This provocative reassessment of the 19th century American women’s movement calls into question its attack on common law traditions.
While the United States was founded on principles of freedom and equality, its legal traditions are based in British common law. In the nineteenth-century, women’s rights advocates argued that this led to a contradiction: common law rules concerning property and the status of married women were at odds with the nation’s principles. Conventional wisdom suggests that this tactic was successful. But in Constitutional Context, historian Kathleen S. Sullivan offers a fresh perspective.
In revisiting the era’s congressional debates, state legislation, judicial opinions, news accounts, and work of political activists, Sullivan finds that the argument for universal, abstract rights was not the only—or even the best—path available for social change. Rather than establishing a new paradigm of absolute rights, the women’s movement unwittingly undermined common law’s ability to redress grievances. This contributed to the social, cultural, and political stagnation that characterizes the movement today.
A challenging and thoughtful study of what is commonly thought of as an era of progress, Constitutional Context provides the groundwork for a more comprehensive understanding and interpretation of constitutional law.