We welcome a guest post today from Corinne T. Field, author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America. 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. 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 the following post, Field addresses recent media attention on “boomerang kids” who return home to live with their parents after graduating from college (often with a lot of student debt).
Adam Davidson’s recent New York Times Magazine cover story about “Boomerang Kids” effectively chronicled the cultural anxieties generated by the rising number of young college graduates moving back in with their parents. The statistical trends, familiar from a decade of alarmist commentary, are stark: 20 percent of Americans in their twenties and early thirties are now living with parents; 60 percent rely on financial support from mom or dad. This in contrast to a generation ago when only one in ten young adults moved back home and few relied on parents’ money. Davidson correctly attributes this new phase of dependency to long-term economic changes that since the late 1970s have eroded wages and job security for all but the most skilled Americans. Given these marked shifts, Davidson uses young adults as a vehicle for exploring broader anxieties about job insecurity and economic inequality. Young adults become a mirror in which we can all contemplate our own economic fears whatever our particular ages.
If what we see makes us nervous about our future, however, I would like to suggest that this unsettled reaction involves more than simply economics. Concerns about adult independence cut to the very heart of what it means to be an American citizen, and indeed, to long-standing assumptions about the proper functioning of democracy itself. Anxieties about coming of age have a history, and this history is not just economic but political. To understand the political history of adulthood, we must abandon the idea of a generic young adult and focus more precisely on the intersections of age, gender, race, and class as measures of independent citizenship.
During the American Revolution, patriots established an enduring link between the transition to adult, white manhood and political independence. As Thomas Paine, the most influential pamphleteer in the colonies, persuasively claimed: “to know whether it be the interest of this continent to be independent, we need only to ask this easy, simple question: Is it in the interest of a man to be a boy all his life?” The answer was as obvious to Americans then as it is today—dependent boys should grow up to become independent men. Once freed from British rule, Americans would prove their transition to adulthood by establishing themselves as independent citizens rather than the dependent subjects of a distant King. As patriots drafted new state constitutions, however, they clarified that the majority of adults in the new nation—including most women, slaves, and men without property—would remain perpetually dependent, denied political rights and many civil rights as well.
By the first decades of the nineteenth century, white men without property successfully argued that they should be able to vote upon reaching the legal age of majority at twenty-one. As delegates to state constitutional conventions replaced property requirements for suffrage with age requirements, voting at age twenty-one became both a political right and a rite of passage, but only for white men.
For enslaved people, reaching the age of adulthood did not bring a transition to independence, but an increased valuation in a master’s account book. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland to become the most prominent black abolitionist, recalled in his 1845 Narrative how as a child he befriended poor, white boys on the streets of Baltimore, and would compare his prospects to theirs: “I would sometimes say to them . . . ‘You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?'” Douglass succeeded in freeing himself and joined black men in the North demanding equal recognition as adult male citizens.
White and black women’s rights activists, meanwhile, organized to fight for the right to vote at age twenty-one. For example, at the first national women’s rights convention, held in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850, convention organizer Abby Price observed that conviction for a crime or minority were the “only limits” on white men’s right to vote or run for office. “Are women,” she asked, “to be regarded as criminals, or are they all minors?” Throughout the antebellum period, both black civil rights and women’s rights activists protested that white manhood suffrage classified the majority of adults in the nation as perpetual minors.
This fight, which I call the struggle for equal adulthood, concerned politics more than economics. These activists demanded greater economic opportunities, to be sure, but when they spoke about transitions to adult citizenship what troubled them most was that nearly all white men could claim recognition as independent adults at age twenty-one even if they lived at home, remained in school, or relied upon others for material support. Adulthood was a political category defined by age, gender, and race, not an economic status measured by property or income.
By the late nineteenth century, however, popular understandings of adult citizenship shifted from political to economic rights. Social scientists and progressive reformers began to argue that childhood should be regarded as a protected stage of life during which young people would remain in school rather than seeking employment. With the passage of protective labor and mandatory school laws throughout the North, the transition to adulthood increasingly came to be seen in terms of leaving school and starting work.
The journalists and social scientists who study today’s young adults are the intellectual heirs of these progressive-era thinkers. They generally take for granted the idea that the transition to adulthood should be defined in terms of getting a degree and finding a job. What they often leave out, however, is the way in which this economic understanding of adulthood continued to be defined in terms of white manhood. They do not consider the rigid racial and gender segregation of the labor force that denied young men of color and all women the opportunities available to their white male peers. The idea that white men, and only white men, gained independence with age was a legacy of earlier understandings of American citizenship that focused more on political than economic rights. The measure of maturity changed, but the underlying assumption that black men and all women resembled children more than independent adults had not.
Commentators like Davidson often look back on the long period of sustained economic growth after World War II as a period of relative security and opportunity for young adults. Journalists sustain this narrative by assuming that the youth in question were white and male, failing to address the struggles of young people denied equal opportunities because of their race or gender. Young men of color and women of all races have greater opportunities today than they did in the 1960s, not fewer.
The growth of income inequality, increased insecurity of employment, and loss of both blue- and white-collar jobs are pressing concerns for all Americans and particularly for young men of color and women who remain concentrated in lower-paid employments. The history of minority and female youth, however, is not a tale of a golden age of opportunity lost, but rather a prolonged and ongoing struggle for equal adulthood. This struggle extends back before the postwar boom, before even the spread of mandatory schooling and protective labor legislation, to the very founding of the republic when American patriots forged an enduring link between full citizenship and independent adulthood even as they denied equal rights to the majority of adults in the new nation. To better understand the complicated question of what it means to be grown up and why maturity can be so difficult to achieve, we need to better appreciate the long history of political struggles for equal adulthood.
Corinne T. Field is a lecturer in the Corcoran Department of History and the Women, Gender, Sexuality Program at the University of Virginia. Her book The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America will be published in September 2014.