Laura F. Edwards is the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University. She focuses on the legal history of the nineteenth-century United States, with an emphasis on people’s interactions with law and the legal system. Her most recent book, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States, which received the Merle Curti award for the best book in social history from the Organization of American Historians, combines material culture and legal history to reconstruct the economic world created by legal principles that allowed even people without rights to make legal claims to clothing, cloth, and related accessories. She is also author of four other books, most recently, A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (2015) and The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (2009). She has received fellowships from the Newberry Library, the National Humanities Center, the NEH, the ACLS, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Bar Foundation.
As an Old Dominion Research Professor in the Humanities Council, she will work on a book titled No Account: Credit, Property, and Women’s Lives in the United States. This book project traces the material consequences of the shift from unwritten to written forms of law in the lives of women in the nineteenth century United States. While that transition is is widely acknowledged, little is known about the consequences in everyday life: in the ways that written forms of law altered relationships among people, their connections to the material world, and their access to governing power. The focus is on women, because the results were nothing short of disastrous for them. In fact, the legal changes associated with women’s legal empowerment—such as married women’s property acts—remade women’s relationships to families, communities, and property and, ultimately, resulted in their economic dispossession. Yet, while chilling, dispossession is not the most interesting part of the story. The most interesting strand of the narrative deals with the slow, but steady acceptance of writing as a form uniquely suited to express legal authority. That connection between writing and law, which evolved and spread over the course of the nineteenth century, recast women’s relationship to government, making it seem as if their powerlessness was an artifact of the past and not the modern creation that it was—and is.