“There was a great argument yesterday on female excellence”: Gender & the Newest Political history

One of the most striking features of the “newest political histories” has been their careful attention to questions of gender. Four essays (for example) in Beyond the Founders, the capstone-cum-manifesto of this particular historiographical moment, deal directly with the political nature of gender identities in the early American republic.[1] The privileged place of gender in these histories makes a great deal of sense–if the goal of the “newest political histories” is to broaden cast of characters in political history and explore the intersection of “cultural” and “ordinary” and “traditional” politics then questions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality should be central. Gender, along with race, was a key way to demarcate between who was in and who was out of respectable politics in the new nation.

The most productive, and perhaps influential, use of gender as an interpretive lens has been in the political history of women. Many of the earliest works of what could be called the “newest political history,” and those which best exemplify the movement, are histories of women and politics.[2] This generation of historians has shown that women were clear actors in early national politics and print culture–through newspapers, the theater, parades, books, and the salon. Not only were women a direct participant in politics “out of doors” and in print, femininity was deeply politicized in the early national period. In the highly charged politics of the early republic, much was up for grabs–a great deal of prestige and power would be gained (or lost) depending on where the line of respectable political behavior of men and women was drawn.

A broad and rough narrative can be sketched from this scholarship.[3] The period immediately after the Revolution through to the 1790s was a liminal one for the place of women in politics. Revolutionary mobilization and Enlightenment universalism allowed for increased politicization of women—particularly middling and upper-class white women.  This politicization was both physical (in the direct participation of women in political activities) and ideological (in a debate by women and men over women’s proper political role). This politicization became overheated, and the tide began to turn, in the tense ideological atmosphere sparked by the French Revolution. By the turn of the century the tide had receded and gradually “[a]n almost universal belief prevailed which claimed that women had no place in either party or electoral politics.”[4] Jeffersonian Republicans held to an “ideology”, as Susan Branson describes it, “which allied slaveholders, farmers, and urban artisans” and “officially left no space for black males or white or black women.”[5] The high tide had, however, left much behind its wake—upper-class female education, above all—but the expansion of women’s politicization was largely stalled for a generation.

Preparing for this roundtable I have been thinking a lot of the place of this scholarship in the broader history of the early American republic, particularly in the wake of the recent heated discussion here at the Junto (and elsewhere on the internets) of “the dominance of race, gender, and class as analytical categories” in modern historical scholarship. In some ways it is inarguable that the “newest political histories” of gender have been deeply influential—one need only scan the table of contents of the Journal of the Early Republic or the William & Mary Quarterly to see the wide use of gender as an analytic frame. Nancy Isenberg, with her book on Aaron Burr, has managed to take the tools of this scholarship into the dark heart of “Founders Chic” itself.[6] On the historiographical battlefield, then, much ground was gained by gender-minded political historians over the last twenty years.

At the same time, however, I wonder how much that is actually true. If we look at the big narratives that we push on our fellow historians, our students, and the general public things continue to be dominated by the traditional story of High Politics and mostly white males. As Rosemarie Zagarri notes, this scholarship tends to “portray women as peripheral to the central political events of the time, excusing themselves from taking women seriously because of women’s lack of formal political rights.”[7] Even worse, perhaps, is the approach taken by Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood in their magisterial murder-weapon-sized works of synthesis—shunting the discussion women and politics aside as unintegrated (and perhaps uninteresting?) side story.[8] This explains, in some ways, the hostile reviews of such works by some of the “newest political historians.”[9]

Jeffrey Pasley and his co-editors, in their introduction to Beyond the Founders, describe one of the goals of their generation of political historians as attempting to something that previous generations of political historians had tried but failed—a fully satisfying synthesis of social, cultural, and political history.[10] When it comes to integrating gender into a broader synthesis of the political history of the early American republic this project remains largely incomplete. One of the tasks, perhaps, of the rising generation of new “newest political historians” is not so much to move on from gender (or race or class) as an analytic frame, rather to continue the integration of gender history and political history while brining fresh analytic insights of their own.


The quotation in the title of this post is taken from a letter from Elizabeth Hewson to Thomas Hewson, as quoted in Susan Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 45.

[1] See the essays by David Waldstreicher, Rosemarie Zagarri, Nancy Isenberg, and Albrecht Koschnik in Jeffrey Pasley, Andrew Robertson, and David Waldstreicher (ed.), Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[2] Rosemarie Zagarri’s articles, published in the early 1990s, can be seen has helping mark the beginning of what would be called the “newest political history” by the turn of the century. See, for example, Rosemarie Zagarri “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother,” American Quarterly 44 (June 1992), 192-215. Nancy Isbenberg’s first book highlights the attempts by her generation of historians to broaden the scope of political history beyond traditional big moments and actors (in Isenberg’s case the Seneca Falls Convention). See: Nancy Isbenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). Susan Branson’s work provides ready examples of how taking politics “out of doors” provides ample evidence of women’s direct role in politics. See: Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames.

[3] The following discussion is drawn from my reading over the course of my graduate education but particularly from: Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames and Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

[4] Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash, 8.

[5] Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames, 148.

[6] See: Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2008).

[7] Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash, 3.

[8] For examples, see Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York, NY: Norton, 2005) and Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009). Daniel Howe’s doorstopper is, perhaps, the best on this score – the story of women and politics is much more integrated into the core story – particular vis-à-vis the Whig Party – than Wood or Wilentz. See: Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007) esp. 605-609.

[9] Above all, see Nancy Isenberg’s review of Wood’s book the Journal of the Early Republic 32, no. 2 (2012): 261-78

[10] See Jeffrey Pasley, Andrew Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, “Introduction: Beyond the Founders,” in Pasley et al., Beyond the Founders, 8-9.

5 responses

  1. I totally agree with you here, Roy. The whole separation of gender and race in particular from the “master narrative” has a long and political past. Unfortunately, public history is not always on the same page as academic history on this–I think the creation of separate museums for separate identities is only going to perpetuate these separate histories.

    One book on gender in this period that you didn’t mention, though, is Allgor’s Parlor Politics–that is probably the most widely-read academic work on the topic and time. Moving forward, it’s going to take more people thinking creatively about what constitutes politics and–Gordon Wood’s objections aside–reading critical theory that helps open up new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality as integral to historical narratives.

    • Cassandra, thank you very much for your comment & kind words.

      I have read & liked Allgor’s “Parlor Politics” – and her articles/book chapters on salon politics – but in a short post like this I couldn’t give a complete historiography. I picked Branson’s book because, to me, it is the platonic ideal of the intersection of gender history, women’s history, and the “newest political history.”

      Also: I own the Branson book but not the Allgor one. 🙂

      • No worries, just thought I’d mention it, especially given the discussion on the popular/academic history divide in the Gordon Wood post. As great as Branson and Zagarri’s books are, I don’t think they have the public readership Allgor’s does.

        One other quality to add to your platonic ideal with Branson’s book–it’s concise!

  2. Pingback: The New New Political History « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics


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