“Bodies that Matter: Embodied Discourses in the Black Woman Suffragists Database”

Michelle Moravec, Ph.D. @professmoravec, paper presented at Women’s History in the Digital World 2015, Bryn Mawr College, May 22, 2015

 

The more I worked, the angrier I became. I began to fantasize about digitally righting the wrongs of the past, gluing back into the six volume History of Woman Suffrage (HWS) the writings of all the black women who had been excised.  This paper builds on work I did previously in”Under this name she is fitly described”: A Digital History of Gender in the History of Woman Suffrage” using the first and second releases of first the black woman suffragists database by incorporating the third release.

names BWSD in HWD
figure 1

 

 

Using various forms of distant readings and then searching manually revealed that the names of some authors in the black woman suffragist database that appear in the HWS. (figure 1 above)  Sojourner Truth is the most prominent, and over time, the volumes contain fewer references to these names (caution, names are ONLY the authors already in the database, which is only half complete).

 

clusters for presentation
figure 2

 

What if the editors of the HWS had been willing to include writings by black women? Given the number of white suffragists the editors excluded for their divergent viewpoints or strategies, the editors surely would have only selected black women who fit their specific discourse. Having identified some linguistic patterns in an earlier project, I repeated the analysis on this larger set of texts by black woman authors looking at the relationships between rights, suffrage, women, woman. (figure 2 above)

 

freqs women woman
figure 3

 

The words are all less significant statistically for black women authors who neither focused narrowly on gender nor wrote only about a single political right (figure 3 above).

 

I found it intriguing that woman’s appears at almost the same likeliness in both HWS and BWSD However, what woman’s leads to however is quite distinct. woman’s is 20 times more likely to be followed by club in BWSD and women’s is 24 times more likely to be followed by clubs in BWSD.   Looking at words that preceded rights, unique values results from BWSD include civil rights, no rights, his rights, while HWS has her rights and state rights. Beyond their own rights, black women were worrying about black men and their lack of rights.

How then would the HWS have looked different if the writings of black women had been included? Working with the metadata created by Alexander Street Press for the digitized volumes of HWS reveals, like the analysis above, relatively few texts with general subheading for rights as opposed to say slavery.   Looking in the antebellum period, right now in the database Mary Shadd Cary is the most prolific author in  for this era. It is difficult to see how the editors of the HWS excluded her. Cary, the editor of the Provincial Freeman, often wrote pieces virtually identical to those that appeared in white papers that supported abolition or women’s rights, which would have fit nicely into volume 1 of HWS. Unlike the white suffragists who willingly sacrificed black woman suffrage on the altar of various “strategies,” Cary crafted an argument for black women’s “right to vote” that was “in keeping with the mainstream suffragists” when she argued alongside them before the House Judiciary committee in 1874, although they failed to include her testimony in volume II. Thankfully it was published later by a black newspaper, and would fit perfectly into my fantasy project of rewriting the History of Woman Suffrage

The strength and glory of a free nation, is not so much in the size and equipments of its armies, as in the loyal hearts and willing hands of its men and women.

At this point, most items with “suffrage” appearing in the metadata are authored by Mary Church Terrell, although she used the term relatively sparingly compared to the authors in the HWS. Terrell’s association alone with the NWP would have probably caused Carrie Chapman Catt to keep her out of the final two volumes of HWS, although Terrell was however invited to address NAWSA in 1898. Most importantly, because she “bridged the white and black women’s club movements” she to fits nicely into my revised version of the HWS.

They could accomplish little compared with the possible achievement of many individuals all banded together … with heads and hearts fixed on the same high purpose and hands joined in united strength. The realisation of this sell-evident fact gave birth to the club movement among our women.

 

The words highlighted in the Shadd and Terrell quotes lead to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper whose writing makes up a large part of the embodied references I identified in my earlier analysis of the HWS and BWSD. Initially I wondered if this was connected to either abolitionist rhetoric or connected to the sentimental genre.

 

body parts rel freq
figure 4

 

Harper’s use of the body has not gone unnoticed by other scholars who have performed analyses similar to mine without using digital approaches. One scholar has suggested that Harper uses the tropes of blood and the face to create a distinctive image of “flushing.” Distant reading points to others words that Harper used more than other writers in the BWSD such as hands and heart (figure 4 above). The phrase itself conjures up the sentimental. After using various forms of distant reading to establish that Harper is both more sentimental than the other authors in the BWSD, and more sentimental than at least one white woman her writing is often paired with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I analyzed both Harper’s fiction and non-fiction for hands and heart, which I argue constitute part of a discourse of moral power, that while similar to a politics of respectability, was not the same. One scholar has described it as a reimaging cultural politics as moral struggles.This discourse has its origins in writings of Maria Stewart, Mary Shadd Cary and was continued by Gertrude Mossell and other black woman journals like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, as well as Harper.  While the rhetoric on the surface appears similar to that used by white women of the era, and indeed strategically at times deployed those tropes, it was often to different ends, blending a domestic feminism with racial uplift, but towards an end of black citizenship and nationhood.

