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Reviewed by:
  • Carol Faulkner (bio)
Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. By Leigh Fought. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 401. Cloth, $29.95.)

In this original and engaging interpretation of the life of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought argues that black and white women were essential to his career as an abolitionist and civil rights activist. But what did women want from Frederick Douglass? They wanted a husband, father, friend, or cause, competing roles that Douglass did not fulfill to anyone's satisfaction. In her intricate analysis of his relationships with different women, Fought illuminates the fundamental tensions between Douglass's private and public worlds, between his African American family and the white female abolitionists who encouraged his activism. In doing so, she also challenges the racial and class assumptions that have informed previous interpretations of Douglass's intimate and interracial relationships.

The most important woman in Douglass's life was Anna Murray, a free woman whom he met in Baltimore when he was still enslaved. Their marriage lasted for forty-four years, yet scholars have struggled to understand Anna's continued illiteracy, and they have relied on critical outsiders for comments on her housekeeping skills as well as her unfriendliness, ignorance, and dark coloring. Behind these earlier analyses of the Douglass [End Page 543] marriage was the implication of Frederick's dissatisfaction or unhappiness. Instead, Fought shows that the domesticity of Anna Douglass was a deliberate strategy to counter racism. She saw her role as wife, mother, and homemaker as a privilege and a necessity. In contrast to white assumptions of inferiority or dysfunction, the Douglasses proved they could create an enduring family. Their shared project was not easy. Neither Anna nor Frederick predicted his success as a writer and speaker, which took him away from Anna and their children and moved his family from Massachusetts to New York to Washington, D.C. His career also brought educated, middle-class white women into their lives, destabilizing Anna's authority in her own home.

Though she acknowledges Frederick Douglass's charisma, Fought believes that historians have been too quick to accept rumors of his infidelity with white women such as Julia Griffiths, a British abolitionist, and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist. Both women sought Douglass's friendship, supported his public career, and lived in his home for extended periods of time. While he appreciated their companionship and professional assistance, Anna Douglass viewed them as intruders who monopolized her husband. She also believed their presence attracted unwanted attention to his family life. Some white abolitionists, who worried that Frederick Douglass was garnering financial support from British abolitionists that rightfully belonged to the American Anti-Slavery Society, called Julia Griffiths a "jezebel" to undermine her alliance with Douglass (96). In addition, rather than the reciprocal intimacy portrayed in Maria Diedrich's Love across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (1999), Fought argues that Assing's emotional attachment to Douglass reveals her own dependence on their friendship.

As products of a famous and model African American family, Douglass's children came under special scrutiny. Rosetta, his oldest child, was caught between the domestic sphere of her mother and the activist sphere of her father. Her parents prioritized and politicized her education, sending her to Albany to be educated by abolitionist sisters Lydia and Abigail Mott when Rochester schools proved unwelcoming. For a time, Rosetta worked as a teacher, living with black families in Philadelphia and Salem, New Jersey, but she believed her every move and action came under judgment. Rather than pursue the public career of her father, she chose to create her own family by marrying a former slave named Nathan Sprague. Sprague struggled to find steady work, and Frederick Douglass was critical of his inability to support Rosetta and their children. Rosetta did not abandon her husband and worked to support the family, at times taking in sewing or working for her father in the Recorder of Deeds office. When Douglass [End Page 544] remarried, she was critical, viewing this act as a betrayal of her mother and other African American women.

After the Civil War, women became less important to Douglass's career, but they remained central...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2159-9807
Print ISSN
2154-4727
Pages
pp. 543-545
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-20
Open Access
No
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