- Reconstituting Archives of Violence and Silence in Early American Women’s History
When the Journal of Women’s History editors first suggested a review essay on early American women’s history, we had a discussion about the state of the field. In the interest of portraying some of the new directions of scholarship, they kindly allowed me to write about four books that may not seem obviously comparable. Rachel Hope Cleves pens a contextualized biography of two women who joined their lives together. Marisa J. Fuentes constructs a history of the impact of violence and power not just on enslaved women, but on entire historical methodologies. Jen Manion adds a sexuality studies critique to traditional social history readings of archives. And Honor Sachs analyzes the impact of masculinity on localized nation building. These works are set across a wide geography: New England, Barbados, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. Their methodological approaches range from social history to theory-infused analysis to biography to a focus on macro-level political economy.
What they all share, however, is their success in moving the field of early American history away from its parochial city-on-a-hill and Founding Fathers roots. Together, they question the nature of the archive, the [End Page 154] boundaries of American history, and the foundations of modern mores and institutions. They illuminate the many ways to tell histories of women and the centrality of all women to early American scholarship. As importantly, reading them against one another suggests the stakes and struggles of shifting these boundaries, and it encourages us to confront the consequences of each archival, methodological, and analytic choice we make.
Liberty’s Prisoners brings to fruition a new generation of Philadelphia social history. A dexterous scholar, Manion takes a theoretically-influenced empirical approach to tracing the development of the carceral state in post-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. An average of nearly two hundred footnotes per chapter and an appendix of fourteen tables make clear this commitment to evidentiary documentation of lives too often erased. With its twist on the title of Mary Beth Norton’s foundational early American women’s history book, Liberty’s Daughters, Manion’s Liberty’s Prisoners describes how the ideals of the Revolutionary era led not just to expanding opportunities for some, but to the use of “penal authority to reassert social order” in ways that prefigure the modern carceral state (195).
The book is organized both chronologically and thematically, with individual chapters focusing on the ways that incarceration and criminal justice intersected with labor practices; sentimentalism; social regulations; race and slavery; and sexual behavior. Readers learn how male prisoners’ public labor in the 1780s made them the face of imprisonment, thus erasing the treatment of imprisoned women from public view. A discussion of runaways, petty thefts, and class and racial prejudice make clear the effects of the criminal justice system on Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable residents. Using the writings of prominent legal and social reformers alongside commentaries on life inside prison, Manion concludes that “the regulation of sexual intimacies was at the heart of the nationwide transformation of old jailhouses into penitentiaries” (160).
Many of Liberty’s Prisoners’ strongest analytic claims rethink the role of gender and sexuality in the state’s definition of an orderly society. It is to Manion’s credit that she pushes these theoretical interventions in an early American study that also succeeds in its rich reconstruction of Philadelphian history. Manion effectively identifies...