….sometimes Tenured Radical steps in.
On January 31, 2014, Columbia University’s Eric Foner reviewed a new book on Reconstruction by Douglas Egerton. The review elicited this response from Bonnie S. Anderson, professor emerita in history at Brooklyn College. Anderson is the author of many influential books and articles in European women’s history, including the two-volume A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1999), co-written with Judith P. Zinsser. She writes:
It depressed me to see the generally enlightened historian Eric Foner perpetuate the Reconstruction era’s erasure of women in his review of Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction (Bloomsbury: 2014.) Foner asserts that Reconstruction created “a legal revolution that rewrote the laws and Constitution to grant equal citizenship to every person born in the United States.” This statement holds true only if we, like many in the nineteenth century, ignore women completely.
The 14th Amendment inserted the word “male” for the first time in the Constitution because the women’s movement demanded equal rights, including the right to vote. “Do they consider the African race to be composed solely of males?,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the Reconstruction legislators who granted suffrage to all men but no women.
Surely the time for such wholesale neglect of women’s history is long gone.
Let me repeat for emphasis: “This statement holds true only if we, like many in the nineteenth century, ignore women completely.” I remember exactly how I felt, and how I changed intellectually, when I read Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (LSU, 1983) for the first time. Foner’s work on race is pathbreaking exactly because he has always viewed history as something that did not act on African American people, but as a phenomenon that is shaped and propelled by their struggle. By attempting to go for the meta-argument in this review, however, he makes a big statement about the expansion of democracy in the United States that is simply wrong. The Nineteenth Amendment, which probated restrictions on voting by sex, was not ratified by the states until 1920. The withholding of suffrage also shored up the ability of states to restrict other civil rights for women, black and white, for over another century.
All history is also shaped and propelled by the struggle of all women too. Not only did the insertion of “male” into the constitution slam the door on white women who had fought for the abolition of slavery and for the Union, it was a deliberate effort to remake black families, and black masculinity, in the patriarchal model established and defended by white men. Thus, Foner’s misstatement has other consequences too, in turning us away from the ways in which white elites have used gender to shape civilizing racial projects.
Here’s a hint. If you are a graduate student, or studying for generals, in political history, always ask about any book or article: where are the women? Would the argument look different if there were women? How?