of [Independence] day.’’ Visiting the country...


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pp. 187-220


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pp. 221-229

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pp. 231-233

Perhaps the best thing—maybe the only good thing—about taking a long time to write a book is the ever-enlarging circle of people who have helped me in one way or another and who, in a sense, formed a community centered around the book. Making new friends and getting to know other scholars in the field have been among the most rewarding aspects...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205558
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812220735

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies