The crime of womanhood: Ambivalent intersections of sentiment and law in nineteenth-century American culture

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Russ Castronovo - Committee Chair


This dissertation argues that the ambivalent relationship between sentimental and legal discourses in the antebellum United States is embodied in the figure of the fallen woman. Made simultaneously the pathetic objects and criminal agents of their own victimization, fallen women serve as vehicles for the expression of social anxieties about compelled consent brought on by such issues as industrialism, slavery, and women's rights. While many sentimental novels, written as tools of social reform, protest legally sanctioned injustice by contrasting personal affect with "cold' legal logic, I find a reciprocity between sentiment and law in which they enable and shape one another in regulating subjects through the use of affective norms. These patterns of mutual influence arise in the way the two discourses form gendered and racialized subjects and link them to a collective order, especially a national one. Examining works by Catharine Williams, E. D. E. N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Herman Melville in relation to appellate court opinions, courtroom trial proceedings, and legislative acts, I argue that sentiment performs the legal function of maintaining social control through the very distance it claims from law, and law participates in constructing those affective categories that it denies legal recognition. Historicizing and theorizing this unstable alliance revises notions of agency and authority, and demands a reevaluation of distinctions between public and private, coercion and consent, and domination and participation.


American Studies; History, United States; Law; Women's Studies; Literature, American

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