Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two Feminist Speeches!

I have a Dover Thrift collection of great speeches by American women, so I read part of that this week. There are not a lot of feminist speeches before the Civil War, but one of them is a favorite of mine: Sojourner Truth's Ain't I a Woman? Sojourner Truth lived from 1797-1883. Born a slave, she gained her freedom in 1827 and spent most of her adult life working for abolition and women's rights. This famous speech was given in 1851 as a response to a clergyman who argued that "women were too weak and helpless to be given the right to vote." It's not long, so I'm going to quote the whole speech below.

The next speech is from 1854, by Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Quaker abolitionist and suffragette. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention and published a famous treatise, "Discourse on Women." I guess I should read that too. The speech I read is called "Why Should Not Woman Seek to be a Reformer?" It lauds women's accomplishments and rails against the laws that made a married woman "a cypher"--according to the law, a married couple was one person, and that person was the husband. A wife had no rights or property of her own.

It's on to the Civil War in February! The Civil War is one of those things that I know shamefully little about.


by Sojourner Truth

Delivered 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?

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?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as anti-slavery propaganda for white Northerners who, I suppose, didn't know much about the realities of slavery. It was a huge success and was very influential for the abolitionist cause, though now its Victorian sentimentality comes off as melodramatic and overdone. Uncle Tom, who was written as a Christ figure, has gotten something of an unfortunate reputation as a weak and servile character. (Yes, he's not very realistic, but neither is anyone else!) The Uncle Tom character was absorbed into minstrel shows and so for years, the popular image of an "Uncle Tom" was very different than Stowe's original virtuous Christian hero.

As a novel, the characters are types and the whole thing comes off as unlikely. But accuracy wasn't the point anyway; she wanted to inflame feeling against slavery and so she succeeded at her task.

Interestingly, for much of the novel, slave owners are depicted as more virtuous than you might expect--certainly better than real slave narratives of the time showed. Nearly all of the slave owners are kind, well-meaning people; I suppose so that the targeted white readers would sympathize with them and not feel attacked, and so that Stowe could make one of her main points: no matter how kind an owner was, a slave could never feel safe. Those kind owners fall into debt, or hardship, or they get angry or they die, and then all the nice promises are meaningless if they aren't backed up with legal documentation. And anyhow, everyone would prefer freedom in poverty to slavery in comfort. So she wanted to really emphasize that even when slavery was used in an "ideal" way, as slave-owners often insisted was nearly always the case, it was still an awful system. I think she didn't want to give anyone a way to say "Well, if we just curb the abuses, it would work,"--she wanted to show that even the best possible case was hopelessly corrupt and wrong.

The book is full of unusually well-treated slaves brought up with educations by their owners (not usually their actual parents, for the separation of families is a major theme), who are then sold off to fates unknown. The plight of women is of particular concern; Stowe makes the girls' expected destinies very clear--though of course she never says anything outright. Her female characters are the ones who courageously figure out ways to run away from slavery and save their children, while Uncle Tom stays behind to bear the consequences. He could run, but he chooses not to in order to save others.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is really worth reading for the insight it provides into pre-Civil War America. I don't really think it's a work of great literature, but that wasn't what Stowe was trying to do. Reading it with its context and goal in mind is the way to do it. (Which puts me in mind of The Pilgrim's Progress, another popular classic that is classic because it was popular and hugely influential, not because it's a great literary work.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Frederick Douglass

This week I read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which is of course an excellent book that everyone should read. I'm not sure I have anything amazing to say about it; everyone knows this book already! I hadn't realized how young he was when he wrote it; he was not yet 30. So I'm putting in this picture of him as a young man, which I was not familiar with before.

To continue my theme, I'm going to read Uncle Tom's Cabin next.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Republic in January

OK, we're back!

Way back when, I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, which I highly recommend for reading about slavery. The author, who calls herself Linda in the book, tells the story of her life. As a young woman, she had the misfortune of being attractive, and her owner spent years trying to trap her into a relationship with him. She describes with regret the course that led her to decide to take up with a different white man in an attempt to get away from the owner. She bore him two children, but found that he was useless as a protector. Eventually she 'escaped' by hiding in a tiny shed loft--for seven years. She could peek out a little hole and see her children as they played, but they had no idea that she was near.

It's not an easy book to read, but it's well worth it. 'Linda' is an eloquent narrator.

This week, I decided to ease back into things by looking through my book of American letters. I read any letter dated between 1800-1860. One was a letter from Meriwether Lewis to the Oto Indians, and I realized that I don't know much about the Lewis and Clark expedition--someday I should read more on that. I liked a letter from a Norwegian boy during the Gold Rush, and one from Father De Smet giving advice on going West. There was a long letter from Frederick Douglass to his former master, and a humorous description from a young Abraham Lincoln of how he escaped matrimony to a young lady he didn't like as much as he thought he did (she turned him down, which bruised his ego a bit).

There is also a chapter of love letters from famous authors. The 19th-century style is a little syrupy to modern minds. Edgar Allen Poe in particular is enough to put you off him for life, but the interesting thing is that this terribly elaborate letter, all about how he can't live without her and has tried to commit suicide, is addressed to a married woman who had refused him, while he had another woman--who got letters that were just as fancy--whom he was also in love with. He didn't marry that one either, but fell for a third woman and was engaged to her when he died.