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The Fair Sex

White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early American Republic

Pauline Schloesser

Publication Year: 2001

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.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. v

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pp. vi-x

The Fair Sex: White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early American Republic stems from my dissertation, A Feminist Interpretation of the American Founding (1994). In my dissertation, I applied Carole Pateman’s theory of modern patriarchy from The Sexual Contract to the historical case of the American founding. I viewed the American...

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pp. xi-xii

I would like to acknowledge and thank the many persons who provided support that enabled me to complete the book. Joan Hoff believed in my project from the start, and stood behind me for ten years. Carole Pateman read my early work on patriarchy and the American founding and gave her encouragement. Sheila Skemp graciously shared her...

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1. Race, Gender, and Woman Citizenship in the American Founding

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pp. 1-11

Scholarly debates on the American founding have only recently begun to put gender and race at the center of analysis. The field of American political thought, established and dominated by white male historians and political theorists, has centered on republicanism since the 1960s. With some notable exceptions, few works in the field have analyzed the...

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2. Toward a Theory of Racial Patriarchy

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pp. 12-52

Republics, ancient and modern, are built on hierarchy. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates concedes to his followers that to implement his scheme of republicanism, a “noble falsehood” will have to be told to persuade all members of society to accept their prescribed roles within the hierarchy that undergirds his ideal state. In this “myth of the metals,” hierarchy is naturalized metaphorically...

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3. The Ideology of the “Fair Sex”

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pp. 53-82

The theory of racial patriarchy suggests that white women were ambiguously positioned in the hierarchy of gender and race relative to white men and nonwhite persons of both sexes. This ambiguity was neither happenstance nor inexplicable, but culturally produced through discourses on the “fair sex” which circulated through letters...

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4. The Philosopher Queen and the U.S. Constitution: Mercy Otis Warren as a Reluctant Signatory

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pp. 83-113

When we think about American founders, we think about famous men, like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, who were active in the movement for independence, the framing of the Constitution, and as executives in early administrations. Although most American government textbooks include a section...

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5. From Revolution to Racial Patriarchy: The Political Pragmatism of Abigail Adams

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pp. 114-153

The most remarkable thing about Abigail Adams as a political thinker is that she completely reversed her political principles within two decades. During the mid-1770s, as hostilities intensified between England and the colonies, Abigail supported American independence. At that time she spoke the language of the Enlightenment. Noting the ramifications of a universalized human being with natural...

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6. Gleaning a Self between the Lines: Judith Sargent Murray and the American Enlightenment

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pp. 154-186

Does Judith Sargent Murray reproduce the orthodoxy of fair sex ideology for mass consumption, to avoid persecution for her radicalism? Or does she do it because ultimately, she desires domination? Can we even speak of Murray as a unified self with a coherent political strategy? Who was Judith Sargent Murray, and why have her writings been so...

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7. Conclusion

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pp. 187-192

At times they have maximized both identifications, viewing themselves as the moral equals of white men, yet unjustly oppressed, like the slave or disfranchised Other. This dual identification works as a strategy to criticize hierarchical relations that unjustly privilege white men and oppress women and minorities. Sarah and Angelina Grimke’s observations...

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pp. 193-198

It is fashionable for politicians and political strategists to refer to the Founding Fathers to justify their own political agendas. These agendas often include a subtle reification of the values and hierarchies that were in place in the late eighteenth century. I wrote The Fair Sex to uncover these hierarchies and to present the political thought of three Anglo-American women in that context. In the...


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pp. 199-201


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pp. 203-224


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pp. 225-236


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pp. 237-242

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About the Author

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pp. 243

Pauline Schloesser received a Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1994, specializing in political theory, women’s studies, and American politics. She has taught at Indiana University, DePauw University, and Iowa State University. Currently she serves as Associate Professor...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814739976
E-ISBN-10: 0814739970
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814797631
Print-ISBN-10: 0814797636

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2001