- Her Voice Will Be on the Side of Right: Gender and Power in Women’s Antebellum Antislavery Fiction by Holly M. Kent
Professor Holly M. Kent has written a much-needed account of the fiction published by female abolitionists in the antebellum era. When historians have examined antislavery women, they have usually directed their attention to their subjects’ activities, but, as Professor Kent points out, “it is important to examine not only what antislavery women actually did but also what antislavery women imagined” (8). This focus allows Her Voice Will Be on the Side of Right to illuminate constitutive philosophical tensions in women’s, particularly white women’s, antislavery thought: both its “radical promise”—its challenges to repressive gender and racial hierarchies and validation of women’s moral and thus potential political authority—and its “troubling limitations”—its failure to envision African American women as equals or fully imagine a “female power . . . disconnected from female domesticity” (8).
Professor Kent delves into these contradictions by retrieving a wide swath of ignored writers and their forgotten antislavery stories. She examines texts published in “six antislavery newspapers, six gift books, and three periodicals intended for child readers,” as well as “twenty-seven antislavery novels written by twenty-two authors” and the papers of a variety of editors and publishers (11). The authors include relatively well-known women like Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Wilson, and E. D. E. N. Southworth but overlooked significant writers such as Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Sarah Mapps Douglass, Hannah F. Gould, Eliza Lee Follen, Maria Weston Chapman, Caroline W. Healey Dall, Eliza Leslie, and Harriet Newell Green Butts. Most interestingly, Professor Kent also investigates a host of anonymous authors, including a number of women of color.
This rich antislavery literature, as Professor Kent discovers, was fretted through with lines of tension that heavily impacted social movements like abolition but also later feminism and civil rights. Of particular note in Professor Kent’s analysis is the tension over the proper political roles of white and African American women. She points out that antebellum gender ideology expected women to be more emotional and sympathetic and thus, after overcoming their initial squeamishness, a more receptive audience for antislavery [End Page 97] appeals. At the same time, women had no actual public power to act upon that sympathy. They could teach (male) children, they could plead with sons, husbands, brothers, but the old tactics of “republican motherhood” and “moral suasion” fell flatter and flatter as the glorious possibility of abolition receded amid the slave-owning south’s intensified intransigence and aggression. As the antebellum era waned, women’s antislavery fiction thus exhibited increasing frustration with the limitations of its own gender ideology. Questions of an antislavery violence to match proslavery violence, particularly the potential violence of African American women, began to haunt these fictions, while they anxiously urged white men to political action yet represented “efforts to use feminine moral suasion on behalf of abolitionism as abject, dramatic failures” (135).
Professor Kent tracks the progress into this ideological quandary as she follows the fictions decade by decade, with the final chapter on the 1850s being the finest and most detailed one. My lone criticism of the book is that Professor Kent could have done more in the earlier chapters to tip us into the world of these texts. I would have appreciated further plot summary, quotation, and analysis combined with more leisurely portraits of the authors and their specific, even idiosyncratic ideological aims and rhetorical moves. The study threatens at times to paint these fictions with too broad a brush. (But I am also ready to concede that my frustration on this one point stems from the disciplinary difference between English and history departments, so I am perhaps being a bit unfair.)
Professor Kent is performing crucial recovery work and analysis. Critical understandings of antislavery literature have rested too heavily upon the shoulders of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and, while, as Lincoln may or may not...