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.
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