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  • The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America by Susan J. Pearson
  • Diane L. Beers
The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America. By Susan J. Pearson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 260 pp.).

In late 1873, reformer Etta Wheeler Wilcox desperately searched for a way to remove a severely abused child from her home in New York City. By all evidence, Mary Ellen Wilson’s guardian regularly inflicted extreme physical and psychological abuse on the girl. Unfortunately, existing charities only assisted children surrendered to them; they possessed no power to remove them from their home. Frustrated, Wilcox opted for a provocative solution. She contacted Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Animals, an [End Page 814] organization with state-sanctioned police powers to directly intervene in cruelty cases, albeit animals. Wheeler beseeched Bergh to assert his powers on Wilson’s behalf. He agreed and the subsequent publicity and success of the case led to the formation of unique hybrid organizations that coupled child and animal protection. Appropriately, The Rights of the Defenseless begins its historical journey with this pathos-ridden tale as a way to illuminate the important but lost story of the connections between animal and child protection. Susan J. Pearson correctly notes that some child advocates today point to the Wilson saga as an odd and sad statement on perceptions of children during the Gilded Age. Animals received protection first, children later. However, this important historical corrective demonstrates that “the nexus of animal and child protection was neither sad nor strange but was instead tightly bound to the crosshatched threads of sentimental- ism and liberalism” (20).

Mary Ellen Wilson reappears throughout the book, providing an anchor for this well-researched study. For Pearson, the ideology of “sentimental liberalism” underpins the creation, actions, and historical consequences of these intriguing organizations. Constructing a nuanced view of Gilded Age reform, she defines sentimental liberalism as a joining of sympathy aroused by suffering with recognition of the rights of the dependent. Moreover, the leaders of these organizations—mostly middle class white men—argued that since suffering represented a denial of rights, legislative and prosecutorial action was required to ensure those rights and establish a more just, civilized society. Consequently, groups such as the Anti-Cruelty Society and the American Humane Association represented hybridization in multiple, significant ways: they united child and animal protection; they functioned as a private organization with public powers, and they meshed the sentimentalism of the antebellum period with the liberalism of the postbellum period.

Pearson begins by locating children and animals in the shifting domesticity of Industrialization. As the home evolved from a productive unit to a place of “tender feelings,” the middle class familial sense of kindness incorporated children and pets into the realm of sentimentalism (29). Pets became associated not only with domesticity but also provided a model for teaching kindness to children. This section includes wonderful examples from the popular literature of the time, animal stories designed to model humane behavior for children and used as propaganda by societies to effectively link the two issues. But uniting the two causes also created problematic terrain for reformers. Despite operating from the persuasive premise that cruelty toward animals and children “came from the same dark place in the human heart,” activists struggled with the difficulties inherent in the combination (56). Both shared the commonality of helplessness, but humane agents often found that while animals primarily suffered physical violence, children frequently experienced poverty, neglect and/or “immoral” environments. Still, these hybrid groups persisted in linking the issues and viewed the prevention of such cruelty as integral to creating a more civilized society. Additionally, such thinking required a more complicated ideological framework that diverged from traditional notions of liberalism. Instead, “in basing rights on sentience rather than reason or independence, and in attempting to reconcile rights with dependence, anticruelty reformers developed a vision of rights based on protection rather than liberty” (133).

Although the heart of Pearson’s work lies in the interrelationship of all the various elements of sentimental liberalism, one of the most compelling [End Page 815] discussions...


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pp. 814-816
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