Corcoran Department of History
Women, Gender, Sexuality Program
University of Virginia
Eighteen. Twenty-one. Sixty-five. In America today, we recognize these numbers as key transitions in our lives—precise moments when our rights and opportunities change—when we become eligible to cast a vote, buy a drink, or enroll in Medicare.This volume brings together scholars of childhood, adulthood, and old age to explore how and why particular ages have come to define the rights and obligations of American citizens.
Since the founding of the nation, Americans have relied on chronological age to determine matters as diverse as who can marry, work, be enslaved, drive a car, or qualify for a pension. Contributors to this volume explore what meanings people in the past ascribed to specific ages and whether or not earlier Americans believed the same things about particular ages as we do. The means by which Americans imposed chronological boundaries upon the variable process of growing up and growing old offers a paradigmatic example of how people construct cultural meaning and social hierarchy from embodied experience. Further, chronological age always intersects with other socially constructed categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Ranging from the seventeenth century to the present, taking up a variety of distinct subcultures—from frontier children and antebellum slaves to twentieth-century Latinas—Age in America makes a powerful case that age has always been a key index of citizenship.
The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
In the fight for equality, early feminists often cited the infantilization of women and men of color as a method used to keep them out of power. Corinne T. Field argues that attaining adulthood–and the associated political rights, economic opportunities, and sexual power that come with it–became a common goal for both white and African American feminists between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The idea that black men and all women were more like children than adult white men proved difficult to overcome, however, and continued to serve as a foundation for racial and sexual inequality for generations.
In detailing the connections between the struggle for equality and concepts of adulthood, Field provides an essential historical context for understanding the dilemmas black and white women still face in America today, from “glass ceilings” and debates over welfare dependency to a culture obsessed with youth and beauty. Drawn from a fascinating past, this book tells the history of how maturity, gender, and race collided, and how those affected came together to fight against injustice.
Jean Fiegen Green, “Who’s Mature Enough to Govern?” Commonplace, July 2015.
Beverly Tomek, Review, The Journal of American History, June 2015.