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

Reply Mon 25 May, 2009 06:20 pm
One example is a Florida case in the 1960s referred to the U.S. Supreme Court was about a murder case of a women who killed her abusive husband. Women were not allowed to be encluded in the jury pool. They had to apply in person to be considered for duty. As a result, the woman was convicted by a male jury. Her appeal to the Supreme Court was based on the lack of women peers on her jury. When Chief Justice Earl Warren questioned the Florida Attorney General, he avoided answering the question "why are women not allowed on the jury?" Finally, in frustration, he said, Because they have to prepare the family dinners."


No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship
by Linda K. Kerber

In the second half of the 20th century, "rights talk," characteristic of political and legal discourse in the United States, has been forcefully invoked by minorities and women in their respective quests for equal treatment under the law.

In No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies, University of Iowa history professor Linda K. Kerber looks at the other side of the rights equation: the issue of obligations.

Kerber argues that while men's rights have been bought by their obligations to public service, for women the obligations were to family. Absolution from public service--the constitutional right to be "ladies"--has clear roots in the principle of coverture, by which a woman's legal identity is absorbed by a man's, be it her father, husband, or other protector. This, Kerber writes, is not a boon for women. Women have always had obligations, she notes, it is merely "the forms and objects of demand" that have differed, and disparities between the obligations of men and women have affected women's qualitative ability to exercise rights, such as trial by a jury of one's peers.

Kerber presents a series of narratives focusing on particular women whose situations became catalysts for political and legal change and the women, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who helped effect those transformations. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies is engrossing reading for layperson and scholar alike.

Abby and Julia Smith, two 19th-century women who challenged their obligation to pay taxes because they were denied the vote, are among the many extraordinary women portrayed in this fascinating history by the author of Women of the Republic and Toward an Intellectual History of Women.

In invoking such figures, Kerber illustrates the development of American law defining women's civic obligations from Revolutionary times to the present. Beginning with the distasteful common law doctrine of coverture, Kerber, a history professor at the University of Iowa, describes how the law, past and present, has shielded women from civic obligations otherwise exacted from men.

Kerber finds that coverture, which reduced women's civic identities to those of their husbands, "camouflage practices that made them more vulnerable to other forms of public and private power." With this insight, she links women's exemption from civic duties such as jury or military service to the denial of women's civic rights, such as suffrage, a jury of her peers, aid, citizenship, property, even her body.

Backing this thoughtful analysis, Kerber presents meticulous research in a nonideological and lively manner. In each of Kerber's discussions of specific civic obligations and rights, she depicts a process of continuous evolution.

By combining careful analysis of the law with examples of women challenging the status quo, Kerber offers a unique and powerful history of the continuing struggle for equality.

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