The ‘‘Rights of Woman’’ and the Problem of Power
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The ‘‘Rights of Woman’’ and the Problem of Power
Keywords

Republican Court, Women’s history, Political power

What I value most about David S. Shields and Fredrika J. Teute’s series of remarkable essays is the example of scholars willing to investigate important questions in unexpected places and to push our collective conversation in different directions. More specifically, they challenged me, and many others, to rethink our conventional sense of the ‘‘rights of woman’’ as a political problem and contemplate its cultural dimensions.

Rather than frame the question of women and power in terms of citizenship, Shields and Teute approached it within a social context. Their republican court is a variation on the monarchical courts of early modern Europe as much as the salons of eighteenth-century Paris. Renowned for lavish entertainments, costumes, meals, and patronage of artists, musicians, and the occasional writer, courts were theaters of intrigue where the common goal was access to the body of the princess. In this patriarchal world, women exercised influence but they rarely exercised power. Elizabeth Tudor was the exception that proved the rule. Women mattered to the extent of their attachment to powerful men; young women mattered even more because their bodies, in particular their wombs, mattered. Court politics revolved around marriage, that is, an alliance among rival families. Gossip about women’s virginity, fertility, and sexuality facilitated and destroyed dynastic dreams. Fathers, uncles, and brothers chose suitors, negotiated the exchange of property, and dispensed patronage; mothers and other post-menopausal women supervised the [End Page 295] transformation of daughters into wives (or mistresses) and eventually mothers. Part of the genius of Hilary Mantel’s novels about the Tudor court lies in the detailing of its culture through the eyes of an ambitious, talented, but solitary man trying to navigate the thickets of rival families obsessed with winning the favor of Henry VIII through their daughters.

Shields and Teute’s court is not the same; it couldn’t have been. Yes, marriage potentially united the interests of powerful men through an exchange of women who produced heirs and daughters to marry to other heirs; yes, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and others were capable women with husbands who took them seriously. But the centrality of marriage to politics was evaporating. Growing numbers of women and men were redefining marriage as the union of two individuals who chose each other out of love rather than an alliance between patriarchal households. The redefinition of marriage was in turn part of a reorganization of politics. First, power in the United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain was not concentrated in the body of a man, but parceled out to various bodies of men elected by the people. Second, the expansion of literacy and print had long since prompted a redefinition of influence as public persuasion rather than private whispers. And third, the liberal idea of a nation as a collection of citizens united not by loyalty to a prince but by a commitment to equality before the law and collective participation had disentangled states and families. By the 1790s, people around the Atlantic were debating the expansion of rights as the remedy for the all inequalities. Citizenship was about individuals, not families; a court connoted the law, not a king; and alliances bred parties, not sons.

Shields and Teute, in other words, were working on the wrong side of history and, indeed, historiography. Rather than valorize the emerging liberal state, they focused on high culture, marriage, family, and implicitly sexuality. As Shields and Teute were presenting their papers, many historians were studying women who asserted their rights and credentials as valuable members of the body politic.1 Others scholars were finding [End Page 296] women reading, writing, and conversing with other women and sympathetic men about a wide range of topics. Learning to stand and speak for themselves, educated women entered into civil society, subverting if not always challenging their exclusion from full citizenship.2 And still others were analyzing some women and men exploring the relatively new phenomenon of companionate marriage.3 Others continued to emphasize the degree to which the vast majority of women, especially those who were not...