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The Surprising Roots of Women’s History in the United States

On International Women's Day in this Women's History Month, let's not forget that field of writing women's history has its own turbulent and surprising past. In an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States,
Teresa Anne Murphy reveals that some of the earliest writers of American women's history were men, and that the first women behind advancement in the field were more celebrated as poets and keepers of domestic traditions than as serious scholars. Texts written by the editor of Godey's Lady's Book or the author of The Practical Housekeeper may not qualify as works of history by today's standards, yet these writers laid the groundwork for women with broader political and historical agendas. (All the links in the excerpt were added by the editor of this blog.)

Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United StatesThomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Caroline Dall in the spring of 1854
to let her know he was bowled over by her biographical sketches in The Una,
which he collectively labeled "Essays toward the History of Woman." The
questions that were being raised by the woman's rights movement,
questions inspiring Dall's writing, were the most revolutionary ones of
their generation, Higginson claimed. Encouraging Dall to continue her
historical writing, Higginson argued that the challenges posed by
woman's rights would force the wide-scale revision of all history and
all scholarship. "On Slavery or Temperance, for instance, nothing new
can be said. But in regard to Woman about all that is true is
new. For instance, all statistics must be compiled over—& all
history re-written." Given the rather modest nature of some of Dall's
historical sketches, Higginson's praise might seem a bit hyperbolic. But
Higginson was right. The demands for full citizenship that permeated
the movement for woman's rights in the 1850s required a wide ranging
reevaluation of social relations. And social relations, in order to be
legitimate, needed a history. . . .

Women's history had developed as a genre in the waning years of the
eighteenth century when a sense of nationhood and related ideas of belonging
began to expand in regions throughout Europe and the Americas. The genre
emerged, however, not with a cry of defiance or shout for woman's rights, but
as a lengthy exploration of women's intellectual and political shortcomings.
European men who wrote women's histories in the eighteenth century drew on the
assumptions of stage theory that had tied the general advance of civilization
to manners and, more specifically, the deportment of women to make a strong
plea for the importance of female domesticity in national development. In works
that circulated widely in the colonies and the early republic, European authors
such as Antoine-Léonard Thomas, William Russell, William Alexander, and John
Adams argued that the citizenship of women should be constructed in a very
different way from that of men.

Women's activities during the American Revolution spurred some revisions of
those narratives, but it was not until the 1830s that a sustained and spirited
challenge began to unfold. Lydia Maria Child, in particular, was inspired by
female reformers who were questioning the assumptions that had driven the
narratives of women in the past. As debates about women's legal, civil, and
political rights began to unfold during these years, proponents and critics
more explicitly used examples drawn from history to legitimize their positions
either in support of or in opposition to full citizenship for women. With the
political stakes of historical interpretation clearer than ever, the genre
exploded. Sarah Josepha Hale and Elizabeth Ellet, harboring political agendas
of their own, expanded the ideas of differentiated citizenship for women that
had been promoted in the eighteenth century; in the process, they shaped
powerful narratives of nationalism. With these efforts under way, it becomes
clear why Higginson was so excited that Caroline Dall began to experiment with
competing histories of women's citizenship that supported demands for universal
rights.

This book is an attempt to understand and explicate Higginson's excitement.
It traces the evolution of women's history from the late eighteenth century to
the time of the Civil War. And it pays particular attention to how competing
ideas of women's citizenship were central to the ways in which those histories
were constructed. As woman's rights activists recognized, citizenship
encompassed activities that ranged far beyond specific legal rights for women
to their broader terms of inclusion in society, the economy, and government.
Earlier histories that criticized the economic practices, intellectual
abilities, and political behavior of women in the past created a narrative of
exclusion that legitimated the differentiated citizenship considered suitable
for women. Moreover, because citizenship was at the heart of these histories,
they were never just about women, but also about the larger polity in which
women lived. Women's history was, necessarily, a history of nations.

