Political Care and Concern for Children and Animals: A Historical View

Susan Pearson

“Children are good to think with” is how Susan Pearson began her January 29th talk on "Sentiment and Savagery: Collapsing the Boundary Between Animals and Children in U.S. History," the first lecture this spring 2015 semester in the Humanities Center’s ongoing “Posthumanities” speaker series.  Prof. Pearson adapted her opening from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s well-known dictum, “animals are good to think with.”   As with non-human animals, children’s existence—the ontological status of children, the category of child—can be used to productively problematize the conceptual basis of human being, whose superiority (among other species) and autonomy (as a natural and stable entity) have been targeted by posthumanist scholars over the last two decades.  For Prof. Pearson, a historian at Northwestern University, children and animals should be seen less as “beings” than “becomings.”  With their biologically and culturally-construed nature constantly in flux, children and animals, through close historical examination, help undermine the distinct stature of humanity itself.

Prof. Pearson’s Lehigh talk stemmed from her book Rights of the Defenseless:  Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (U. of Chicago Press, 2011), a wonderfully provocative study that begins with the story of a small girl, Mary Ellen Wilson, who in 1874 New York City was rescued from her abusive foster parents and placed under state care and responsibility.  The identity of Mary Ellen’s rescuers is what makes the story so important.  Local charities didn’t have the power to take a child from her home. Nor did the New York Police without hard evidence of her abuse or neglect.  It was finally the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) that succeeded in legally removing Mary Ellen and delivering her to safety.  “The child is an animal,” the ASPCA president stated in support of the rescue:  “If there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the cur in the street.”

The ASPCA’s association of a child’s neglect and suffering with cruelty to animals is the basis of Pearson’s capacious book.  As anticruelty organizations started to wield police power over abuse of both children and animals, a rhetoric and ideology evolved in late-nineteenth century America that combined sympathy for the pain of others with an expectation that the state would protect the rights of those beings who could not protect themselves.  “Sentimental liberalism” is how Prof. Pearson labels it.  Researched in a broad array of source material—from ASPCA case files to children’s literature—her study examines the blurring of the species line in Gilded Age middle-class homes through the close cultural equation between a family’s love and care for domestic pets and children.   In addition to looking at this intriguing post-human moment, Prof. Pearson takes up how “rights consciousness” (the idea that dependents deserve protection) increased the power and reach of the modern state into what had previously been considered “private matters.” 

Prof. Pearson’s study is finally a work in political culture.  What does it mean for a society to develop conventions of perception and care that attribute similar moral responsibility to children and animals?  Is such sympathy or sentimentality a viable basis for state protection of the weak and dependent?  Is that habit of the heart a tenable answer to the increasing material inequality among humans in the contemporary United States and across the globe?  Prof. Pearson’s talk prompted discussion of these and other questions among audience members well after the lecture had ended.