- Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman’s Rights in Antebellum New York
Conventional histories trace the origins of the first feminist movement in the United States to the social reform movements of the 1830s and 1840s. Through participation in temperance organizations, anti-prostitution societies, and anti-slavery groups, women gained experience in effecting social change. Using a wide variety of tactics, they tried to mobilize public opinion and sway legislators to see the justice of their causes. Yet because women lacked the ability to vote and hold public office, they ultimately came to see the limits of their ability to change the status quo. A knowledge of these limitations, and a growing awareness of the similarities between women's condition and the plight of slaves, culminated in the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. A small number of white women, joined by an even smaller number of men, began to press for more radical changes in women's social, political, and legal status.
Lori Ginzberg's book joins a growing number of works that challenge this narrative. Ginzberg begins with what appears to be an anomaly. Over two years before the Seneca Falls Convention, six obscure women submitted a petition to the New York state constitutional demanding equal civil and political rights with men. They did not couch their petition in the language of religion or maternal privilege. Instead, drawing on the language of liberal individualism, they insisted that they were stating a "self evident truth." Rather than asking for any "new right," they only wished "to declare and enforce those rights which they [End Page 782] originally inherited, but which have ungenerously been withheld from them, rights which they as citizens of the state of New York may reasonably and rightfully claim." This petition, then, becomes the basis for Ginzberg's in-depth exploration of the social, political, and intellectual contexts that made it possible for the women to make such a radical claim.
Ginzberg does an excellent job of reconstructing the environment in which the six women petitioners—Eleanor O'Connor Vincent, Lydia William, Lydia Ormsby Osborn, Susan Ormsby, Amy Eldridge Ormsby, Anna Carter Bishop—lived. Plumbing the local records, she traces their economic standing and property transactions. She offers suggestive information about their educational opportunities, religious sentiments, and political leanings. Various kinds of net- works—legal, kin, and friendship—linked the women and united them to the wider community. What she does not find, however, is as important as what she discovers. A tiny rural community in upstate New York, Jefferson County did not differ significantly from many other counties in the state. While its citizens tended to be more supportive of the Liberty Party and of the rights of African Americans, than other parts of the state, it was no hotbed of radicalism. Moreover, although limited in her ability to find out details about their individual lives, Ginzberg believes that the women seem to be distinguished by their ordinariness. Five of the six were married, four to farmers. They were neither particularly well-off nor particularly poor. They did not seem to have had access to exceptional educational opportunities. Neither religion nor social reform movements seemed to play an unusually large role in their lives.
What, then, made it possible for the women to produce such an extraordinary document? It is hard to say. According to Ginzberg, the women's very ordinariness suggests that their petition represents a "tiny glimpse" into a much larger phenomenon, a process in which "an idea repeatedly declared unthinkable gets raised among a small group of people, is launched into public debate, and becomes part of a conversation about the rights and responsibilities of the nation's citizens" (p. 166). Similar conversations were probably taking place in innumerable towns and communities throughout the country. Though overlooked by historians, it is this process of popular debate that made the first women's rights movement possible.
At times, the lack of specific information about the women petitioners...