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  • Transatlantic Interracial SisterhoodsSarah Remond, Ellen Craft, and Harriet Jacobs in England
  • Sirpa Salenius (bio)

In the nineteenth century the transatlantic world was animated by an exchange of ideas, texts, and information that circulated between the United States and Europe. Abolitionists, social reformers, and educators who crossed the ocean contributed to the building of bridges of collaboration established around different reform movements and activism. People from various nations participated in creating communication channels that soon became stabilized. Simultaneously they contributed to the forming of an extensive web of alliances, many of which were shaped to form an interracial, intercultural, and transnational network of people dedicated to transforming society through a commitment to such causes as abolitionism and women's rights. In the transatlantic web of cooperation, activists who worked across national borders forged coalitions that embraced reform movements in myriad forms (such as temperance, education, peace, poverty, prison reform, eradication of prostitution, and others). In many instances, the struggle against various forms of discrimination intersected: activists united around such central controversies as slavery and women's rights, two pivotal nineteenth-century issues that in many movements formed a nexus with the common designator of oppression. Indeed, abolitionism and colored solidarity were closely linked to women's liberation movements and the resistance to the ideals of patriarchal (white) society. Women, who at times were divided by rivalries, jealousies, and differences in race, class, and educational background, were nonetheless connected by the shared experience of patriarchal oppression and gender discrimination and by such uniting forces as womanhood and motherhood.

As Paula Baker argues, "'Motherhood' and 'womanhood' were powerful integrating forces that allowed women to cross class, and perhaps even racial, lines."1 Hence, despite the dissimilarities and antagonism that divided them, women considered other women their comrades in fighting against oppression. Women who were engaged in transforming society often recognized [End Page 166] that other females would be their strongest allies—socially, culturally, and politically—and therefore, in their efforts to gain support for the causes for which they were campaigning, activist women directly appealed to the shared womanhood of the female audiences they were addressing. Thus women, be they fugitive or former slaves, or abolitionists and suffragettes, joined forces to realize their ideals. They established associations, organizations, leagues, and sisterhoods where women shouldered the responsibilities of leadership, assumed control, and forged ahead, expanding their transatlantic networks that covered the United States and Europe. Together they created transatlantic sisterhoods, dedicated to assisting the less privileged and more oppressed members of society. They formed sisterhoods, which were a demonstration of how women organized their activities with the aim of creating extensive international and interracial communities geared to resist racism and gendered power asymmetries. As white and black women united around common causes, they displaced dominant norms, creating a counter-narrative to patriarchy and anti-blackness; women assumed agency and participated in social and political struggle as they resolutely worked against discrimination and reworked conceptualizations of gendered subjectivity. In sum, as they assumed agency, women became involved in counter-hegemonic acts of resistance to oppression.

defining sisterhood

Feminist scholars have tried to define the concept of sisterhood, which is based on complex and politically charged relationships between women, often established around various forms of activism. Scholar Felly Nkweto Simmonds, for instance, discusses the difference between sisterhood and friendship, pointing out that based on the definitions found in A Feminist Dictionary (1985), sisterhoods involve a "discovery of shared oppression," while the main difference between the two concepts, Nkweto Simmonds convincingly argues, is that "sisterhood was constructed as political act, whereas friendship remained in the personal/private."2 However, sisterhood and friendship are concepts that often overlap, which renders it difficult to separate the two and clearly define the similarities and differences between them. Although a shared experience or unifying notions, such as oppression or womanhood, or such integrating terms as solidarity and alliance, are important both in sisterhood and friendship, the tendency of scholars, according to Nkweto Simmonds, is to ignore difference. Many scholars, for example, tend to refer to black women as a homogenized group, a hegemonic construction of blackness, and thus "a solid base for sisterhood," without acknowledging differences [End Page 167] between...


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pp. 166-196
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