Early Black Feminists in the Abolitionist Movement Part 2

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

In the period surrounding the Civil War, not all black female activists fought for their rights as women. Francis E. W. Harper, for example, was an organizer of black women who, like most other black women of her time, believed that the economic and political needs of her race trumped the needs of her gender.1

Sojourner Truth was unique among 19th century women in being aware and defensive of both her gender and her race. She recognized the special troubles of black women, having suffered much herself at the hands of slavery.  As a preacher in the North, she not only advocated abolitionism, but also women’s rights and protection of the poor. Sojourner Truth was the only one to speak for black women as people under the double edged sword of race and gender oppression at a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867. Here she claimed that, “If it is not a fit place for women, it is unfit for men to be there”.2 She recognized that rights for black women would mean rights for all.

Like other black women, Sojourner Truth was locked out of black society dominated by male leadership, and instead affiliated with white abolitionist and feminist circles.  She achieved her leadership status by presenting herself as an isolated, marginal figure after she became an itinerant preacher and changed her name.3  Truth especially emphasized the need to rethink the prevailing notions of black women.  Her famous speech in which she repeated the refrain, “and a’n’t I a woman?”, delivered at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, as well as others of her powerful speeches, redefined the image of black women as the “brave” and rejected the culture’s standard notions of true “womanhood” and femininity.4  She recognized the double burden that women of color must bear, but instead of hoping for a return to accepted norms of femininity, she envisioned black womanhood as having been shaped by the conditions of slavery to be more masculine.5 Truth embodied the practical, “folk” ideal of womanhood.  She regarded herself as being as strong as a man, and put forth her ideas that women and men were innately equal in her speeches.  She did not aspire for personal goals of advancing her professional career, but worked instead for the good of the black community and for women’s rights, and through religion, to bring the community closer to God.  Truth is unique because unlike most other black female activists, she had begun her life as a slave and shared many characteristics with most free black women who were also illiterate and poor.6

Sojourner Truth and other black female abolitionists advocated equality for all people, regardless of their race or gender. Their experiences as women of color living in a world that was hostile to them gave them a broader perspective to the conditions of oppressed people, and motivated them to work harder to achieve their goals. Black women in the antebellum period suffered oppression from more than one source, and felt the heavy hand of racial and gender discrimination both as slaves and as free women. History often overlooks the importance of understanding women’s history, but the broad efforts and accomplishments of black female abolitionists cannot be overlooked. Going into the 20th century, the ideas of Truth, Maria W. Stewart, and others would continue to influence African American women and lead them toward the development of a black feminist perspective.

Part 1 of this series can be found here

References

1.  Gerda, Lerner, ed., The Female Experience: An American Documentary (Oxford University Press, 1992), 355-356.

2.  Ibid., 487-489.

3.  Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, ed., Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2007), 129-134.

4.  Ibid., 157-162.

5.  Ibid., 163-165.

6.  R. J. Young, Antebellum Black Activists: Race, Gender, and Self (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996), 136-140.

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“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

-Sojourner Truth, speech delivered in Akron, Ohio at the Women’s Convention of 1851

Full speech here

“…and ain’t I a woman?”

Early Black Feminists in the Abolitionist Movement Part 1

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879)

Historians have often downplayed the role of black abolitionists and have often failed to recognize their importance in initiating and carrying out the movement.  Instead, they have focused on the work of white male abolitionists, while regarding important blacks as exceptions.1  However, black female abolitionists and activists made many contributions in community projects, organizations, as important members of the church, and in promoting literacy.2  Ultimately, black female activists became the foundation for black feminist ideology in the 20th century.

Maria W. Stewart recognized the importance of literacy and education for the liberation of black women.  “O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! Awake! Arise!” she wrote, “No longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves.  Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties”.3  Stewart had a vision of educating the people, which she enacted with the help of women who pooled together to build high schools.  Stewart emphasized the education of black women, but not because of images of feminine refinement, but rather because of the political urgency of gaining knowledge to advance the black community.  She also saw domesticity as something to transcend through a higher level of education.4 “The concept that ‘knowledge is power’ for blacks was one of the most important ideas developed in the 1830s”.5  Enslaved men and women went through remarkable difficulty and efforts to learn to read, but it was also difficult for free women because of discrimination and limited access to schools.  Many whites claimed that Africans were inferior in their ability to reason, and many published these claims as fact.  Education therefore had much deeper meaning than just gaining literacy; it is also meant tearing down stereotypes, as well as moving toward greater social responsibility and achievement.6

In 1832, Maria W. Stewart was the first American woman to publicly address an audience of men and women.  In her speeches, she challenged racial discrimination as well as gender conventions.  Despite being criticized and heckled by male audience members, she persisted boldly in defending her right to speak.7 In her public speaking, Maria W. Stewart expanded the message of anti-slavery rebellion and resistance to address issues of gender and sexism in the black community, and could be said to be the founding voice of black feminist ideology.  The culture of oppression had “made it much more difficult to develop empowering ideas about what it meant to be a black woman with limited control over sexuality and motherhood”, and she realized the importance of black women’s awareness of their two-sided oppression as women of color.8  As an opponent of slavery, Maria W. Stewart cited both the Bible and the Constitution of the United States as declaring universal birthrights to freedom and justice.  She also believed that by proving themselves equal to white standards by showing refinement, virtue, and ability, blacks could change the prevailing racist opinions and prove the innate equality of all races.9  Over time, especially after the intensification of the debate over slavery following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the gender conventions against women speakers faded and many black women abolitionist lecturers became well known, among them Frances E. W. Harper, Mary Ann Shadd, and Sojourner Truth.10

This topic is again revisited in Part 2. 

