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1 Introduction When African American poet and essayist Frances E. W. Harper took the podium during the inaugural meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, she spoke with both trepidation and conviction. Aiming to set forth a creed that might guide the fledgling women’s rights organization, Harper declared: ‘‘We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.’’ The year was 1866, and the nation was in the midst of what Harper termed a ‘‘grand and glorious revolution.’’ In the wake of the Civil War, all Americans—especially those of African descent—were engaged in a highly charged debate over freedom, citizenship, and the nation itself. Harper argued that any endeavor to transform the standing of American women required consideration of society’s ‘‘weakest and feeblest’’ members alongside those individuals with their hands ‘‘across the helm.’’ In making her case, Harper drew upon her vantage point as a ‘‘colored woman’’ who, she explained, had felt every man’s hand against her, and hers against every man. Using the term ‘‘man’’ as a universal, Harper underscored how race and gender intersected in her experience of oppression.∞ Harper, a relative newcomer to public speaking, had recently endured a series of personal degradations. After the death of her husband, she explained , a neighbor attempted to seize the few possessions left to Harper and her four children. In this circumstance, Harper understood herself to be bound up with the fate of the many American women who were deprived of meaningful property rights. Harper then told the audience of the di≈culties she encountered when searching for a new home. She felt unwelcome in the many cities that limited her access to streetcars and discriminated against her in the housing market—this had been the case even in Philadelphia, the ‘‘city of brotherly love,’’ and in Boston, where she finally settled. Thus, Harper cast herself as bound up with the burdens of blackness and the myriad injustices 2 Introduction that flowed from race, as well as sex. But, if being an African American woman in the mid-nineteenth century might have engendered self-doubt, in Harper it fostered confidence and conviction. She was among the unprivileged class of Americans, yet Harper held herself out as the embodiment of the country’s crossroads. The most vexing challenges of freedom, citizenship, and the nation’s identity were all bound up together in her. The life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper vividly illustrates the multifaceted lives of mid-nineteenth-century African American female activists. Born to free parents in the slave state of Maryland and orphaned at three, Harper was raised by her uncle, William Watkins, a teacher and Methodist minister.≤ Her early life was spent working as a domestic and then a teacher. Harper began her public life as a writer in the antebellum decades. She went on to defy convention by penning poetry, prose, and polemic in the black press. As a teacher, she accrued important insights into the educational challenges of the Reconstruction era. In 1866, she took the podium at the first postwar women’s rights meeting. Over the course of her life, Harper was celebrated as an antislavery and civil rights advocate, a religious worker, journalist, women’s su√ragist, fraternal order a≈liate, poet, essayist, and commanding public speaker. She well knew the many convergences that characterized nineteenth-century America, and she urged her audience members—who were variously black and white, male and female, northern and southern, young and no longer young—to see them too. Her ideas reflected antebellum political culture, in which civil rights and women’s rights had been intertwined. But she also spoke to the challenges facing a new generation of men and women who were navigating the meanings of freedom and citizenship in a world where earlier alliances appeared fragile. ‘‘We are all bound up together,’’ Harper urged, and with this she placed African American women at the center of the century’s greatest challenges. All Bound Up Together explains how African American activist women, who occupied what was termed by many a marginal position in public life during the 1830s, became visible and authoritative community leaders by the 1890s. Across these seven decades, black female activists transformed their public standing through a process that was always bound up with the shifting fortunes of all black Americans. Three generations of women, often with male allies, engaged in a sustained and multifaceted debate about women in public life. Black women’s prospects...


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