It is not always easy to see the contours of this debate in many of the
popular works that were created during this time. Women's histories also were
created as entertainment for women, especially in the newly emerging literary
market of the late eighteenth century. Eventually played out in the popular
press of the nineteenth century, and sometimes in lyceums or other public
forums, women's histories were not an academic pursuit. Of course, the same was
true of the more general histories written throughout most of the nineteenth
century. History was not institutionalized as a discipline until the end of the
nineteenth century. Most of the great historians of the nineteenth century, men
such as George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, were men of letters who wrote for
a general audience. But they did, at least, have some formal training. The
female authors who began to write histories of women during this time
period—Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Josepha Hale, Elizabeth Ellet, and Caroline
Dall, for example—did not. Many of these nineteenth-century female authors also
wrote to support themselves, so their work was produced quickly and was not
always as polished as the histories produced by their male counterparts. Making
the contours of debate even harder to discern were their tendencies to copy
from the writings of each other, or of earlier writers, and to reshape the
material with slight inflections to create differences of interpretation. In doing
so, they adopted the practices of eighteenth-century European writers of
women's histories such as Thomas, Russell, Alexander, and Adams. To readers
today, those subtle differences may be difficult to detect, particularly
because such borrowings were almost never acknowledged.

New meanings, however, were slowly created. The women's histories that were
produced in the late eighteenth century promoted an ideal of domestic
citizenship for women that was valued as a break from a less advanced past, and
hence a sign of modernity, as well as a distinguishing characteristic of
national virtue at a time when a market economy and new forms of political
organization were reshaping the countries of Europe and the New World. Any
attempts to interrogate the past for alternative models of more direct female
citizenship were easily dismissed as examples of savagery and a danger to
governments that were already viewed as fragile in the revolutionary period. It
is not surprising that Mary Wollstonecraft simply dismissed history as
worthless for her project of critiquing the condition of women and that Judith
Sargent Murray's
few historical essays that tried to create an alternative
history of female citizenship were quickly forgotten. What was crucial for a
re-visioning of women's history was the sustained assault on the limitations of
women's status as citizens that began in the 1830s. The involvement of women in
political activities, particularly the radical antislavery movement, inspired
much of Lydia Maria Child's argument in her History of the Condition of
Women
. But radical activism also inspired women such as Sarah Grimké and
Margaret Fuller to expand on Child's insights and other writers' work in order
to push the boundaries of women's history to include a few African American
women.

The new ideas about female citizenship that began to infuse the writing of
women's history in the 1850s engaged those questions on a terrain that was as
broad as that of eighteenth-century histories, yet also different. Concerns
about the market and the structure of national government were key components
in eighteenth-century histories of women, while concerns about
industrialization, expansion, and sectional tensions suffused the writing of
women's history by the middle of the nineteenth century. In response to these
changes, the nature of nationalism had begun to shift from a civic emphasis on
political commitment to a more personalized emphasis on ethnic belonging. As
scholars such as David Waldstreicher have noted, nationalism in the very early
years of the republic was often focused on a kind of civic nationalism that
celebrated the political values of the movement for independence. Describing
nationalist rhetoric as a "political strategy" deployed in different
ways by different groups, Waldstreicher argues that "the invention of
modern democracy in the late eighteenth century was inextricably tied to the
creation of newly coherent national peoplehoods whose will, it was believed,
ought to be expressed in national political institutions." By the 1850s,
however, this form of nationalism was sharing ground with (if not being
replaced by) a more culturally and ethnically based nationalism oriented around
place and home. In this latter form of nationalism, motherhood and gender
hierarchy did not simply facilitate the civic debates that formed the nation,
they also represented an embodied form of the nation. This was an ideological
transformation that domestic writers such as Hale and Ellet, with their
versions of women's history, not only engaged, but also helped to create. It
was also a transformation that made it all the more difficult for woman's
rights activists to create an alternative history of citizenship that critiqued
the economic and political disabilities women had faced historically. As
numerous scholars have noted, nations require histories, but what kinds of
histories would they be?

Teresa Anne Murphy is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. Citizenship and the Origins of Women's History in the United States will be available in April.