comparative literature

| February 7, 2016

Collective Action for Social Movements

Social Science class:
For every historical figure known for making significant, if not revolutionary, shifts in society, there were many people working in support of addressing the same social issue. It is a disservice to the person and his or her peer activists to ignore the many individual contributions that result in and depend on social change. Having a good understanding of the history of social movements is essential to creating social change today. For this assignment, you explore an example of social change from history and consider the individual and collective roles involved.
To prepare for this Assignment:
Read Loeb’s reflection on Rosa Parks (2010, p. 1) in the Learning Resources for an example of individual versus collective efforts to promote social change.
Use the Walden Library to research and locate an article on one of the following social movements: African American civil rights, Chicano movement, American Indian or ”Red Power” movement, women’s rights, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights, or disability rights.
The Assignment:
Write a 2-page analysis responding to the following questions:
What did the collective effort accomplish that an individual could not?
In what ways does group involvement cause these movements to be sustainable or have long-lasting impact?

The ‘‘Rights of Woman’’ and
the Problem of Power
What I value most about David S. Shields and Fredrika J.
Teute’s series of remarkable essays is the example of scholars willing to
investigate important questions in unexpected places and to push our
collective conversation in different directions. More specifically, they
challenged me, and many others, to rethink our conventional sense of
the ‘‘rights of woman’’ as a political problem and contemplate its cultural
Rather than frame the question of women and power in terms of citizenship,
Shields and Teute approached it within a social context. Their
republican court is a variation on the monarchical courts of early modern
Europe as much as the salons of eighteenth-century Paris. Renowned for
lavish entertainments, costumes, meals, and patronage of artists, musicians,
and the occasional writer, courts were theaters of intrigue where
the common goal was access to the body of the princess. In this patriarchal
world, women exercised influence but they rarely exercised power.
Elizabeth Tudor was the exception that proved the rule. Women mattered
to the extent of their attachment to powerful men; young women
mattered even more because their bodies, in particular their wombs, mattered.
Court politics revolved around marriage, that is, an alliance among
rival families. Gossip about women’s virginity, fertility, and sexuality
facilitated and destroyed dynastic dreams. Fathers, uncles, and brothers
chose suitors, negotiated the exchange of property, and dispensed
patronage; mothers and other post-menopausal women supervised the transformation of daughters into wives (or mistresses) and eventually
mothers. Part of the genius of Hilary Mantel’s novels about the Tudor
court lies in the detailing of its culture through the eyes of an ambitious,
talented, but solitary man trying to navigate the thickets of rival families
obsessed with winning the favor of Henry VIII through their daughters.
Shields and Teute’s court is not the same; it couldn’t have been. Yes,
marriage potentially united the interests of powerful men through an
exchange of women who produced heirs and daughters to marry to other
heirs; yes, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and others were capable
women with husbands who took them seriously. But the centrality of
marriage to politics was evaporating. Growing numbers of women and
men were redefining marriage as the union of two individuals who chose
each other out of love rather than an alliance between patriarchal households.
The redefinition of marriage was in turn part of a reorganization
of politics. First, power in the United States and to a lesser extent Great
Britain was not concentrated in the body of a man, but parceled out to
various bodies of men elected by the people. Second, the expansion of
literacy and print had long since prompted a redefinition of influence as
public persuasion rather than private whispers. And third, the liberal
idea of a nation as a collection of citizens united not by loyalty to a
prince but by a commitment to equality before the law and collective
participation had disentangled states and families. By the 1790s, people
around the Atlantic were debating the expansion of rights as the remedy
for the all inequalities. Citizenship was about individuals, not families; a
court connoted the law, not a king; and alliances bred parties, not sons.
Shields and Teute, in other words, were working on the wrong side
of history and, indeed, historiography. Rather than valorize the emerging
liberal state, they focused on high culture, marriage, family, and implicitly
sexuality. As Shields and Teute were presenting their papers, many
