- Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women's Political Identity
That the roots of the women's movement in the nineteenth century are to be found in women's activism during the abolitionist movement has become a standard claim in any account of the beginnings of women's political participation in the United States. Susan Zaeske's incisive examination of the women's antislavery petitioning campaigns traverses the depth and breadth of these roots. Among the goals accomplished by this work is the confirmation and extension of the claim that women's abolitionist activism taught women the mechanics of organizing and running political conventions, circulating petitions, giving speeches, and writing for pamphlets and newspapers. It also re-examines the way this activism drew attention to and reaction against the restrictions on women's involvement in the public sphere—as evidenced by the debates about women's petitioning and antislavery speaking in the press, in antislavery conventions, and on the floor of Congress. Zaeske's most exciting contribution, however, is that made to more recent discussions of gendered citizenship. (See, for example, Barbara Hobson's collection, Gender and Citizenship in Transition.) Arguing that petitioning Congress to support the abolition of slavery facilitated the transformation of women's "political identity from humble subjects to national citizens" (172), she sheds light on an historical moment when women came to see themselves as agents, as citizens participating in collective action demanding social change.
The richness of her particular contribution is found in her painstaking attention to the women's petition campaigns themselves. It is no trivial [End Page 228] story; in 1837 alone, antislavery petitions were submitted to Congress so abundantly "that they would have filled, from floor to ceiling, a room twenty feet wide by thirty feet long by fourteen feet high" (173). Zaeske's examination of the archival records of the antislavery petitions signed by women from 1831 through 1865 supports her conclusion that the women's petitions developed through four distinct stages. The earliest petitions, marked by their tone of deference, were quite distinct from men's of the same period. These petitions set forth lengthy justifications grounded in moral duty defending women's exercise of the petition to request that Congress act against the institution of slavery. By contrast, the latest petitions signed by women were often indistinguishable from men's petitions, assumed the right of women to petition the government, and often signaled that the signers consciously took on the mantle of citizenship.
To prepare us for her detailed engagement with the petition documents, Zaeske begins with an overview of the nature of the right of petition in the colonies and the early Republic. The right of petition included an implicit requirement that the power petitioned read and respond to the request; however, in the early decades of the United States, the right of women, free blacks, and slaves to petition was often undermined. The petition drive against the U.S. Cherokee removal in 1829–1830 marked the first major use of collective petitioning by women to affect national policy, but it was the extended push of the abolitionist petition campaigns, especially in the face of obstacles such as the Gag Rule, which firmly established the right of petition as universal, as a request requiring a response regardless of the character, race, or gender of the petitioner.
Zaeske's is an historical study, but her interest in the language of the petitions themselves reflects her roots in rhetorical studies. The writing is perhaps most engaging when teasing out the significance of the choices women made. Weaving together stories from the women circulating the petitions, she recreates a sense of the import of a woman's decision to sign a political petition in her own right. Even the choice of where to sign a petition, in a column separate from the column for men's signatures, or intermixed on the form, is imbued with significance in this careful study. Nicely reproduced copies of several of the...