- Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World, and: Women's Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation, and: From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century
Essays on Brazilian abolition, early European feminists' use of the concept of emancipation, and the strategies of freedwomen in French West Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might seem far afield for a JER review. Rather than being out of place, however, their inclusion signals compelling directions in the study of abolition, emancipation, and women's rights, and of the early United States more generally.
The three works under review, two edited collections and one monograph, cover much time and space and many peoples, but they share a common interest in how people in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world built lives and communities free from bondage based on race or gender or dedicated themselves to freeing others from those shackles. Rather than analyzing broad causes and effects, the authors, with some exceptions, explore developments close to the ground. Taken together, the books argue that to understand the process of emancipation, the meaning of freedom, and the nature of reform activity, we must focus on the lived experiences of individuals or groups. The personal is political, and vice versa, the authors stress.
To steer scholars in a new direction in the study of emancipation, Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World asks how gender affected men's and women's emergence from slavery and how ex-slaves remade gender relations as part of that transformation. While the volume surveys the Atlantic world, the individual authors generally take particular nations, colonies, or regions as their analytical units. The collective [End Page 571] result is an illuminating examination of gender and the ending of slavery in given places (as opposed to an approach featuring the circulation of peoples, ideas, or practices) that reveals how distinct local dynamics led to differences in the reworking of gender relations. There is a big picture, however: Men benefitted more from emancipation than women did.
In the first section, "Men, Women, and Citizens," five essays consider how gender ideologies shaped political agency and ideas about freedom and citizenship. An 1834 court case involving a Cape Colony freedman, who asserted to a poor white widow his right to marry her daughter, is Pamela Scully's starting point to plumb newly freed men's expectations about the "special rights and responsibilities" they gained as emancipated men (44). Scully's chapter opens the book effectively not only because it conveys the immediate and personal nature of freedpeople's efforts to fashion their gendered and political identities, but also because it flags the frequent problem that freedpeople's voices are highly mediated. To avoid the problem, Mimi Sheller relies on sources that record the speech of her subjects. Her essay, which argues that working-class black Jamaican men constructed masculinity and citizenship in part in opposition to foreign men, calls attention to another important direction for the study of Atlantic world slavery and emancipation, namely, comparisons and connections to the Indian Ocean world.
Four chapters in "Families, Land, and Labor" probe women's efforts to rebuild or protect their families and to grasp some measure of economic autonomy. Bridget Brereton, for example, examines women's much-discussed withdrawal from plantation labor after British Caribbean emancipation. She concludes that, while significant, the phenomenon has been "wildly exaggerated" (146) and explains shifts in women's work as part of family strategies to escape planters' control. Ileana Rodriguez Silva's essay encapsulates...