As I sat down to review Sara Evans' new history of women in America, "Born for Liberty," a recent television docudrama came to mind. The story of Jessica McClure, the little girl who fell into an abandoned well in her aunt's back yard, at first glance seems far removed from a scholarly text, albeit highly readable and engaging, written by one of the important pioneers in the field of women's history. Yet, the film's theme, the spirit of voluntarism in American history, resonates with Evans' book except for one particular--the conspicuously minor role for women in the televised account of citizen response to crisis.
In the course of a lively narrative, Evans focuses squarely on this tradition of voluntary citizen action in American history. She demonstrates that not only were women central to this tradition, but that women's participation in "private" or voluntary organizations continually challenged the boundaries of the "public" sphere. Through voluntary activities including crisis response (as in the Jessica McClure incident), neighborhood associations, community and professional groups, as well as formal political organizations, women gradually extended their influence in American life and lay the groundwork for expanding the nation's democratic promise.
Evans' main concern is the nature of collective action and citizen participation in American history. She argues that throughout our nation's history, different groups, including women, have attempted to situate themselves in the "public and civic life of American society." Beginning with a discussion of native American women, she traces the connections between women's domestic concerns and their efforts on the one hand to make those concerns part of the "public" world, and on the other, to apply popular "public" values (such as equality) to their own circumstances.
Ultimately, what concerns Evans is the "continual reworking of the democratic dream" as Americans carve out public spaces in which to participate in civic affairs. During the Revolutionary era, for example, she argues that the traditional exclusion of women from the public sphere became increasingly problematic as women participated in consumer boycotts, revolutionary "mobs" and, ultimately in the war effort itself. The very rhetoric of revolutionary republicanism and equality altered the relationship between private values and public life and endowed women with the responsibility for raising virtuous citizens. This responsibility, Evans argues, linked women to the state and gave them "some degree of power over its future."
Women wielded that power, according to Evans, largely through the development of (predominantly female) voluntary associations. These associations, which included antebellum religious and benevolent societies, labor reform movements, and abolition, drew on female domestic networks but also created new public spaces "between the formal structures of government and the electoral system and the privacy of the home." Ultimately, participation in voluntary associations opened the door for women to seek their own rights and privileges as citizens of the Republic.
Recalling her earlier work on women in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Evans argues that movements for women's rights generally emerge in times of widespread social change (as during the pre-Civil War era of the 1860s) "when women discover and create spaces in which they can develop a collective identity and a shared sense of rights and possibilities." Those spaces can be formal, as in political organizations like the anti-slavery movement, or informal, as in community strike mobilizations or neighborhood support networks.
Despite her optimism about women's capacity to act collectively and insist on full participation in "the construction of the American dream," Evans acknowledges fundamental divisions that have separated women throughout American history. She argues that these divisions--of class, race and region most particularly--deepened during the 19th Century and have become increasingly problematic during our own century. Evans does not shrink from discussing the limits of female solidarity, when, for example, she offers a forthright account of racism in the late 19th-Century suffrage movement, the class-biased "maternalism" of Progressive Era reformers, or the treatment of lesbians in the 1960s women's movement. Indeed, voluntary associations that have the capacity to define women as active citizens might also divide women into remote, even hostile factions as in the current polarization around the issue of reproductive choice.