Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York. By Lori D. Ginzberg. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). 222 pp. Paper, $19.95, ISBN 0-8078-5608-8).

Reviewed by Daniel S. Wright

       

   Historians have long acknowledged the narrow scope of the familiar narrative on the origins of the women's rights movement in America as shaped by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and The History of Woman Suffrage (1881). Nancy Hewitt, for example, initiating a quest for other early sources of ultraist support, uncovered one in a group of dissident Quakers, the Congregational Friends. As for the elite northern women represented by Stanton and company, Lori D. Ginzberg in her earlier book, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (1990), underscored the limitations inherent in the gender ideology they shared with other antebellum middle-class women reformers, analyzing how it undercut both full gender equality and women's political agitation.

   Now Ginzberg, using a remarkable case from a remote corner of northern New York State, argues that the origins of the women's rights movement were more diffuse and ideologically divergent than the protests of a few Garrisonian abolitionists enraged at the silencing of women in the antislavery movement. In Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York, she focuses on a long-lost petition for women's political rights presented to the state constitutional convention of 1846. Submitted by a small group of women from a hamlet in Jefferson County, the petition is a clear instance of agitation for woman's rights two years before the famed Seneca Falls convention and totally independent of any of its leaders. More important for Ginzberg, however, are the setting and rhetorical stance of the petition. Far removed from the centers of female associational and reformist activity, these farm women made their appeal directly in the halls of (male) political power, and they made it as those who calmly assumed their right to do so.

   One challenge Ginzberg must face is how to gauge the significance of a document that seemingly came out of nowhere and left no trace anywhere—not in the lives of the women who drafted it, and certainly not in the new state constitution. Ginzberg explores the petition as an instance of the process by which the unthinkable becomes thinkable, by which small groups here and there can develop and hold to new ideas against great odds and so make intellectual change possible. She is confident that more such documents from this period will be found.

   That the text and the signers' names survive at all is one of several mysteries surrounding the petition. Searching for clues to the background and motivation of the six petitioners, Ginzberg mines the available sources for what can be known about their lives: they were close neighbors, friends, and (three of them) kin. The eldest was likely a teacher of the youngest two. All but one were married and all but one of the married women had children. Their families and husbands, mostly of New England origin, were among the first settlers in the area, which was a few miles inland from the St. Lawrence seaway in the town of Clayton. The settlement became known as Depauville. While many neighbors and relatives departed westward, these six women remained there the rest of their lives. With their original claim to the land murky at best, men in Depauville strove all the more to retain, and add to, their farms. Several of the women themselves acquired acreage in later years. In a geographically and economically marginal region, and of modest means themselves, they became women "of property and standing" in their households and in their community. Here Ginzberg finds the key to what motivated the petitioners: in the era before marital property rights legislation, they were moved to act by the contradiction between their actual position as co-producers on the land and their legal non-recognition.

   Ginzberg surmises that it was the relative isolation of the women from the market economy, and thus from the ideology of woman's sphere, that enabled them to retain an understanding of themselves as persons having the right to petition for equal political rights. Also critical to this identity were key markers of Whig political culture that she does not find in the local milieu—neither orthodox (read Presbyterian or Congregational) churches nor benevolent and reform associations. What religious ties she was able to locate point to Baptist and Methodist affiliations among the petitioners (One husband was a Methodist preacher turned Swedenborgian.). Absent religious enthusiasm, religious orthodoxy, and voluntary associationism, Ginzberg maintains, partisan politics is what built community in Depauville. In a county dominated by the Democrats, the village turns out to have been a hotbed of support for the Liberty Party and for African-American suffrage.

   As incisive as this village portrait is, Ginzberg, relying mainly on extant local sources, may have missed some of the organized religious and reform activity that in fact was prevalent in the area. While it is true that antislavery societies were not common in Jefferson County, her evidence suggests that temperance was a significant force. Moreover, female moral reform societies were fairly thick on the ground—by 1841, there were 18 of them in the county. There was no escaping the ideology of female benevolence. The absence of orthodox churches and reform societies in Depauville itself was more likely due to the fact that the town was, as Ginzberg admits, "too sparsely populated to have much associational life," rather than an expression of the town members' animus toward such churches and societies. (p. 109)

   In Depauville, she has found a prime example of one of those isolated pockets of support for Liberty identified by Vernon L. Volpe in Forlorn Hope of Freedom: The Liberty Party in the Old Northwest, 1838-1848 (1990) and Douglas M. Strong in Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionism and the Religious Tensions of American Democracy (1999). These authors highlight the correlation between Liberty Party votes and the incidence of come-outer churches. The largest of the antislavery splinter denominations was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and Strong found one in Depauville. Of course, the first women's convention was held in another Methodist church in Seneca Falls. Corroborating Ginzberg, Strong lists Depauville as recording one of the highest 1844 Liberty vote totals in the state. (Strong, p. 182). If Ginzberg underplays the importance of dissenting religion, Volpe and Strong have missed what her findings suggest, and what cries out for more investigation: that come-outer churches and the Liberty Party may have been important sites for open discussion of woman's rights.

   Throughout this engaging study, Ginzberg confronts three seemingly contradictory factors: the radicalness of the women's demand, their calm assurance of the reasonableness of their demands, and the apparent silence with which their petition was received. If she does not completely explain how all these held true at once, she has placed woman's rights where the petitioners themselves put it—at the center of antebellum political debates about land, citizenship, and the right to vote.

Daniel S. Wright completed the Ph.D. at Binghamton University-SUNY in 2004. His dissertation on the Female Moral Reform movement in the antebellum Northeast will be published by Routledge at the end of 2006. A collection of documents he edited under the title "What Was the Appeal of Moral Reform to Antebellum Northern Women?" is available online at this website.

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