Competing discourses : early strategies for women's rights
Fosdick, April Dawn
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The American War for Independence established a sovereign American nation based upon the ideas of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, most Americans were excluded from this discourse. Northern, white, middle-class women were among those denied actual economic, legal, and social independence after the Revolution, remaining under the common law of coveture (or legal dependence on their husband or father). Liberty, independence, and freedom became the basis for defining the American nation as well as masculinity. Thus, many women struggled to form a positive identity within a self-proclaimed “free” nation that kept them subordinate. This study examines the “gendered” construction of the American nation. It also demonstrates how two main groups of white, middle-class women identified with the dominant discourse of white, colonial men. Attention is placed upon the changing (male) rhetoric of the Revolution, the domestic ideology of Catharine Beecher, and the linguistic strategies of the early women’s rights reformers. Ultimately, the excluding definitions that emerged from the Revolution shaped the way many women were able to identify with the new nation. As frustrations among many women increased, strategies among influential middle-class women developed. Two dominant groups of women developed distinct approaches in forming a positive identity for female identity. The domestic reformers, such as Beecher, stressed the female superiority of women and argued that women exclusively should shape the values of America. Women’s rights activists, on the other hand, began developing a rights-based argument that called for an equal and legal footing with men. After the Civil War, women’s rights activists realized that their natural-rights language would not work to break down national and masculine definitions and gain them legal rights. It would take a less threatening rhetoric such as Beecher’s; and thus many suffragists began arguing that women could bring a moralizing influence to politics. In effect, the “competing discourses” of middle-class reformers in antebellum America demonstrate the way white women eventually obtained the vote based upon their female moral abilities.