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New Scholarship in Women's History -- Women's Voices in the Public Sphere

April 19, 2006 // 1:00am12:00am

Alisse Portnoy, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Michigan and author, Their Right to Speak: Women's Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates; Louise W. Knight, independent scholar and author, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy; commentators Nancy Isenberg, co-holder, Mary Frances Barnard Chair in 19th Century American History, University of Tulsa; Elisabeth Israels Perry, John Francis Bannon Professor of History, Saint Louis University. Co-sponsored by the National Women's History Museum.



Although women were excluded from the political sphere for much of U.S. history, some of them nonetheless found a way to make their voices heard by the public. The theme of a seminar on new scholarship in women's history, sponsored by the Division of United Studies and cosponsored by the National Women's History Museum, was the ways in which women made a place for themselves in the political arena in the 19th century, even though they could neither vote nor hold public office.

Alisse Portnoy's Their Right to Speak discusses what was probably the first collective national effort by women to assert their views on a national policy issue. The book was inspired by Portnoy's discovery of 1,500 petitions in the National Archives, signed primarily by upper-class white women of the northern United States, that were sent to the federal government in the late 1830s expressing opposition to the government's forced removal of Native Americans from the South. The petitions reflected the women's belief that it was their Christian duty to intervene on behalf of the oppressed.

While women such as Catharine Beecher threw themselves into the petition effort, however, she and others declined to join a similar effort on behalf of the abolition of slavery in the 1830s. Portnoy suggested that the difference lay in the centrality of slavery in American life. Most of the women who signed the anti-removal petitions, she commented, may well never have come into contact with Indians, who were widely viewed as exotic creatures at the periphery of American life. It is notable that popular books of the period had positive depictions of Native Americans but not of African Americans. The women viewed their anti-removal action as novel but not radical. For women such as Beecher, calling for the abolition of slaves was much more radical, as abolition would upset one of the foundations of the American economy. Commentator Nancy Isenberg added that Beecher, believing that women had a specific responsibility to preserve order and prevent chaos, feared the dissension between white Northerners and Southerners that they would cause by petitioning for abolition. Other white women such as Angelina Grimké, however, viewed public anti-slavery activity as a moral imperative.

Discussing Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, Louise Knight emphasized the extent to which Jane Addams' (1860-1935) political radicalization was the result of her reading of European authors. Addams was struck by the ideas of John Stuart Mill, who espoused the right of women to equality and to work in the public sphere, and of Guiseppe Mazzini, who wrote that man's duty to humanity was even more important than his duty to family. Had Addams not read writers those authors and others such as Leo Tolstoy, who taught the obligation to help the poor and described non-violence as Jesus' way to fight evil, Knight speculated, she might well not have become involved in the settlement house movement and might not have founded Hull House in 1889. Addams first read Karl Marx's Capital in 1888 and disliked it. She reread it in 1894, after years of experience at Hull House and while Chicago was experiencing a serious depression, and came to agree with Marx's assertion that capitalism had failed to provide economic security. Elisabeth Perry explained that Addams used these authors as she struggled with the question of how a woman could be useful in helping to fashion a just and peaceful world. Addams' ideas were changed by experience as well as books, Perry commented, noting that suffragists, like all social reformers, are made, not born.

The women described in the two books found a "public voice" and invoked a moral authority to assert their position on national matters even though they were not formally recognized as political actors. Just as women have always been a part of American political history nevertheless, the study of women's history, as Portnoy told the audience, is not an addendum to the study of American history but is central to it.

  • Please click here to see remarks prepared by Alisse Portnoy.

  • Please click here to see comments prepared by Nancy Isenberg.



  • Please click here to see remarks prepared by Louise W. Knight.

  • Please click here to see comments prepared by Elisabeth Israels Perry.


  • Drafted by Acacia Reed



    Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

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