historians were studying women who asserted their rights and credentials
as valuable members of the body politic.1 Others scholars were findingwomen reading, writing, and conversing with other women and sympathetic
men about a wide range of topics. Learning to stand and speak for
themselves, educated women entered into civil society, subverting if not
always challenging their exclusion from full citizenship.2 And still others
were analyzing some women and men exploring the relatively new phenomenon
of companionate marriage.3 Others continued to emphasize the
degree to which the vast majority of women, especially those who were
not wealthy, well-educated and white, remained subject to the power of
patriarchal men, few of whom qualified as refined.4
Taken together this work on women, along with that of students of
race and class, has changed the meta-narrative of the early republic from
a linear expansion of liberty pivoting on the election of Thomas Jefferson
in 1801 to a contested expansion of liberty for white brothers who exercised
their new found power to deny citizenship to millions on the basis
of an essential identity created by the nature of their bodies. An American
citizen in the early republic was a white man remarkably uninterested in the liberty of anyone but himself. ‘‘Conservative’’ Federalists have
benefitted from this shift while ‘‘liberal’’ Jeffersonians have suffered. The
late eighteenth century has become an era of expanding possibilities followed
in the early nineteenth century by what Rosemarie Zagarri has
smartly called a ‘‘backlash.’’5
In this context, Shields and Teute’s articles seem anachronistic, if not
reactionary, in their invocation of a culture in which women facilitated
marriages and manipulated men, often through whispers and sexuality—
precisely the kind of behavior Mary Wollstonecraft denounced in A Vindication
of the ‘‘Rights of Woman’’ (1792). But if we abandon the notion
that the liberal nation–state and citizenship constituted the norm in
discussions of women and power, we might see the denizens of a late
eighteenth-century republican court as critics of the developing relationship
between power and freedom in the United States, as advocates of
the value of thinking in terms of relationships rather than autonomy and
social obligations rather than the rights of citizens. After all, those individuals
challenging the slave trade and even slavery itself, cultivating
sensibility, and demanding natural relationships were rarely the same
people calling for white male suffrage, greater individual freedom, and
the rapid expansion of the United States on the backs of enslaved Africans
and over the bodies of native peoples.
Why were so many well-educated, sensible, affluent, and urban
Americans—let’s call them cosmopolitans because of their interest in
commerce that transcended cultural and social as well as political
borders—often the most sympathetic American readers of Wollstonecraft?
Women hardly needed the French Revolution to teach them that
what Thomas Jefferson blithely called ‘‘government without power’’ was
a dystopian nightmare for them. Power was omnipresent and inequality
a permanent feature of any society; to pretend otherwise was folly. Many
cosmopolitans, whatever their politics, shared a desire to confront the
degree to which freedom and power were different names for the same
phenomenon and to find an antidote in interdependence and social commerce.
Friends reminded each other of obligations; books taught the
consequences of choices made in isolation; parents were advisers, more
experienced if neither wiser nor better. A focus on citizenship and political
rights did more than exclude women; it subsumed them within a discourse, largely of, by and for men, one that promised a variation on
the theme that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Wollstonecraft, we need to remember, wrote far more about the need
for education and social commerce than she did about the liberal panaceas
of citizenship. She was not alone in seeing the relationship between
liberty and power as problematic. No society was a collection of autonomous
actors enjoying the freedom to do as they pleased; all societies
consisted of shifting configurations of people whose every act, individual
or collective, benevolent or malevolent, had an impact, intended or otherwise,
on others. What Wollstonecraft and her peers required was not
new forms of power so much as new forms of thinking about power and
how to manage it.6
Let me develop this point with reference to a remarkable piece of
literary criticism in the form of a novella. Remarks on Clarissa. Addressed
to the Author (1749) was written by the writer Sarah Fielding, whose
considerable achievements have been obscured by the fame of her older
brother, Henry. In Remarks, Sarah Fielding championed Samuel Richardson’s
immensely popular Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady
(1749), a novel whose enduring significance lies in no small part on how
