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Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement.

Carol Faulkner, Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Carol Faulkner has placed women in the center of Reconstruction in this well-crafted book. She demonstrates the origins of women's political culture in debates over freedmen's relief and suggests how militant white and black female reformers clashed with male advocates of free labor ideology. Abolitionist feminists, suggests Faulkner, placed the immediate needs of destitute freedpeople over the Republican Party's ideological concerns. Working closely with recently freed slaves, white and black women were continually frustrated by the lack of support for relief, land reform, and reparations that they viewed as just. This militant stance was stymied by a male political culture that debased female reform and sought to prevent black "dependence" on the federal government. Women's vision of freedom, it seems, differed from men's and we are indebted to Faulkner for illuminating this dynamic.

By examining the activism of middle-class African-American reformers, Faulkner also demonstrates the crucial role black women played in Reconstruction. In many ways these activist women had more in common with their white counterparts than the freedwomen whose suffering they sought to alleviate. During the Civil War, for example, abolitionist and former slave Harriet Jacobs worked closely with Julia Wilbur, a white reformer from Rochester, to urge the government to materially aid slave refugees. Their efforts met considerable resistance from the military who feared the dependency of freedpeople. Even abolitionist men, who had long supported women's rights, sought to marginalize female reformers such as Jacobs and Wilbur. Faulkner suggests these Republican men saw an opportunity to gain a new respectability and did so by asserting "manhood rights" and denigrating feminine styles of reform.

To foster independence among freedpeople freedmen's aid societies advocated education among former slaves. Although this was a departure from the direct relief and land reform many female reformers viewed as crucial to the survival of freedpeople, they also viewed education as an opportunity to support themselves and become central players in Reconstruction. Faulkner thoroughly dispels the myth of the "Yankee schoolmarm" by describing the work northern teachers, black and white, carried out in the South. Indeed it was women who kept the freedmen's schools going as white northern support waned after 1870 and southern legislatures failed to support public education for African Americans. Faulkner's focus on the work of African-American women in education during this early period is particularly welcome as it helps explain the roots of the powerful black women's club movement of the late nineteenth century. Teachers such as Charlotte Forten, from a prominent free black family in Philadelphia, served as mediators between freedpeople and northern reformers. Yet they also experienced the cultural and educational gap between themselves and their students. These were "race women" who sought to both uplift the race and establish their own middle-class identities.

Although Faulkner downplays the conflict between white and black abolitionist-feminists over the fifteenth amendment, which gave freedmen the vote, it is clear that Reconstruction politics created a separate African-American political movement. Organizations such as the African Civilization Society worked outside the purview of white freedmen's agencies, and increasingly African-American women sought independence to shape a politics that incorporated their concerns for both women's rights and racial equality. Although Faulkner acknowledges the "discriminatory employment practices of white societies, and the dominance of white abolitionists" she does not fully explore this aspect of the freedmen's agencies (79). It may be that previous historians have overly stressed the racism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but in the daily workings of freedmen's agencies the marginalization of African-American women clearly had consequences.

Faulkner points out that African-American and white reformers both made missteps in their attempts to aid freedpeople. Most significantly reformers who acted as employment agents urged freedwomen to migrate north as individual workers, often leaving behind family members. Employment agents placed freedwomen in domestic service in northern homes, an occupation they viewed as suitable. To their surprise some former slaves expressed outrage at having their families broken up, and were frustrated by the lack of employment options. This conflict over family life and domesticity demonstrated the agency of freedwomen when interacting with northern reformers. Former slaves placed the reuniting and commitment to families above all else, including the wage labor favored by northerners. White women in particular, notes Faulkner, failed to take this into account and often separated children from parents to establish economic independence. Efforts to teach "industrial education" also led to exploitative relationships that freedwomen vehemently protested. These examples suggest that freedwomen's resistance to the most condescending and exploitative efforts of the freedmen's aid movement played an important role in shaping the dynamics of Reconstruction.

Faulkner likens the lack of understanding between freedpeople and reformers to the growing divide between middle-class African-American and white women in the North. By the 1870s African-American women reformers were allying with elite black men, rather than their white female colleagues, for support. Black reformers continued their efforts to educate and materially aid freedpeople while white women turned toward racially exclusive temperance and suffrage movements. Despite these later divisions Faulkner's recognition that African-American women played a crucial role in freedmen's aid shifts our understanding of women's political culture and reform in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. The maternalist politics and call for a welfare state that defined this culture emerged from a bi-racial coalition of activists during and after the Civil War. Faulkner reminds us that the splintering of this coalition should not blind us to its significance.

Victoria W. Wolcott, University of Rochester
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Author:Wolcott, Victoria W.
Publication:Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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