“Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America” by Nancy Isenberg
Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America by Nancy Isenberg offers a newfound perspective on the women’s suffrage movement. This perspective focuses not only on the significant campaigners and conventions that sustained the women’s rights movement, but on the political and social environment of the antebellum period. Isenberg states her purpose as such, This study hopes to change how scholars understand the origins of the women’s rights movement in America.
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The genius of the women’s rights movement lay…in linking rights to all the personal and political issues that affected women in the family, the church, and the state (pg. xviii). To fully understand the women’s rights movement pre-civil war, Isenberg believes it essential that the issue of suffrage is no longer isolated, but examined in regards to the other political and social movements and climate that marked the early 1800s.
To begin Sex & Citizenship, Isenberg criticizes the popular belief among historians that the 1848 Seneca Falls convention and renowned activists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the exclusive initiators of the movement. At the 1840 London antislavery convention, the fateful meeting of Mott and Stanton took place, and most historians accredit this meeting as the foundation of the future women’s suffrage campaign (pg. 2). Scholars also believe the creation of the Declaration of Sentiments, the founding treatise of the movement, resulted in the Seneca Falls convention as another crucial event for the movement (pg. 4). While it is important to acknowledge the effects of Mott, Stanton, and the Seneca Falls convention, Isenberg concludes that this exclusive emphasis on these select activists and the one convention succeeds in ignoring the other notable women and conventions involved in the movement. The second chapter of Sex & Citizenship proceeds to mention other important conventions, such as the ones held in New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts, as well as covering the critiques of issues like consent, national citizenship, and equal protection that activists developed at these conventions.
The next idea that Isenberg explores is the relationship between women and the public sphere. This relationship is extremely important as antebellum politics were centered around the ideology of the public sphere. The public sphere resulted in the separation between the women’s and men’s spheres. Due to this separation, the idea of property qualifications for suffrage succeeded in continuing to exclude women. Isenberg describes the effects from these caste differences as such, [they] measured men and women in terms of normative assumptions about physical appearance and public speaking as well as women’s exposure to and concealment from the public eyes of men (pg. xvi). Thus, the public sphere dictated the role of women in antebellum America.
Another issue that Isenberg addresses is the common practice of excluding the contribution of women from the religious importance of antebellum culture. In contrast to the belief that the church was an isolated institution, the church functioned politically as well as religiously. In response to this newfound political role of religion, antebellum activists began to develop critiques of the church, focusing especially on the patriarchal nature of the church. Isenberg effectively challenges the exclusion of women from roles in the church by analyzing these critiques.
Isenberg also challenges the idea that the women’s rights movement emerged from the antislavery movement. Several political campaigns influenced women’s rights, and as these other movements are analyzed, it becomes increasingly absurd to accredit the antislavery movement as the pure catalyst for women’s rights. Some of these forgotten political campaigns include the movements against capital punishment, seduction and prostitution, and manifest destiny seen through the Mexican War. Other popular campaigns of this time period support Isenberg’s intention that politics of the family and home also influenced the women’s rights movement. Activists reexamined marriage law and the relationship between husband and wife to show the importance of the family sphere in the origins of the suffrage movement.
Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America is a generally strong book, and fulfills its purpose of reexamining the origins of the women’s rights movements to include the religious, social, and political movements of the antebellum period. Isenberg successfully connects previously isolated ideas of marriage law and the religious sphere to be extremely influential in starting the women’s suffrage campaign. Isenberg’s excellent analysis of the critiques of women activists only adds to the book’s higher purpose of explaining these activists and the movement in its most complete form.
Despite the overall success of the book, there are a few improvements that could be made. Firstly, in her introduction, Isenberg expressly states that she challenges the belief that the antislavery movement directly influenced the women’s rights movement. However; upon further reading, Isenberg’s argument is not fully formed and is easily missed among the much stronger issues that are examined. Another fault of Isenberg’s work is her pattern of lengthy arguments for topics where the connection between them and the origins of the women’s rights campaign is not fully expressed. For example, in her analysis of the Mexican War, Isenberg dedicates a third of a chapter to the discussion of this campaign, yet the connection between the Mexican War and the women’s rights movement is still not apparent. The occurrence of this poorly formed connection makes one wonder if the mention of the Mexican War is necessary at all.
Isenberg’s purpose for writing Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America can be seen as a direct reply to other studies that merely focus on the suffrage campaign as an isolated movement without correlation to the political and social climate of antebellum America. Scholars that endorse these limitations on the origins of the women’s rights movement include, among many, Keith Melder, The Beginnings of Sisterhood, and Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle. On a wider scale, Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America leads into a broader debate that struggles to define the origins and thus, the ideology, behind the women’s rights movement. Overall, Isenberg succeeds in her quest to examine the suffrage campaign alongside of several different political campaigns, as well as connecting the movement to the political and social climate of the time period, making Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America vital to the process of fully and correctly understanding the women’s right movement.
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