American women endured many inequalities in the 19th century: They were denied the vote, barred from professional schools and most higher education, forbidden to speak in public and even attend public conventions, and unable to own property. Despite these obstacles, a strong women's network sprang up. Through letters, personal friendships, formal meetings, women's newspapers, and books, women furthered social change. Intellectual women drew parallels between themselves and slaves. They courageously demanded fundamental reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, despite social ostracism and sometimes financial ruin. Their works were the vanguard of intellectual expression of a larger women's literary tradition that included the sentimental novel. Women's sentimental novels, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, were enormously popular. They appealed to the emotions and often dramatized contentious social issues, particularly those touching the family and women's roles and responsibilities.
Abolitionist Lydia Child (1802-1880), who greatly influenced Margaret Fuller, was a leader of this network. Her successful 1824 novel Hobomok shows the need for racial and religious toleration. Its setting -- Puritan Salem, Massachusetts -- anticipated Nathaniel Hawthorne. An activist, Child founded a private girls' school, founded and edited the first journal for children in the United States, and published the first anti- slavery tract, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, in 1833. This daring work made her notorious and ruined her financially. Her History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations (1855) argues for women's equality by pointing to their historical achievements.
Angelina Grimké (1805-1879) and Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) were born into a large family of wealthy slaveowners in elegant Charleston, South Carolina. These sisters moved to the North to defend the rights of blacks and women. As speakers for the New York Anti-Slavery Society, they were the first women to publicly lecture to audiences, including men. In letters, essays, and studies, they drew parallels between racism and sexism.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), abolitionist and women's rights activist, lived for a time in Boston, where she befriended Lydia Child. With Lucretia Mott, she organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for Women's rights; she also drafted its Declaration of Sentiments. Her "Woman's Declaration of Independence" begins "men and women are created equal" and includes a resolution to give women the right to vote. With Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned for suffrage in the 1860s and 1870s, formed the anti-slavery Women's Loyal National League and the National Woman Suffrage Association, and co-edited the weekly newspaper Revolution. President of the Woman Suffrage Association for 21 years, she led the struggle for women's rights. She gave public lectures in several states, partly to support the education of her seven children.
After her husband died, Cady Stanton deepened her analysis of inequality between the sexes. Her book The Woman's Bible (1895) discerns a deep-seated anti-female bias in Judaeo-Christian tradition. She lectured on such subjects as divorce, women's rights, and religion until her death at 86, just after writing a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt supporting the women's vote. Her numerous works -- at first pseudonymous, but later under her own name -- include three co-authored volumes of History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1886) and a candid, humorous autobiography.
Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883) epitomized the endurance and charisma of this extraordinary group of women. Born a slave in New York, she grew up speaking Dutch. She escaped from slavery in 1827, settling with a son and daughter in the supportive Dutch- American Van Wagener family, for whom she worked as a servant. They helped her win a legal battle for her son's freedom, and she took their name. Striking out on her own, she worked with a preacher to convert prostitutes to Christianity and lived in a progressive communal home. She was christened "Sojourner Truth" for the mystical voices and visions she began to experience. To spread the truth of these visionary teachings, she sojourned alone, lecturing, singing gospel songs, and preaching abolitionism through many states over three decades. Encouraged by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she advocated women's suffrage. Her life is told in the Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), an autobiographical account transcribed and edited by Olive Gilbert. Illiterate her whole life, she spoke Dutch-accented English. Sojourner Truth is said to have bared her breast at a women's rights convention when she was accused of really being a man. Her answer to a man who said that women were the weaker sex has become legendary:
I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into bars, 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 them 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?
This humorous and irreverent orator has been compared to the great blues singers. Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others found wisdom in this visionary black woman, who could declare, "Lord, Lord, I can love even de white folk!"
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was the most popular American book of the 19th century. First published serially in the National Era magazine (1851- 1852), it was an immediate success. Forty different publishers printed it in England alone, and it was quickly translated into 20 languages, receiving the praise of such authors as Georges Sand in France, Heinrich Heine in Germany, and Ivan Turgenev in Russia. Its passionate appeal for an end to slavery in the United States inflamed the debate that, within a decade, led to the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865).
Reasons for the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin are obvious. It reflected the idea that slavery in the United States, the nation that purportedly embodied democracy and equality for all, was an injustice of colossal proportions.
