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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 123-130
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Gender and the New Liberal Synthesis
George Mason University
NOT SO LONG AGO, REPUBLICANISM REIGNED AS THE PREVAILING PARADIGM FOR interpreting the vast sweep of American history from the Revolution through the New Deal. Wherever they looked, historians discovered a political tradition that emphasized concepts such as civic virtue and the threat of corruption to the body politic. Commitment to the common good offered a bracing alternative to the single-minded pursuit of individual self-interest. Whether republicanism was a discourse or an ideology, a continuous tradition or an intermittent rhetoric remained subject to discussion and debate. Nonetheless, there seemed to be little doubt that republicanism represented a competing mode of political thought that challenged the monopoly of liberalism on the American past. 1 [End Page 123]
Significantly, the three works under review make almost no reference to classical republicanism, civic virtue, or self-sacrifice for the common good. Instead, these studies operate within the framework of Lockean liberalism, with its emphasis on rights, equality, contract, and property. This is not to suggest that Nancy Isenberg, Linda Kerber, or Amy Dru Stanley simply reaffirm the monolithic liberalism postulated by Louis Hartz. 2 Rather, by introducing gender as a central mode of analysis, the authors provide a critique of liberalism that shows its historic limitations, especially in terms of women and gender issues. Yet the silence with respect to republicanism is revealing. Republican ideology no longer seems to have as much salience. Whatever its weaknesses, the liberal tradition possesses reservoirs of strength that provide a constant source of renewal for the polity, even today.
Kerber's No Constitutional Right to be Ladies is the most chronologically comprehensive of the books as well the most attentive to the legacy of republicanism. Kerber's main theme is the reciprocity between the rights and obligations of citizenship. Using well-chosen examples from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, she illuminates issues such as women's ability to become naturalized citizens, the laws of vagrancy, women's voting rights, female participation on juries, and women in the military. In each case study, Kerber shows that the social and legal norms that were designed to protect women, or grant them a special status, have had the effect of preventing women from claiming the same rights as men. For example, a rationale for excluding women from both juries and military service has been that a woman's obligations to her husband and family substitute for, and in effect, supersede, her duties to the state. The effect, however, was to deprive women of trial by a jury of her peers or to prevent women from obtaining civil service preferments based on military service.
Some of Kerber's stories are compelling in and of themselves. The chapter on taxation and representation comes alive through the story of Julia and Abby Smith of Glastonbury, Connecticut. Throughout the 1870s, these two highly educated, unmarried sisters refused to pay local taxes, arguing that their exclusion from the franchise meant that they were unrepresented. Invoking principles as old as the American Revolution, they insisted that representation and taxation were essentially linked. Bringing their case to the attention of the nation, they spoke about their cows, Taxey and Votey, who were constantly threatened with confiscation due to their refusal to pay taxes. Their [End Page 124] personal struggle helped dramatize and popularize the issue of woman suffrage.
Despite the Smiths' efforts, it was many more years before women won the right to vote. Moreover, the woman suffrage movement provoked an unintended and reactionary...