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The Struggle for Equal Adulthood

Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America

Corinne T. Field

Publication Year: 2014

In the fight for equality, early feminists often cited the infantilization of women and men of color as a method used to keep them out of power. Field argues that attaining adulthood--and the associated political rights, economic opportunities, and sexual power that come with it--became a common goal for both white and African American feminists between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The idea that black men and all women were more like children than adult white men proved difficult to overcome, however, and continued to serve as a foundation for racial and sexual inequality for generations.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Gender and American Culture

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xvi

This project began at Columbia University, where I was lucky to work with Elizabeth Blackmar, who has remained the most encouraging, intellectually challenging, and insightful of colleagues over these many years. Rosalind Rosenberg, Alice Kessler-Harris, Eric Foner, and Farah Jasmine Griffin fundamentally shaped this project. Members of the Black Women’s Intellectual and Cultural History Collective, organized by Farah Griffin,...

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pp. 1-11

In her influential 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller surveyed the condition of women in the United States and northern Europe and concluded, “There is no woman, only an overgrown child.”1 Fuller focused on the difference between childhood and adulthood because doing so enabled her to demand profound changes in both public and private forms of power. For example, she critiqued laws that treated the...

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Prologue: Liberty and Maturity in Enlightenment Thought

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pp. 12-21

In the late eighteenth century, highly educated women in Britain and America became profoundly troubled by ideas, customs, and laws that denied women the status of independent adults whatever their age, intellectual accomplishments, marital status, or personal wealth. American patriots like Mercy Otis Warren, British evangelicals such as Hannah Moore, and professional educators including Susanna Rowson spoke out ...

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1 Adult Independence and the Limits of Revolution

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pp. 22-52

The crisis of the American Revolution irrevocably altered the rhetorical, legal, and social significance of white male maturation by turning dependent subjects into republican citizens and in the process raising new issues about who could claim liberty and on what terms.1 Patriot leaders generally agreed that only propertied adult men were fully capable of governing themselves, but public officials could not impose this view ...

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2 Democratic Citizenship as a Stage of Life

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pp. 53-76

In Jacksonian America, no specific birthday was associated with leaving home, completing school, starting work, or getting married. Young people made these transitions at widely varying ages.1 Yet, delegates to state constitutional conventions replaced property requirements for suffrage with age requirements. Whereas the nation’s founders believed that autonomy rested on the material base of property, Jacksonians located a wellspring...

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3 Chronological Age and Equal Rights

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pp. 77-95

Between 1848 and 1861, women’s rights activists organized a series of local, state, and national conventions at which they raised a broad range of demands, including women’s right to vote and run for office, to pursue equal educational and occupational opportunities, to control their property and persons within marriage, and to live by a single standard of sexual morality applicable to both sexes.1 Organizers modeled these...

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4 The Voyage of Life and Equal Opportunity

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pp. 96-126

Antebellum Americans, as they migrated farther west or moved to cities in search of new opportunities, consumed a vast array of advice on how to navigate the voyage of life. Much of this literature was directed at men making their way in an expanding labor market, but some of it was written by and for women. Lydia Sigourney, a popular writer known as the “sweet singer of Hartford,” rose to prominence with...

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5 Competing Measures of Mature Citizenship

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pp. 127-157

During Reconstruction, Radical Republicans forever altered the political significance of age twenty-one by pushing for the enfranchisement of all men without regard to race. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (passed by Congress in June 1866 and ratified in July 1868) placed the power of the federal government behind the idea that males normally made a transition to full citizenship at age twenty-one, while females did...

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6 Perpetual Minority and the Failure of Reconstruction

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pp. 158-171

In the antebellum period, women’s rights activists pursued competing political priorities but joined together at state and national conventions, where all participants agreed that every American, regardless of race or sex, should be free at age twenty-one to pursue his or her own journey of life. All struggled against other Americans, including many other reformers,...

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EPILOGUE: Aging and Inequality

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pp. 172-174

As the nineteenth century wore on, champions of equal adulthood continued to promote hierarchical measures of maturity because they could be effective in winning specific opportunities. Black men, in some cases, were able to defend their legal and political rights as men. Advantaged white women gained new opportunities for higher education, professional advancement, and national influence by presenting themselves as maternal...


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pp. 175-208


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pp. 209-234


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pp. 235-243

E-ISBN-13: 9781469618166
E-ISBN-10: 1469618168
Print-ISBN-13: 9781469618142
Print-ISBN-10: 1469618141

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 8 halftones
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Gender and American Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Citizenship -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Adulthood -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Equality before the law -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- History -- 19th century.
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