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Little Women? The Female Mind at Work in Antebellum America

Louise Stevenson argues that girls growing up in mid-19th-century America were far more intellectually forceful and streetwise than often given credit for.

Most students pursuing an advanced degree of history before the 1970s would have thought women's intellectual life an unpromising subject. The classic works of American intellectual history seldom included women and rarely took their endeavours seriously. Intellectual historians did not recognise that they were defining 'intellectual' and 'intellectual life' in ways that excluded women. A sampling of the indices of surveys of American intellectual history reveal that none give women any sizable place. Ralph Henry Gabriel mentions four women in The Course of American Democratic Thought (1940, 2nd ed. 1956), Perry Miller one in the Life of the Mind in America (1965), Robert Skotheim none in American Intellectual Histories and Historians (1966), and Rush Welter three in The Mind of America, 1820-1860 (1975).

The books published during the upsurge of women's history that began with Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle in 1959 offer little information about women's intellectual life. Historians of women from the sixties through to the late eighties mainly investigated political or social history. For political historians the struggle for the suffrage and other political rights and privileges was the central story of women's history. For social historians intellectual history seemed an elitist pursuit that ignored the many. For example, one of the path-breaking new social history books of those years, Nancy Cott's The Bonds of Womanhood (1977), described women's religious life and education as aspects of social life.

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