well it—and readers’ reaction to it—delineated a gendered perspective on
the question of issue of women and power.
On one level, the tragic tale of young heiress Clarissa Harlow was
simple. Defying her father and uncle’s command to marry a man she
finds repulsive in order to consolidate the wealth of their family, Clarissa
runs off to London only to find herself betrayed by false friends and
raped by the charming villain Richard Lovelace. Clarissa dies slowly and
painfully. Lovelace is killed in a duel. Everyone suffers. On a deeper
level, Clarissa spoke to women, argued Fielding, because Richardson
explored patriarchy not as an abstraction or a structure but as a lived
experience to be endured and occasionally thwarted. Neither family nor
the state offered Clarissa solace, let alone redress. Civility and piety, both
of which stress the need for men to treat women well, are perpetually at
war with brutality and coercion.
Clarissa taught women to consider carefully the few choices available
to them; none would be perfect or without unanticipated consequences.
As important, the novel invited readers to participate in the process of interpretation. Richardson, one of Fielding’s characters insists, had fashioned
‘‘a real Picture of human Life, where Story can move but slowly,
where the Characters must open by degrees, and the Reader’s own Judgment
form them from different Parts, as they display themselves according
to the Incidents that arise.’’7 Richardson did not tell readers what to
think; instead, he offered multiple perspectives, combined empathy with
reason, and created nuanced characters so that readers could develop
their own perspectives and share them in conversation with others.
In the 1790s, many English and American novelists offered variations
on the story of Clarissa highlighted by comparisons with the supposedly
remedial examples of emerging companionate relationships. Female
characters resist and eventually escape patriarchal households and marriages,
consistently represented as brutal, barbaric, and coercive, with
the assistance of a man whose sensibility is signaled by his love of books
and conversation with women. And yet companionate relationships
formed in defiance of patriarchy almost always founder over time on the
disparity in power. Even in a democratic society, mutuality, a better
word than equality, thrived at the sufferance of the sympathetic male.
Let him exercise his freedom to change his mind, and, as Wollstonecraft
knew all too well, a woman was left without financial support and often
with a child.
We might take cues from these stories when we consider how women
experienced power. Many saw neither legislatures nor courts of law as
any more neutral than kings or courts; all existed specifically to buttress
the privilege of both patriarchs and companions. What was new was that
they wanted to engage with others in conversation about their common
dilemma of vulnerability. They would do more than suffer in the manner
of Clarissa. They would consider their options in a world in which
power took many forms, in which nothing was necessarily what it
appeared to be, and no one was necessarily reliable and in which institutions,
whether monarchical or republican, rarely served the interests of
women. They understood what we have come to understand: Power is
everywhere; identity is fluid, situational, and multiple; binaries (male–
female) are false dichotomies; and looking for the ‘‘normal’’ (even in the
case of the nation–state and freedom) is problematic.8 Many historiansare already producing this kind of work. More and more narratives of
people experiencing power in its myriad forms are taking their place
beside our many valuable studies of people exercising and resisting
power in its myriad forms.9
The nation–state was far more important in the early republic than
historians thought a generation ago, especially when viewed from borderlands
and by people conquered or enslaved. But a growing cohort of
historians is arguing that power also involved control of resources, credits,
markets, and labor.10 They could do a lot more with marriage, family,
and gender. Shields and Teute’s discussion of the film of Edith Wharton’s
1920 novel The Age of Innocence suggests their continuing importance.
Marriages of the court variety loomed large in the construction of
commercial and social networks that transcended national borders
because market demands, modes of transportation, family and personal
connections, and cultural affinities mattered more.11 Perhaps Shields and
Teute were asking the right questions in the wrong place? Perhaps we
might do better to look inside the homes of Astors than Washingtons? I
am not suggesting we ignore the nation–state; I am asking whether for
many residents of North America it was more a means to an end—the
accumulation of power through wealth and marriage—than the end itself.
CAYTON, A. (2015). The ”Rights of Woman” and the Problem of Power. Journal Of The Early Republic, 35(2), 295-301.

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