The best books for understanding how gender has shaped the history of citizenship in the United States

Rebecca DeWolf Author Of Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963
By Rebecca DeWolf

The Books I Picked & Why

No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship

By Linda K. Kerber

No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship

Why this book?

Linda Kerber’s No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies offers a fantastic insight into the maleness of rights-bearing citizenship embedded within the United States legal tradition. As Kerber demonstrates, the notion that women were incapable of performing certain civic obligations formed a central reason for why early U.S. political and legal authorities had excluded women from certain rights of citizenship. I found Kerber’s study especially helpful for dissecting the history of the common law tradition of domestic relations, or the doctrine known as coverture. As I discuss in the first chapters of my own book, and as Kerber brilliantly illustrates in No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies, the doctrine of coverture deprived women of having self-ownership over their own bodies, which led to intense restrictions on women’s opportunities and their overall civic autonomy. 


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Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation

By Nancy F. Cott

Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation

Why this book?

In Public Vows, Nancy Cott explores how the history of marriage in the United States reflects the creation of a very public and political institution. As Cott shows, in the early years of the United States, the common law doctrine of coverture allowed white men to hold a monopoly over the country’s civil and political institutions. For Cott, marriage has always been a public institution with political implications. As Cott explains, the political undercurrents and legal aspects of marriage have often allowed men to have control over women in law and in custom. Cott’s study was a vital component for my own work as her analysis helped me to better understand how the early U.S. legal system privileged husbands and fathers over wives and daughters with regard to property, earnings, contracting, and guardianship rights. 


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A Republic of Men: The American Founders, Gendered Language, and Patriarchal Politics

By Mark E. Kann

A Republic of Men: The American Founders, Gendered Language, and Patriarchal Politics

Why this book?

While other scholars have focused on how various definitions of womanhood influenced the formation of the United States’ political and legal systems, Mark Kann pays closer attention to how perceptions of manhood shaped the creation of the U.S. during the early republic. In A Republic of Men, Kann contends that the U.S.’s founders sought to establish a republic based on male authority and female subordination. During the early years of the republic, as Kann describes it, political and legal authorities connected white men to productivity and reason while linking all women to inherent weakness and dependency. I found Kann’s book especially helpful for understanding how American political and legal authorities sought to institutionalize rights and privilege for white men only. 


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In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America

By Alice Kessler-Harris

In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America

Why this book?

Alice Kessler-Harris’s In Pursuit of Equity is an essential book for anyone who is interested in studying how gendered ideas have shaped the history of rights and citizenship in the United States. As Harris reveals, for much of the U.S.’s history, men were defined as the primary rights-bearing citizens in U.S. society while women were defined as family members who were in need of extra-legal supervision and protection. This contrast has not only created stark differences in how the government and laws have treated men and women citizens, but it has also created striking limitations on women’s range of choices for how to participate in public life. Harris’s book first opened my eyes to the various ways our assumptions about gender have influenced men and women’s social roles as well as impacting the very concept of rights and citizenship in the United States. 


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Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor

By Evelyn Nakano Glenn

Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor

Why this book?

In Unequal Freedom, Nakano Glenn provides a brilliant analysis of how the multiple axes of power relations, including race, gender, and labor, have shaped the terms of citizenship in the United States. In the process, Glenn unpacks how the history of the concept of citizenship is a powerful tool for understanding the various ways power dynamics have influenced the terms of belonging to a national community. Glenn’s book is an inspiring study that has pushed me to think more deeply about the notion of citizenship and to understand that the concept of citizenship involves more than just indicating one’s nationality status. As Glenn shows, citizenship denotes a system of deeply entrenched boundaries that have determined not only who is allowed to be a member of a certain community, but also who is allowed to be an active participant in governing that community. 


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