- Citizenship and the Origins of Women’s History in the United States by Teresa Anne Murphy
Women’s history, Gender, Gender roles, Women’s education
Modern U.S. women’s historians often assume that they pioneered the field. As Teresa Anne Murphy shows in her excellent study, however, [End Page 292] many histories of women began to be published in England and elsewhere in western Europe as early as the eighteenth century. In the United States, the genre came into its own during the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike previous scholars, Murphy maintains that the emergence of women’s history should not be understood simply as effort to create a separate story about women’s role in the past, parallel to that of men. Instead, according to Murphy, these works were part of a larger political debate that developed about the meaning of citizenship in the new nation. By focusing on both typical and exceptional women from other times, places, and cultures, early historians of women were able to re-imagine from a distance controversial issues about women’s power and status that were surfacing in the newly formed republican polity.
Murphy argues that during the eighteenth century, the most popular histories of women articulated a notion of womanhood that she calls “domestic citizenship” (8). Drawing on the framework created by philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, these histories linked social progress with the rise in women’s status. While more primitive societies treated women much like slaves, advanced commercial societies granted women greater privileges and benefits, and accorded women greater respect. Yet according to Murphy, these “domestic histories” (133) were histories of sexual difference. They portrayed women as individuals who acted through men rather than as independent agents. Women’s primary responsibilities lay with their homes, husbands, and families where they would promote manners and cultivate sociability. Only indirectly might women exert an influence on society or politics. In fact, many of the most popular authors, such as Antoine-Leonard Thomas and William Alexander, often chastised or maligned women who dared to exercise more direct forms of political authority. The possibility of citizenship, then, seemed to be effectively foreclosed.
By the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century, Murphy says, there were significant changes in the genre. As more women became educated, women rather than men began to publish histories of women. Many of these women, such as Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Grimké, and Margaret Fuller, also participated in the moral reform movements of the day. These newer histories of women proceeded from different assumptions than earlier ones. Instead of assuming a fundamental difference between the sexes, they aspired to gender equality. Instead of accepting the limitations of domestic citizenship, they pushed against its restrictions. Women, they emphasized, had always been oppressed by men. Despite men’s oppression, women still had found ways to exercise [End Page 293] a public role. The implication was clear: The country needed a new model of women’s participation in public life, one that welcomed women’s contributions and acknowledged women as equal citizens with men.
Murphy emphasizes that there was no consensus among those writing early nineteenth-century women’s histories. Authors sometimes drew dramatically different conclusions from their common study of women’s past. For example, while Sarah Josepha Hale, Elizabeth Ellet, and Ann Pamela Cunningham all wrote histories that moved beyond older notions of domestic citizenship, they continued to link the progress of women with the triumphal development of the American nation. Women were portrayed as the country’s primary guardians of culture and morality. Although women were assumed to be able to exercise power beyond the household, they were not to aspire to the same social, political, or economic roles as men; in other words, they could not be equal citizens. Women who conformed to these norms were celebrated; those who deviated were reviled. Other authors, influenced by the emergence of the first feminist movement, wished to tell a different story. Caroline Dall, Elizabeth...