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  • Gender, Genre and Slavery:The Other Rowson, Rowson's Others
  • Eileen Razzari Elrod (bio)

Readers familiar with Susanna Rowson as the author of Charlotte Temple (1791, 1794) do not think of her as an abolitionist. But in 1805 Rowson articulated an anti-slavery position in Universal Geography, a textbook addressed to schoolgirls such as those she herself taught at the Young Ladies Academy in Boston. Condemning those who viewed sugar and slavery as a winning equation that would make them rich, Rowson denounced the "purchase and sale of human beings," and insisted that anyone "enlightened by reason and religion" would oppose the "horrid trade," and see it as she did, as "a disgrace to humanity."1 At other points in the text, she condemned both the slave drivers in the West Indies, who "exercise[d] the most unpardonable barbarity and tyranny" over "unresisting sufferers," and North American slave owners, whose characters, she argued, registered the obvious negative effects of their immoral practice.2 It is worth asking how Rowson arrived at this position, particularly because an anti-slavery stance is not recognized as part of her political vision and seems at odds with less progressive perspectives expressed elsewhere. Though her concern with gender persists throughout her career, Rowson's feminism does not for the most part appear to be marked by questions about the intersections of gender, race and power, questions which became important in the mid-nineteenth-century women's movements around abolition, and which thoroughly reshaped late twentieth-century feminisms. The limits of Rowson's feminism, particularly around issues of difference including race and class, have been noted. Marion Rust, for example, describes her "ostracism," her "determined reluctance" to represent the world from the perspective of any disempowered individuals other than the young white women to whom she wrote, and Laura Doyle argues that Rowson is [End Page 163] consistently anglo-centric, that the liberty she imagines and valorizes throughout her work is specifically and exclusively white.3

And, yet, Rowson's attentiveness to the persistent social and political realities that shaped the gender constrictions experienced by early American women suggests at least a nascent awareness of intersecting hierarchies of power and disempowerment. That awareness is most clearly articulated in the anti-slavery statements in the Geography, but Rowson's earlier representations of difference—race, culture, class, religion and nation—in particular in stories of slavery set in Muslim North Africa in Mary; or, The Test of Honour (1789), Slaves in Algiers (1794) and Mentoria (1791) reveal nuances of imaginative constructions of difference, allowing readers to see a shift toward more complex concern for the marginalized and disempowered, certainly for white women, but others as well. In Mary, Slaves, and Mentoria, Rowson presents slavery and captivity as a metaphor for gender oppression, which she initially conceives of as a set of concerns limited for the most part to women like herself; in the Geography, however, she presents slavery as a specific, contemporary evil, which she condemns. That is to say, slavery and captivity emerge initially in her fiction and drama as an idea, a rhetorically useful, but ultimately abstract idea. In Rowson's non-fictional Geography, slavery becomes a deplorable, current, and concrete reality. An examination of Rowson's anti-slavery position in the contexts of her earlier metaphorical use of slavery allows readers to see the possibilities and limits of her feminist vision as she encounters intersecting forms of difference and oppression. Such an examination also highlights the significance of Rowson's rhetorical personae and the expectations and possibilities afforded by genre difference; as she moves from storyteller to teacher, from novel to textbook, she realizes the moral authority to denounce slavery without equivocation.

Narratives of (North) African Captivity: Mary and Slaves in Algiers

Rowson's focus on North Africa in Mary; or, The Test of Honour, Slaves in Algiers, and Mentoria is informed by the immediate circumstances of late-eighteenth-century Barbary corsairs seizing and enslaving European and American travelers in North Africa, a topic of extraordinary concern and preoccupation in the 1790s. American periodicals in this decade featured attempts to raise ransom money and sponsor rescue efforts, even as the U.S congress deliberated whether...


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pp. 163-184
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