 

In the brief amount of time I have today, I want to explore two of Harper’s works, Enlightened Motherhood a speech given in 1892 and Trial and Triumph a serialized novel published between 1888 and 1889.

Hands in Enlightened Motherhood

 

hands in Harper’s writing points to a rhetoric of empowerment or control.  In the 1884   “The Democratic Return to Power– Its Effect?” Harper wrote

“Power will naturally gravitate into the strongest hands, be they white or black; and to strengthen our hands, and base our race-life on those divine certitudes, which are the only safe foundations for either individuals or nations, is of more vital importance to us than being the appendages of any political party.”

This effort to develop “moral and spiritual power” involves both black women and men equally.

“build up an intelligent and virtuous manhood, and a tender, strong and true womanhood, we can afford to wait for political strength while developing moral and spiritual power.“

While hands in Enlightened Motherhood hands are gendered female 70% of the time. When men’s hands appear, they are connected to the power of the vote.

“exchange the fetters on their wrists for the ballots in their right hands–a ballot which, if not vitiated by fraud or restrained by intimidation, counts just as much as that of the most talented and influential man in the land.”

A remarkably similar line exists in several earlier pieces equating black male power with the right to vote, but what about black women? [ix]  For Harper, women’s primary vehicle of empowerment was her moral influence, which she often equated to political power.   In Enlightened Motherhood she makes this comparison explicitly. In this rendition the Christian woman is both like, yet more effective than, the politician.

“While politicians may stumble on the barren mountain of fretful controversy, and men, lacking faith in God and the invisible forces which make for righteousness, may shrink from the unsolved problems of the hour, into the hands of Christian women comes the opportunity of serving the ever blessed Christ, by ministering to His little ones and striving to make their homes the brightest spots on earth and the fairest types of heaven.”

The convention sketched above is well familiar to that of historians of the era As Harper’s address reveals, black women simultaneously sought not just “civic honors,” but also a right to be moral mothers. She highlights the many obstacles that impeded black women from seductive young suitors to intemperate husbands. While the rhetoric is that of female moral reform and temperance, those discourses are best known through the writings and speeches of white women. In Harper’s hands (pun intended), the tropes and sometimes truisms take on new meaning.

The newfound control of freed blacks was precarious at best, as Harper warned.

“ is it not madness for a woman to trust her future happiness, and the welfare of the dear children … in the unsteady hands of a characterless man, too lacking in self-respect and self-control to hold the helm and rudder of his own life; who drifts where he ought to steer, and only lasts when he ought to live.”

Just as black men could fail to maintain their grasp, so too could woman lose her way, both by following the double standard and by not being sufficiently wary of potential male ne’er-do-wells, greeting

“I hold that no woman loves social purity as it deserves to be loved and valued, if she cares for the purity of her daughters and not her sons; who would gather her dainty robes from contact with the fallen woman and yet greet with smiling lips and clasp with warm and welcoming hands the author of her wrong and ruin.”

Therefore the good mother’s hands must guide both her sons and her daughters and that power vested in the next generation’s hands would not simply lead to greater respectability, but would uplift the race even further, as she argued in A Factor in Human Progress (1885)

“What a field of usefulness lies before the educated young men and women of our race! What possibilities are in their hands!”

 

But ff hands can hold power and guide, but also potentially clasp danger, what of hearts?  In Trial and Triumph (1888) Harper invokes the heart not only as an indicator of love (both romantic and maternal) but also as a moral compass and as a powerful site of innate knowledge.  Speaking of their yet-unmet new minister one male character hopes for

“a good man, of active brain, warm heart and Christly sympathies, who will be among us a living, moral, and spiritual force, and who will be willing to teach us

Determined to illustrate that while blacks might be formally uneducated they were not ignorant, Harper emphasized the heart as a place of knowing. Trial and Triumph contains a clear statement of Harper’s view of the unique knowledge of black women.  The heroine Annette is bereft of a “mother’s heart” to provide her with guidance, but possesses “a rarely gifted soul” Fortunately Annette encounters a good woman, with “a responsive heart” valued for “her judgment,” who provides such counsel, from her heart, to many young members of the community

Young girls learned to look to her for council and encouragement amid the different passages of their [lives?] sometimes with blushing cheeks they whispered in to her ears tender secrets they did not always bring to their near relatives, and young men about to choose their life work, often came to consult her and to all her heart was responsive.

The unique knowledge of the heart is also used to explain Annette’ scholarly successes.

“They wrote from their heads, she wrote from her heart. Annette has begun to think; she has been left a great deal to herself, and in her loneliness, she has developed a thoughtfulness past her years, and I think that a love for her race and a desire to serve it has become a growing passion in her soul; her heart has supplied her intellect.”

