Susan Zaeske. Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women's Political Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xiii + 253 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-5426-6; ISBN 978-0-8078-2759-8.
Reviewed by Marjoleine Kars (Department of History, University of Maryland Baltimore County)
Published on H-Women (August, 2003)
Signing Her Name for the Cause
Signing Her Name for the Cause
This lucid book builds upon a growing body of scholarship on women and political culture in the nineteenth century, work the author generously acknowledges. The trajectory of American women from subjects with few rights to citizens equal to men continues to fascinate historians. Their research has illuminated how women's efforts on behalf of abolitionism, prohibition, moral reform, and labor laws, to name but a few worthy causes, have shaped our current welfare state and have redefined not only political roles for women, but politics itself. Susan Zaeske chronicles the history of women's anti-slavery petitions to Congress between 1831 and 1863. Through a careful examination of the language of the petitions as well as arguments about women's right to petition, Zaeske, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin, shows how women's petitioning transformed public opinion about slavery and greatly helped expand definitions of appropriate political activities for women.
The ancient right to notify rulers of one's grievances, and the duty of such rulers to respond, was well-established in the American colonies. Petitions were used by men and women to redress personal injuries and by organized groups of men to address collective political grievances. The famous protest in 1774 of elite North Carolina women in Edenton is the first instance known to us of American women signing a political petition, in this case on behalf of non-importation. The Revolutionary period offered opportunities for women to exert some political power and to expand their traditional political roles. In the 1820s, women signed petitions against alcohol and against the Cherokee removal.
Yet when abolitionist leaders decided in the early 1830s on mass-petitioning of Congress to end slavery, it was by no means universally accepted that the right to petition extended to women. Many anti-slavery activists, male and female, were themselves doubtful of the propriety of women petitioning, especially on behalf of a cause as radical and far-reaching as immediate abolitionism. After all, prevailing gender ideology stressed the dangers of outspoken women and asserted that women were most effective when they restricted themselves to quiet and gentle influence on male relatives. No wonder then, that during what Zaeske identifies as the first phase of women's petitioning, between 1831 and 1836, anti-slavery petitions were signed by women only and the preambles focused as much on justifying women's signatures and disarming any perception that women were presuming to tell male representatives what to do as they protested human bondage. Early petitions framed the act of signing in terms of religious duty and women's superior morality, and appealed to women signers by emphasizing the oppression free and enslaved women shared as a result of male power.
The second phase of women's petitioning started with the first female anti-slavery convention in May 1837, called in response to Congress's denial of enslaved people's right to petition and the passage of a second gag rule. At their convention, women devised an elaborate plan to systematize and centralize petitioning on a national level and began formulating a justification for women's petitioning in terms of women's natural rights. Subsequent anti-slavery petitions circulated by women were phrased much like men's and, in fact, increasingly men and women signed the same petitions, albeit in separate columns. Intense opposition to female petitioning by clergy and conservatives forced women to formulate increasingly sophisticated defenses of their activities. Women like Angelina Grimk= and men like John Quincy Adams went so far as to turn the conservative argument that women's lack of the vote implied they had no right to petition upside down by advancing the idea that since women clearly had the right to petition, there was no good reason not to allow them the ballot. Both, however, continued to justify women voting in terms of women's moral duties. Women's anti-slavery petitions, Zaeske argues, for the first time forced Congress to discuss explicitly women's political rights. At the same time, both the act of circulating petitions and that of signing them gave women a new sense of themselves as political actors who engaged with public issues independently from husbands or male relatives.
During the next two phases of women's anti-slavery petitioning, the third one from 1840 to 1854 and the fourth from 1861 to 1865, the language on petitions became openly political and women began to mix their signatures with those of men, reflecting growing public acceptance of women's right to petition on behalf of overtly political subjects and women's increasing involvement in electoral politics. The petitioning campaigns on behalf of the Thirteenth Amendment were dominated by women, who were crucial to its passage.
In a short afterword, Zaeske summarizes the importance of the estimated three million female signatures that were collected on petitions to Congress between 1836 and 1863, and takes her story into the post-Civil War era. Women's signatures helped to bring about the gag rule which convinced many northerners of the threat of slavery to their own civil rights, caused Congress to take up the question of slavery, and led to a sharp increase in public awareness of slavery and abolitionism. After the war, women continued to petition government on behalf of a great variety of causes, including women's right to vote. Zaeske's smartly argued and accessible book, suitable even for undergraduates, demonstrates the crucial influence of women on American politics and helps us appreciate, once more, the many small and often courageous steps women have taken to change both themselves and the culture at large.
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Marjoleine Kars. Review of Zaeske, Susan, Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women's Political Identity.
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