Book Review: The Sewing Girl’s Tale

Genre: Nonfiction | History | Women’s Studies

Star Rating: 4-1/4 out of 5

Synopsis from The StoryGraph: When Lanah raised her voice, she was dismissed as a mere “sewing-girl,” led astray by romantic delusions. But she refused to stay silent. Her accusation sparked a sensational courtroom drama and a relentless struggle for vindication that divided both Lanah’s and her assailant’s families and threatened both of their lives. The legal battle exposed the city’s predatory sexual underworld, shaped the development of American law, and ignited a vigorous, even violent, debate about citizenship and the rule of law, class, and gendered double standards. For a new nation rocked by the radicalism of the French Revolution and by pioneering feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, the crime and its aftermath became a kind of parable—a dark reflection of the power of seduction and the limits of justice, of the rights of men and the wrongs of women. Eventually, Lanah Sawyer did succeed in holding her assailant accountable—but at a terrible cost to herself. In The Sewing Girl’s Tale, the unique record of this courageous young woman’s testimony—in the first published report of a rape trial in American history—makes it possible to shed new light on her ordeal that will forever shape the stories we tell ourselves about sexual predation and romantic love. Ultimately, Lanah Sawyer’s tale reminds us that if our law and our culture were changed by a persistent young woman and the power of words two hundred years ago, they can be changed again. In September 1793, a crime was committed in the back room of a New York brothel on a moonless night—the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, seventeen-year-old seamstress Lanah Sawyer did what virtually no one else had done: she charged a gentleman with rape

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher, Henry Holt and Co, in exchange for my honest opinions about this book.

Note: I think it goes without saying if you read the synopsis that this book has a trigger warning for rape/sexual assault associated with it. It is not overtly graphic but it is a major plot point in this book.

I found this a very well-researched book that examines not only the specific instances of the trial of Lanah Sawyer’s rape, but also delves into the political turmoil that affected the United States as it moved from a group of British colonies into the early years of the Republic. It also examines the legal history of the late 18th and early 19th century, and how court rulings for civil and criminal actions changed over those years. It is also a very thoughtful presentation of women’s rights (or lack thereof) and really, how many things related to women and how society perceives them have changed little in the past 200+ years.

The book covers a lot of legal history, some of which I will admit I skimmed a bit as it is extensive and in-depth, although it does serve the purpose of helping the reader understand how Lanah’s Sawyer’s cases were handled. (There were 2, in fact: The criminal case, similar to what we would prosecute today, which she lost, and a second civil case, which was based on a much older British law that entitled her stepfather to sue her rapist for damages and “loss of social position”.) This also allows Sweet to discuss some of the implications of each and how the early Republican period was a time where the idea of an upper social strata of “gentlemen” and lower classes of “working laborers” was coming under question with the new “all men are created equal” concepts put forth in the Declaration of Independence.

Additionally, Sweet covers a lot of historical group, presenting information about New York (where the crime took place) before and after Revolutionary War and how the city was attempting to rebuild during this time. The book presents an amazingly vivid picture of social and economic life in NYC in the 1790s and into the early 19th century. Readers interested in the time period will recognize names like Alexander Hamilton, who played a role in the second (civil) lawsuit and trial.

As is typical of much history of this period, not very much is actually known about Lanah Sawyer. As a female, she was always going to be pigeon-holed as someone’s daughter/stepdaughter or wife, and after her trials, she is known to have moved to Philadelphia and gotten married, but the trail of her story goes cold after that. Much more is known about her stepfather, who was a prominent pilot (independent marine/ship owner who worked in the port) and is an imposing figure who plays a starring role in this young woman’s tale. Understanding his motivations to support (or perhaps push) his stepdaughter into pressing charges also helps one understand the class distinctions and friction that existed at this time in America (and still does today).

The role of women in society is also examined in this book. While Lanah Sawyer’s decision to prosecute her attacker was rare for the time, it took it’s personal toll. She attempted suicide at one point between the two trials, and Sweet discusses the intense scrutiny she would have been under by her peers and neighborhood after the rape was made public. Sadly, many of today’s sexual assault victims can probably sympathize with Lanah, as there is still cultural bias towards many rape victims. The role of women in the young Republic was one that would increase in importance over the intervening years between Lanah’s lifetime and ours, although many of the same biases and inequalities still remain.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sewing Girl’s Tale

  1. This sounds like a powerful story. I would probably also skim some of the legal background too, though, but I do find it fascinating that there was a second suit brought by her stepfather. So frustrating how that one seems to be inherently the one that’s most likely to succeed in our culture.

    1. The implication I got was that the civil suit was two-fold: One that everyone felt the young man was guilty and Lanah should have been recompensed for his actions and two that the stepfather was using the trial to show that working class men (like himself) counted for this something in this new Republic, even against “their betters”. An interesting commentary on how things have changed and unfortunately how many things have not for women.

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