References

1.  John H. Bracey, August Meier, and Elliot Rudwick, ed.  Blacks in the Abolitionist Movement (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971), 1-2.

2.  R. J. Young.  Antebellum Black Activists: Race, Gender, and Self (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996), 135.

3.  Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, ed.  Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2007), 60.

4.  Ibid., 27.

5.  Ibid., 115.

6.  Wilma King.  The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era (Columbia, MO: University of Missuori Press, 2006), 90-91.

7.  Ibid., 166-167.

8.  Waters and Conaway, Intellectual Traditions, 4-5.

9.  Ibid., 18-21.

10.  King, Essence of Liberty, 167-169.

The Importance of Understanding the Female Slave Experience

From the beginning of the institution of slavery, the experiences of black women have been very different from those of men in the same conditions.  Slave women in antebellum America suffered certain struggles that were particularly their own and endured their hardships in unique ways.  The experience of free black women in the North was also unique because of the strength of the gender conventions that prevailed in the dominant white culture.  As a result of their distinct points of view, black women activists and abolitionists contributed distinctive ideas that were influential in the 19th century, and ultimately formed the foundation for black feminist thought in the 20th century.  The contributions of these women to politics, their community, and literature cannot be disregarded.  Despite often being downplayed in historical writings and studies, the African American female experience before emancipation is exceptionally significant in understanding the way in which gender discrimination acted alongside racism to doubly oppress black women, and in appreciating their ability to rise up against this and create a black feminist consciousness.

Historians and sociologists, speaking from a somewhat sexist perspective, have argued that the most de-humanizing aspect of slavery was the emasculation of black men.  This puts the subjugation of women on the backburner and implies that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman”. 1  This also diminishes the scholarly attention given to the oppression of enslaved black women.

The sexual exploitation suffered by slave women was even more demoralizing and dehumanizing than the racial exploitation they suffered as workers. In her autobiography, Harriet Jacobs describes being constantly threatened by her master, who would obsessively torment her by voicing his intentions to rape her.  Her autobiography is significant because it shows the unique kind of abuses that female slaves had to endure.  As a young girl, her master’s harassment was very distressing.  “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.  Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own”.2  These sufferings exclusive to women had to do with the devaluation of the black female body.  Slave owners had a legal right to the bodies of their slaves, and so it could be argued that the rape of slave women was “an institutionalized method of terrorism which had as its goal the demoralization and dehumanization of black women”.3

Racial discrimination was a prevalent part of 19th century life that black women had to contend with.  Slavery shaped dominant ideas about black women to a great extent, and stereotypical ideas about black women persisted into the 20th century.  These stereotypes ignore the variety of experiences women had across classes and regions, something that is also often ignored in historical studies.  There were two prevailing stereotypical images of black women: the Jezebel myth of the naturally promiscuous woman, and the “mammy”, an asexual character to oppose the Jezebel.  These myths made it difficult for black women to fit into the Victorian ideals of “true womanhood” because of the overbearing social perceptions of them.4

The importance of understanding the unique experience of black females in the era of slavery cannot be understated.  It is no surprise, therefore, that black feminist ideology may be traced back to 19th century black women abolitionists.

 

References

1.  bell hooks.  Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981), 20.

2.  Harriet Jacobs.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2006 [1861]), 92.

3.  hooks, Ain’t I A Woman, 27.

4.  Wilma King. The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era (Columbia, MO: University of Missuori Press, 2006), 34-39.

Gender (+ or -) Race= Identity

The dominant concept of what characterizes group consciousness is that a group has to focus on one thing. For African American women, that would have to be either their race or their gender based on that paradigm because gender and race are often treated as separate constructs. This view falls short of “the awareness of the simultaneity of oppressions faced by African American women” that is a main recurrent theme in black feminism. Because of that dominant view, black feminists have often been ignored in scholarly work.1

Historically, when African American women have had to choose between anti-sexist and anti-racist causes, they have prioritized their race identification over their gender.2  Black feminists have done away with that limited concept of identity by recognizing that race, class, and gender are all inextricable from each other in making up each person’s identity.

According to Patricia Hill Collins, identity and self-definition are important in understanding the way history is still affecting the course of the present and how it can hinder progress, or even empower the individual.  Even so, she recognizes that Black feminists could be anyone who embraces Black feminist ideals, and is not exclusive to African American women.3 One of the determinants of black feminist consciousness is socioeconomic class.  Women who take on higher status, higher paying nontraditional occupations are generally more likely to be feminists than women who stay at home or work at low paying jobs.4  Therefore, it is more likely for women with higher incomes to embrace black feminist ideology.  Nevertheless, women who do identify as black feminists and advocate its goals recognize the importance of class oppression in developing identities.

References

1.   Evelyn M. Simien, Black Feminist Voices in Politics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006), 22-23.

2.  Stanlie M. James and Abena P.A. Busia, ed., Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1993), 14-16.

3.   Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Cambridge, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 19-37.

4.  Simien, Black Feminist Voices, 69.