Alison Parker’s group biography of six female reformers—Frances Wright, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Frances Watkins Harper, Frances [End Page 465] Willard, and Mary Church Terrell—provides a valuable contribution to our understanding of race and rights by placing black and white women in the same frame and recovering their significance as political thinkers. Parker argues that “American women’s political thought evolved from relying on moral suasion and a states’ rights perspective toward a wholesale embrace of an expansion of federal power” (4). Activists like Harper and Willard campaigned not only for racial and sexual equality but also for a new understanding of the federal government’s responsibility to protect rights, regulate morality, and promote social welfare.
In each chapter, Parker provides a succinct and insightful intellectual biography that skillfully interweaves social, cultural, and political history. Her greatest contribution is addressing the full range of issues these women tackled—including race relations, suffrage, the laws of marriage, education, temperance, sexual morality, theology, and economic justice— while at the same time identifying a core political philosophy that unified each woman’s approach to reform. This is a refreshing change from studies of social movements that divide suffrage, temperance, and abolitionism into separate fields of study.
Parker begins with Frances Wright, the Scottish-born freethinker, whose campaigns for women, slaves, and workers take on more coherence when seen as “all unified by her belief in moral suasion and her states’ rights perspective” (9). Parker then presents the Quaker abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké as a bridge between moral suasion and appeals to federal power. The Grimkés were committed to changing hearts and minds, but they also petitioned “the federal government to repeal the Fugitive Slave Acts, keep slavery out of the territories, or abolish slavery altogether” (13). The most compelling chapters focus on Frances Harper and Frances Willard, demonstrating that black women fought for a place within the often-racist Women’s Christian Temperance Union because it was the most important women’s organization to push for expanding federal power. Harper urged white colleagues to include black people’s priorities in their federal lobbying efforts, but she was sorely disappointed when Willard prioritized appeals to white southern women over persuading the federal government to pass an antilynching law, defend black rights, or abolish the convict lease system. In her last chapter, Parker shows why Mary Church Terrell continued to collaborate with white temperance and suffrage activists who shared her belief in an activist federal government, even as Terrell helped found the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People so that black reformers throughout the nation could define their own priorities. [End Page 466]
The argument that American women increasingly turned toward the nation-state will not come as a surprise to scholars familiar with Allison Sneider’s Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870–1929 (2008), but Parker’s study adds depth and nuance to our understanding of women’s claims on the federal government. Parker’s book insightfully contributes to new scholarship focused on women reformers as intellectuals, an approach exemplified in Ellen Carol DuBois and Richard Cándida Smith’s edited volume Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker: A Reader in Documents and Essays (2007) and the conference “Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women,” held at Columbia University in April 2011. Further, Parker moves beyond simply documenting the racism of white reformers, on the one hand, or the achievements of black women, on the other, to recover a shared debate about citizenship and state power. Like Glenda Gilmore in her influential Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (1996), Parker sees black club women as ambassadors to white organizations but, by focusing on political theory, clarifies how common conceptions of state power could at times bridge racial conflict.
While Parker’s biographical approach reveals much, she does not fully clarify...