Stowe herself was a perfect representative of old New England Puritan stock. Her father, brother, and husband all were well- known, learned Protestant clergymen and reformers. Stowe conceived the idea of the novel -- in a vision of an old, ragged slave being beaten -- as she participated in a church service. Later, she said that the novel was inspired and "written by God." Her motive was the religious passion to reform life by making it more godly. The Romantic period had ushered in an era of feeling: The virtues of family and love reigned supreme. Stowe's novel attacked slavery precisely because it violated domestic values.
Uncle Tom, the slave and central character, is a true Christian martyr who labors to convert his kind master, St. Clare, prays for St. Clare's soul as he dies, and is killed defending slave women. Slavery is depicted as evil not for political or philosophical reasons but mainly because it divides families, destroys normal parental love, and is inherently un-Christian. The most touching scenes show an agonized slave mother unable to help her screaming child and a father sold away from his family. These were crimes against the sanctity of domestic love.
Stowe's novel was not originally intended as an attack on the South; in fact, Stowe had visited the South, liked southerners, and portrayed them kindly. Southern slaveowners are good masters and treat Tom well. St. Clare personally abhors slavery and intends to free all of his slaves. The evil master Simon Legree, on the other hand, is a nrtherner and the villain. Ironically, the novel was meant to reconcile the North and South, which were drifting toward the Civil War a decade away. Ultimately, though, the book was used by abolitionists and others as a polemic against the South.
Harriet Jacobs (1818-1896)
Born a slave in North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs was taught to read and write by her mistress. On her mistress's death, Jacobs was sold to a white master who tried to force her to have sexual relations. She resisted him, finding another white lover by whom she had two children, who went to live with her grandmother. "It seems less degrading to give one's self than to submit to compulsion," she candidly wrote. She escaped from her owner and started a rumor that she had fled North.
Terrified of being caught and sent back to slavery and punishment, she spent almost seven years hidden in her master's town, in the tiny dark attic of her grandmother's house. She was sustained by glimpses of her beloved children seen through holes that she drilled through the ceiling. She finally escaped to the North, settling in Rochester, New York, where Frederick Douglass was publishing the anti-slavery newspaper North Star and near which (in Seneca Falls) a women's rights convention had recently met. There Jacobs became friends with Amy Post, a Quaker feminist abolitionist, who encouraged her to write her autobiography. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published under the pseudonym "Linda Brent" in 1861, was edited by Lydia Child. It outspokenly condemned the sexual exploitation of black slave women. Jacobs's book, like Douglass's, is part of the slave narrative genre extending back to Olauda Equiano in colonial times.
Harriet Wilson (c. 1807-1870)
Harriet Wilson was the first African-American to publish a novel in the United States -- Our Nig: or, Sketches from the life of a Free Black, in a two-storey white house, North. showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859). The novel realistically dramatizes the marriage between a white woman and a black man, and also depicts the difficult life of a black servant in a wealthy Christian household. Formerly thought to be autobiographical, it is now understood to be a work of fiction.
Like Jacobs, Wilson did not publish under her own name (Our Nig was ironic), and her work was overlooked until recently. The same can be said of the work of most of the women writers of the era. Noted African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. -- in his role of spearheading the black fiction project -- reissued Our Nig in 1983.
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)
The most famous black American anti-lavery leader and orator of the era, Frederick Douglass was born a slave on a Maryland plantation. It was his good fortune to be sent to relatively liberal Baltimore as a young man, where he learned to read and write. Escaping to Massachusetts in 1838, at age 21, Douglass was helped by abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and began to lecture for anti-lavery societies.
In 1845, he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (second version 1855, revised in 1892), the best and most popular of many "slave narratives." Often dictated by illiterate blacks to white abolitionists and used as propaganda, these slave narratives were well-known in the years just before the Civil War. Douglass's narrative is vivid and highly literate, and it gives unique insights into the mentality of slavery and the agony that institution caused among blacks.
The slave narrative was the first black literary prose genre in the United States. It helped blacks in the difficult task of establishing an African-American identity in white America, and it has continued to exert an important influence on black fictional techniques and themes throughout the 20th century. The search for identity, anger against discrimination, and sense of living an invisible, hunted, underground life unacknowledged by the white majority have recurred in the works of such 20th- century black American authors as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison