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Lecture 1: First day


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Course introduction

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Lecture 1: First day

  1. 1. American Women, American Womanhood, 1870s to the Present Prof. Rebecca Jo Plant
  2. 2. Why U.S. women’s history? • Do American women have a distinctive history, the way that African Americans or Mexican Americans have a distinctive history? • Does it make sense to study the “history of women,” given how much has divided women historically? Why?
  3. 3. Our main concerns • Women’s lived experiences – Factors that shaped experience • legal codes, religious beliefs, cultural practices, economic systems, racial ideologies • Gender ideology – Difference between “sex” and “gender” • Sex is biological: it involves anatomical and hormonal differences that differentiate male and female • Gender is social and cultural: it refers to the social and cultural meanings are attributed to sexual difference – Gender identity as a subjective sense of onself – Gender as a relational category – Gender ideals are complex and contested
  4. 4. Key insights • Gender ideology and gender roles often seem “natural” but are in fact highly changeable • American women’s acquisition of greater rights and freedoms has been neither linear nor inevitable – Must reject a Whiggish view of the past – Must avoid the dangers of “presentism” • There is no single “women’s history”
  5. 5. History of Women’s History • Women’s/gender history is the product of two developments – Women’s gradual movement into the historical profession – “Second wave” feminism (1960s and 1970s) • Prior to the 1970s – Very few women professors; hence, very few women historians – Very few references to women in historical works
  6. 6. Field of women’s history • “Compensatory” history – Focus on exceptional women – Inserting women into standard historical narratives • “Contributionism” – Looking at how women contributed to certain events already viewed as key to an understanding of American history • Challenging and reconfiguring historical narratives • From women to gender
  7. 7. U.S., ca. 1870 • Population: 39 million • US Census of 1870 – White: 87% – Black or “mulatto”: more than 12% – Indians: 26,000; Chinese: 64,000 – Mexican-American not a category – 20% illiteracy • Much higher among blacks than whites
  8. 8. Justifying inequality • Colonial era: Women weaker/inferior – Lesser versions of men – Biblical notion: Women conceived from men – Household as a “little commonwealth” • 19th century: Focus on difference – Emphasis on biology • Social life had to follow the “laws of nature” – Idea of “separate spheres”: women designed for domesticity • Highly racialized (and class based) ideology
  9. 9. Women as citizens • Always recognized as citizens in some ways – Subjected to, protected by, the same laws – Issued passports – Single and widowed women obliged to pay taxes • Denied the full rights of citizenship and exempted from many obligations – Could not vote – Not allowed (or required) to serve on juries – Not required (or allowed) to take up arms to defend the nation • Women’s citizenship was largely derivative – Obligation to husbands and families, not the state • Their “rights” defined mainly as the right to protection
  10. 10. Legal status • American Revolution did not improve women’s legal status • Extended the concept of coverture – “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” (William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England)
  11. 11. Implications • A wife could not sue; be sued • Could not form contracts • Limited legal responsibility for her actions • Wives did not control their own earnings • No concept of marital rape • No right to one’s own children
  12. 12. What had changed by 1870? • Nearly all states had passed married women’s property acts by the 1870s • Most states allowed women to claim children in cases of divorce/desertion – Doctrine of the “tender years” • By late 19th century, most separated or divorced women received custody of their children – Maternal custody seen as in the child’s “best interest” • Earnings laws – By 1887, 2/3rds of states had passed such laws • Protected a woman’s earnings from husband’s creditors • Some laws also allowed women to form contracts
  13. 13. 14th Amendment • Designed to give black men citizenship • Proposed in 1866; ratified in 1868 • Most significant change to the Constitution since the Bill of Rights – Broad definition of citizenship – BUT, introduced the word “male” into the U.S. Constitution for the first time • Opposed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – New strains of racism/nativism within suffrage movement
  14. 14. Split in the movement • ECS and SBA establish the National Woman Suffrage Association (founded in 1869) – Only admitted women – Campaigned for a federal amendment – Addressed a range of issues • Divorce laws; employment discrimination • The American Woman Suffrage Association (1869) – Admitted men and women – Believed in a gradual, state-by-state approach – Focused only on suffrage
  15. 15. Education • 1850: Closing of literacy gap • By 1860s, girls attended school at roughly the same rate as boys • 1870s-1880s massive growth of secondary education – From the 1870s to 1900, female high school students outnumbered males – 1880 census showed female literacy rates actually higher than male literacy rates • Huge change from a century before
  16. 16. Access to college • 1870-1900 Growing numbers of elite women begin attending college – Opening of women’s colleges after the CW • 1865: Vassar; 1870s: Smith and Wellesley – Public universities usually co-educational • 1862: Morrill Land Act – 1870 women were 21% of the college population; by 1900, they were 35% • Why this change? – Need for women teachers – Many single women in the wake of the CW • Huge impact on women’s reform
  17. 17. Sex in Education, 1873 • Dr. Edward Clarke • Collegiate education for women a violation of the laws of nature • Influenced by evolutionary theory – Evoked the specter of racial decline • Echoed concerns of others who feared the effects of modern American life – 1869: Neurologist George Beard coined the term “neurasthenia” • Bestseller; went through 17 editions