Isenberg's variation on the political history of the antebellum women's movement seeks to "reconceptualize feminist theory of the nineteenth century by examining ways in which church, state, and family all contributed to the notion of citizenship" (ix). She identifies two major questions addressed in her work: How did feminists frame their understanding of rights within antebellum theories of representation?
and How did this struggle over rights incorporate several distinct but overlapping legal and political debates?
Using the theories of Habermas and Arendt, she addresses these question on a primarily linguistic basis, examining the evolving discourse that struggled to define and redefine the category of "Citizenship" in its manifold meanings. Although her approach is in some ways anachronistic, it is valuable for its convincing attempt to explore language, discourses, and ideology. This study represents a demand for a more complex and nuanced historiography.
The author's first critique of the historiographic treatment of women's rights movement is her complaint against the undue emphasis that has long been placed on the Seneca Falls Convention and the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The privileging of Stanton's role she attributes largely to Stanton's own writings, particularly her History of Woman Suffrage, which through length and primacy of publication has remained an authoritative account of the movement since Stanton's own lifetime; Isenberg argues that this text is not, in fact, an accurate account of the movement's career, but rather an "allegorical interpretation of the past" (2) and that it presents a schema of the movement that locates an undue amount of motive force in Stanton herself, marginalizing the role played by other individuals and organizations.
More generally, Isenberg argues that histories of the women's movement have not paid enough attention to its evolution over time and development of more sophisticated political critiques. Nor, she says, have they sufficiently analyzed the intellectual and political changes of the 18th century which informed the movement, especially Republicanism, and the ways these ideas influenced the separation of male and female spheres. Rather, she chides, scholars tend to treat the unequal status of women as a given, thus lending it a dangerously legitimizing sense of inevitability. Too often, Isenberg suggests, debates over women's rights are presented as simple male/female dichotomy, with women demanding the vote and men refusing. First of all, gender categories cannot be so simply conceived: "the category of 'woman' or 'female nature' was fractured by class and caste differences, which measured men and women in terms of normative assumptions..." More important to her thesis is the argument that the debate was not characterized by demand and rejection but by an ongoing discourse revolving around and developing the question of what constituted full citizenship.
Isenberg here tries to examine this question in the same terms that both feminists and their opponents agreed upon. To be a citizen was to "be above feminine weakness, to be a civic person capable of self-mastery, independent judgment, manly honor and virtue, and freedom from dependence." The contemporary debate on this topic centered on issues of capacity and consent, representation, protection, and the public sphere. Traditional understanding of citizenship focused the risk and sacrifice which a citizen was expected to accept on behalf of the state; women could not.
Despite focusing on the nature and content of nineteenth-century debates, Isenberg often slips into anachronism, failing to distinguish her own modern use of terms such as "rights" and "citizenship" from that of her subjects. She also tends to present the discourses of the women in her study as if they themselves would have been familiar with the theoretical language and concepts that she uses to analyze them. This leads to some odd disjunctions, such as describing a 19th-century feminist as concerned over the "need for ontological certainty." On the other hand, she does do a great job illuminating the intellectual movements of the day, such as Romanticism and Transcendentalism.