Annette sets aside her personal happiness to improve herself and by extension to dedicate herself to racial uplift. When Annette, born out of wedlock, achieves the culminating reward of the sentimental novel, marriage to a good man, Harper makes clear the potential for self-transformation for the Black community she so extolled in Enlightened Motherhood. Lest the reader has missed this point, Harper’s authorial voice has the last word in the novel, appropriately invoking hearts

 “under the guise of fiction, I have essayed to weave a story which I hope will subserve a deeper purpose … that it will quicken and invigorate human hearts and not fail to impart a lesson of usefulness and value.”

 

But was this rhetoric of hearts and hands really so different from the writing in the History of Woman Suffrage? Hands appears in almost half the items Elizabeth Cady Stanton contributed and heart appears in about a third (compared to Susan B. Anthony who used both in only 20%). Like Harper, hands denote power for Stanton as well, although for Stanton women’s hands can and should have the same power as men’s. When “hands” hold ballots “that scepter of power” the hands ECS means are women’s hands, although she demands of the men who hold the power in their hands that they give women the vote. And rather than contrasting hands and hearts or hands and minds, head and hands work together in Stanton to emphasis women’s intellectual and political capabilities rather than to distinguish the source of women’s knowledge. Closest to Harper when she cites “women’s heart” as the site of her “her instinctive love of justice, and mercy.”

I end with this comparison to note how discursively the writings of these women are linked in ways are revealed digitally. With three more releases scheduled to the BWSD I look forward to more opportunities to digitally right the wrongs by reinserting writings of black suffragists into the HWS, but even more to exploring more fully what a six volume history of the black women activists would have looked like.

 

 

 

[1] The second iteration of the BWSD had 405 items by 18 authors. I’m now working with 904 items by 91 unique authors.

 

[i] Naming conventions make NER imperfect for example btoh Sarah Forten and Ruth Dunbar slipped through. Sojourner truth’s name made up of nouns isn’t picke dup by ner and she appears in Vol 1-3, grimke’s slipped through due to their married names, some like anna Julia cooper and ida b wells I could not find

 

[ii] [FN women’s 3x more likely to be followed by rights in BWS than in HWS because of the journal of Charlotte Forten, rights in 25% of the files]

[iii] Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature …

By John Ernes

 

[iv] As Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform

By Teresa Zackodnik

[v] SLIDE “Power will naturally gravitate into the strongest hands, be they white or black; and to strengthen our hands, and base our race-life on those divine certitudes, which are the only safe foundations for either individuals or nations, is of more vital importance to us than being the appendages of any political party.”

 

[vi] “build up an intelligent and virtuous manhood, and a tender, strong and true womanhood, we can afford to wait for political strength while developing moral and spiritual power.“

 

[vii] Footnote? Hands in the NF corpus is associated for women mostly with the maternal role (mother mothers co-occurence at 10L and 10R at LL of 6) but at times denotes power on it s own as in “a woman capable of taking on her hands 130 acres of land.” In other uses, hands appears as a marker of guilty exercises of power, from a MacBeth like bloodstained hands to the “hands,” of “women whippers and cradle-plunderers.”

 

 

[viii] exchange the fetters on their wrists for the ballots in their right hands–a ballot which, if not vitiated by fraud or restrained by intimidation, counts just as much as that of the most talented and influential man in the land.”

 

[ix] “Since then slavery is dead, the colored man has exchanged the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his hand” from 1875. In fact, the association of male power with having the ballot in hand is a recurrent theme through Harper’s writings, appearing also in 1864 “”When the colored man drops the bullet, he must have placed in his hands the ballot” and 1884 “the ballot in the hands of the colored man being an accession to their strength.”

 

[x] “While politicians may stumble on the barren mountain of fretful controversy, and men, lacking faith in God and the invisible forces which make for righteousness, may shrink from the unsolved problems of the hour, into the hands of Christian women comes the opportunity of serving the ever blessed Christ, by ministering to His little ones and striving to make their homes the brightest spots on earth and the fairest types of heaven.”

 

[xi] Like the polluting touch in T and T, is it not madness for a woman to trust her future happiness, and the welfare of the dear children … in the unsteady hands of a characterless man[xi], too lacking in self-respect and self-control to hold the helm and rudder of his own life; who drifts where he ought to steer, and only lasts when he ought to live.

 

 

[xii] I hold that no woman loves social purity as it deserves to be loved and valued, if she cares for the purity of her daughters and not her sons; who would gather her dainty robes from contact with the fallen woman and yet greet with smiling lips and clasp with warm and welcoming hands the author of her wrong and ruin.

 

[xiii] They wrote from their heads, she wrote from her heart. Annette has begun to think; she has been left a great deal to herself, and in her loneliness, she has developed a thoughtfulness past her years, and I think that a love for her race and a desire to serve it has become a growing passion in her soul; her heart has supplied her intellect.

 

[xiv] Of the 294 itemsa ttributed to felame authors, hands appears in 86 of them, by 45 of the individuals. ECS,

[xv] January 1878

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