Unlikely Rhetorical Allies: How Science Warranted U.S. Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century Discourses of Sexuality

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This dissertation reads the nineteenth-century discourses on female sexuality of the free love and social purity movements against the background of the scientific discoveries of the time. At the same time that scientists produced new knowledge of the body, American feminists in social movements for free love and social purity began to critique how the marriage system allowed the sexual subjugation of women, to demand the right to control when they chose to have sex and under what conditions, and to urge the elimination of sexual double-standards, repressive ideologies of female sexuality, and even the marriage system itself. The central scientific disciplines of physiology, bacteriology, embryology, heredity provide the basis for these women's arguments. Each chapter of this dissertation recounts the scientific discoveries in a particular discipline, then traces the dissemination of the new scientific knowledge through medical popularizations, and then reads the discourse of the reformers as entering this larger conversation about sexuality and women's rights. Using the rhetorical theories of Lloyd Bitzer's "rhetorical situation" and Stephen Toulmin's model of argument, it shows how women drew on the exigence, framework, and warrants of the new sciences to make arguments for women's rights. Reading these women's arguments against the background of science reveals new dimensions to their arguments. It also shows that science provided the warrants for women's rights. Finally, it concludes that new warrants from science "refreshed" old arguments for women's rights, giving new life and new meaning to the claims of free love rhetors Mary Gove Nichols, Victoria Woodhull, Juliet Severance, Angela Heywood, Lois Waisbrooker, and Hulda Potter-Loomis, among others. This dissertation counters the traditional view of the relationship between science and feminism by showing that science was a source of feminist arguments. This project participates in the growing recovery and rereading of nineteenth-century women's rhetorical practices and enlarges our view of what these women spoke about and what their sources of argument were.