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.
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.