- The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America by Corinne T. Field
Corinne T. Field’s new book uncovers an ideological conversation that has been hiding in plain sight, adding an overlooked strain of nineteenth-century activism to our understanding of this tempestuous period. As Field shows, adulthood has long been a contested and exclusive status in the United States. [End Page 195] Indeed, “adulthood” in this book refers to a social category rather than a biological one and is linked to the legal, political, and social privileges that we associate with maturity. In particular, adulthood served as a pivotal term in the battle for suffrage and other legal rights from the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.
Field illuminates how a shared commitment to what she terms “equal adulthood” united an array of nineteenth-century activists, including Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Oaks Smith, and Frances Harper. As Field puts it, “equal adulthood” is “the idea that all human beings, regardless of race or sex, should be able to claim the same rights, opportunities, and respect as they age” (1). These writers sought to democratize maturity for white women and people of color, arguing that adulthood should be a category available to all Americans, regardless of race or sex.
The book begins by examining Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, who developed the influential notion of maturity as a white and male status and set the terms that would shape post-Revolutionary laws and customs. While “the vast majority of women remained essentially ageless, classed with children throughout their lives,” women such as Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Mary Wollstonecraft advocated for women’s capacity to become intellectually and politically mature in spite of common-law precedent and Enlightenment theory (33). Excluded from the militia, denied access to education, and prevented from voting, women developed alternate methods for defining maturity. Wheatley, for example, claimed that her years of bondage granted her an authority that rivaled that of Harvard graduates. Wollstonecraft took particular issue with the idealization of girlish beauty and instead advocated for cultivating forms of achievement that would last into old age.
This infantilizing rhetoric also plagued African Americans, who were subjected to popular pseudo-scientific theories of development. Racial scientists, including George Fitzhugh and Louis Agassiz, sought to legitimize a biological basis for race in order to substantiate their claim that African Americans could not develop to the same degree as their white counterparts. As Field notes, this perspective permeates the pages of the century’s best-selling antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Douglass and David Walker were among the activists who railed against this racist construction of adulthood. The institution of slavery, fortified by racial science, denied African Americans the opportunity to accrue the benefits of maturity. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass laments that Tommy, his young master, “could grow, and become a man; I could grow, though I could not become a man, but must remain, all my life, a minor—a mere boy” (224). [End Page 196]
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Field’s book is the revelation that chronological age itself was so freighted with political significance in the nineteenth century. Age twenty-one, for example, served as a sign of white men’s entrance into citizenship and adulthood, and conversely, it functioned as a reminder of oppression and injustice for everyone else. While white men celebrated their so-called virgin vote, women and all people of color were well aware that this birthday was meaningless for them. In their attention to age twenty-one as a site of inequality, Field shows how women’s-rights activists “placed themselves at the forefront of age consciousness in American culture” (78). In other words, as educational reformers advocated for age-graded schools and physicians established age-specific forms of treatment...