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

Linda K. Kerber

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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Winner of the American Historical Association's Joan Kelly Memorial Prize
Winner of the Littleton-Griswold Prize

This pioneering study redefines women's history in the United States by focusing on civic obligations rather than rights. Looking closely at thirty telling cases from the pages of American legal history, Kerber's analysis reaches from the Revolution, when married women did not have the same obligation as their husbands to be "patriots," up to the present, when men and women, regardless of their marital status, still have different obligations to serve in the Armed Forces.

An original and compelling consideration of American law and culture, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies emphasizes the dangers of excluding women from other civic responsibilities as well, such as loyalty oaths and jury duty. Exploring the lives of the plaintiffs, the strategies of the lawyers, and the decisions of the courts, Kerber offers readers a convincing argument for equal treatment under the law.


Praise for No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies

"Brilliant—a major work."—Gerda Lerner

"An immensely pleasurable read as well as an important contribution to American legal history . . . The author is too good a storyteller, however, to lay this all out without drama . . . Few have made the case so cogently or entertainingly."—Sara L. Mandelbaum, New York Law Journal

"A thoughtful book of formidable research and clear prose . . . Kerber weaves broad constitutional and legal history around fascinating case studies [and] makes a powerful case that, on balance, liberation is the trajectory of history."—Michael Sherry, The New York Times Book Review

"An ambitious exploration of the history and meaning of women's civic obligations . . . A carefully crafted work that tells its complex and persuasive story at many levels. By its focus on the law of civic obligation, it makes an innovative contribution to the study of citizenship as both a legal and political institution in the United States. By following the 'antique legal tradition' of coverture out of the treatises and into the arena of public law, this absorbing book also represents a significant expansion of the legal and social history scholarship of that doctrine in America. Its sweeping survey provides a timeline of the status of women as citizens that is a provocative reminder of how much in the past we still live. Informative and accessible, this study will be useful to legal historians and feminist theorists as well as to more general students of American history . . . So full of interesting ideas and thought-provoking questions that it will inspire the research agendas of scholars for years to come."—Ann F. Thomas, H-Net Book Review

"Combining micronarrative with feminist theorizing, impeccable research with passionate engagement, Linda Kerber reshapes the history of American political development . . . A model study."—From the Citation for the American Historical Association's 1999 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize

"A capacious mind is at work in this richly textured and imaginative book. Putting obligations rather than rights in the forefront, Linda Kerber sees anew the past, present, and future of women's citizenship in the United States and in doing so illuminates the limits and possibilities of American democracy."—Nancy Cott, Yale University

"Kerber makes a compelling case for a difficult proposition. This is history as it ought to be written."—Stan Katz, President Emeritus, American Council of Learned Societies

"Kerber approaches the subject by a little-used path, and reveals much about how women have been treated and why . . . Startling."—John B. Saul, The Seattle Times

Reviews from Goodreads



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No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies
"She must take her fate with him for better for worse"In February 1801, James Martin submitted a complaint to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the state's highest court of appeals. He demanded that the state return land and houses confiscated from his mother twenty years before, toward the close of the American Revolution. The case forced leading lawyers and judges to put into words their understanding--normally implicit--of the obligations
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  • Linda K. Kerber

  • Linda K. Kerber is the May Brodbeck Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Among her books are Women of the Republic and Toward an Intellectual History of Women. She has served as the president of the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.