There are times when certain conflicts of the 1880s and 1890s seem eerily similar to debates today — we are, it seems, both separated and united with our equivalents of a century and a quarter ago.
In the contentious years of Gilded Age America — 1870-1900 — the general consensus has been than the United States, laissez-faire capitalism and “liberty of contract.” Reality, unsurprisingly, was more complex.
In his late 1970s work, The Right to Privacy in American History, David J. Seipp argues that the “unity of the privacy phenomenon” in the nineteenth century came not from a singleness of motive, but rather from “a unity of language” (Seipp 116).
In looking through Johanna Schoen’s 2005 book, Choice & Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, it appears that, although eugenics-based sterilization procedures in the early-to-mid twentieth century appear to have targeted women more than men, men were also sterilized through these programs.
Unlike postal mail or, later, the telephone, telegrams never received constitutional protection. Yet they were the quintessential nineteenth-century technology of communication, used extensively for business, government, and personal communication, much of which both senders and receivers would have wished to keep to themselves.
Misunderstanding the different balances required in private vs. public spheres was one of the fundamental misunderstandings of the recent Universities UK guidance, which argued that speakers’ freedom of religion and speech could trump anti-discrimination laws at on-campus debates — meaning that audiences might be segregated by sex.
I’ve been working on my dissertation for a few months now (it looks at American privacy law over some 150 years, and investigates how technology interacts with that law). Some of that work will emerge here in draft form eventually, but for now I’ve been thinking about the theoretical/critical framework for my work. Much of this framework will be implicit — since I’m writing a dissertation in history — but it will guide me nonetheless. It will develop throughout the writing process, but here are some initial thoughts.
“Liberty of contract” had originally been envisioned as a means of protecting individual rights from government interference, but decisions implementing it ended up justifying federal government intervention.