restricted access Chapter Three: Not a Woman’s Rights Convention: Remaking Public Culture in the Era of Dred Scott v. Sanford
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87 3 Not a Woman’s Rights Convention Remaking Public Culture in the Era of Dred Scott v. Sanford Mary Ann Shadd could not escape the woman question. During the winter of 1855–56, Mary Ann Shadd toured the United States promoting the emigration of African Americans to Canada. Her subject matter was provocative, yet Shadd found herself ridiculed for her womanhood as much as for her political point of view. Her travels brought her to the National Convention of Colored Citizens, where she sought delegate status and intended to make the case for Canadian emigration. Despite the e√orts of a most influential ally, Frederick Douglass, the male delegates barred Shadd by a vote of twenty-three to three. When challenged to justify this determination , they resolved that the meeting was ‘‘not a woman’s rights convention.’’∞ The tenor of her reception was the same when, just weeks later, she arrived at Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute to debate one of its most prominent members , Isaiah Wears. Shadd’s appearance was preceded by a pointed warning. She would be treated in the same manner as any ‘‘male opponent’’ because she was ‘‘too high spirited to crave any special favor or courtesy.’’≤ Shadd managed to carry the day on the emigration issue with the local three-judge panel voting her the winner over Wears. Still, the rhetoric that surrounded this public appearance had reframed its significance in terms of the woman question. The Cleveland consensus of 1848 had been shattered. Women’s rights, and the female publicity implicit in that notion, had been for a short time a point of convergence for African American political leaders. By the mid-1850s, the same ideas were feared and derided. In some sense, there had always been activists who expressed skepticism about the e≈cacy of a political agenda that embraced two radical sets of interests, those of race and sex. Starting with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the pressures that bore down upon all black Americans were intense and unprecedented. Most ac- 88 Not a Woman’s Rights Convention tivists turned inward, honing their political agenda and returning antislavery and civil rights to the fore. The fate of the early African American women’s movement was bound up with these changes, and a general rethinking of political culture led to the marginalization of the women’s rights issue. For black activists, there was little optimism to go around in the 1850s. The climate only worsened over the course of the decade, with the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which declared black Americans noncitizens, a low point. In the realm of culture, minstrelsy gained newfound popularity and the ambitious political agenda of the late-1840s—one that embraced both race and sex issues—became raw material for cruel parodies that aimed to undercut the political standing of black Americans. Even some of the most outspoken black advocates of women’s rights, such as Frederick Douglass, rethought their views. The result was that women’s rights were put out of the realm of black politics. Activists no longer reached for the logic of female influence to support this posture and instead pointed to the need to restructure political culture. Black conventions simply were not forums for discussion of women’s rights. Shut out of politics, women’s rights advocates adjusted their sights. In churches, the debates over female authority continued. In literary societies, the woman question often occupied center stage in debates and presentations . Fraternal orders worked harder than ever to persuade their female supporters that they should not press for greater access to secret societies. From the perspective of those who were advocating for the rights of black women, no venue was more fruitful than that of print culture. Since the late 1820s, women had been taking pen in hand and shaping the debates that swirled through their public lives. By the mid-1850s, their presence had grown in substance and style. Mary Ann Shadd began publication of the Provincial Freeman, extending the woman question debate into the realm of publishing while also creating a forum in which women’s voices were being heard with unprecedented clarity. A generational shift also shaped the decade. If women such as Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, and Jane Merritt were representatives of the first generation of black women’s rights activists, by the mid-1850s a new generation of young women was poised to join them...