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'Peculiarly Woman's Cause': Feminism, Race, and the Struggle for Equality

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 28, Number 2, June 2000
pp. 223-229 | 10.1353/rah.2000.0029

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Reviews in American History 28.2 (2000) 223-229
Julie Roy Jeffrey. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xii + 311 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

Louise Michele Newman. White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. vii + 261 pp. Illustrations, notes, selected bibliography, and index. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

In 1838, the issue of race nearly destroyed the newly-formed Female Anti-Slavery Society of Fall River, Massachusetts. The Society, founded by women from some of the city's most respected white families, was busy organizing lectures, signing petitions, and raising money when three free black women-already regular attendees at meetings-applied for membership. According to Elizabeth Buffum Chace, a founding member of the Society, few of the white members objected to black women attending the meetings. "But they did not think," Chace recorded in her diary, "it was at all proper to invite them to join the Society, thus putting them on an equality with ourselves." The Society survived, however, after Chace and her sister "maintained [their] ground" and the "respectable young colored women" were invited to become full members.

The struggle to integrate the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Fall River points directly to the major themes of two important new monographs on women and race, Julie Roy Jeffrey's The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism and Louise Michele Newman's White Women's Rights. Both books mine substantial and original bodies of primary sources, are lucidly written, and build on the excellent scholarship of the past quarter century. Yet each book points in an entirely different direction. Jeffrey recounts the Fall River incident as part of a larger effort to correct a myopic tendency by historians of the antislavery movement to focus on men, even as they claim (as many of the abolitionists themselves did) how vital women were to the abolitionist project. By concentrating on unpublished letters from ordinary abolitionist women, often left languishing in the well-mined collections of prominent male abolitionists, as well as diaries and scattered organizational records, Jeffrey illustrates how women's day-to-day work kept abolitionism alive. In her telling of the Fall River incident, Jeffrey points to a largely unexplored contradiction: why antislavery women could believe they were so intimately linked with and attuned to enslaved black women, especially mothers, and not to free black members of their own communities. She writes how white women activists often spoke of a "special sensitivity, based on gender" to the plight of slave women, or as one group of Ohio abolitionists put it, "the cry of the sable mother" (p. 65).

Newman, whose book is largely concerned with the years 1870-1920, takes as her subject feminism itself. Her provocative thesis goes well beyond the older view that certain white feminists held racist or ethnocentric ideas and attempts to isolate a racial (and, indeed, racist) component within feminism itself. It thus joins a growing literature on "whiteness" and the formation of racial identity pioneered by historians like David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev, adding a missing female element to their examinations of the links between racism and America's democratic movements. Much of Newman's argument rests on her explications of nineteenth-century evolutionary models, and how they affected the development of feminist ideology. In chapters focusing on topics as diverse as the Indian reform movement of the 1880s, the popular response to May French-Sheldon's African Safari in the 1890s, and Margaret Mead's failure to overcome her cultural ethnocentrism while attacking Victorian ideas of evolutionary assimilation, Newman sets out a detailed explanation of how feminism emerged as a racialized theory of gender oppression.

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Perhaps the most rewarding of Jeffrey's many contributions here is the subtle and complex portrait of the grassroots army of women-black and white-who sustained the antislavery movement over the decades preceding emancipation. The labors Jeffrey records include many of those familiar in previous works on antislavery: public lecturing, editorial writing, and the harboring of fugitive slaves. But she...

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