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Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture.

New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. xxi + 226 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $27.50 (cloth); $13.00 (paper).

Both Jean Fagan Yellin's Women and Sisters and Lawrence Foster's Women, Family, and Utopia deal with nineteenth-century women and community: "sisters" in Yellin's case, members of communal experiments in Foster's. In some respects, the women who populate Foster's work react in a different manner to the same pressures that drove Yellin's women to seek change through revolutionary activity. Yellin's mostly white abortionist feminists equated their condition with that of slaves. The notion appears in Foster's book, articulated by a male, however, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of Oneida, who found marriage a form of slavery. That brief comparison suggests a great deal. Yellin's women act for themselves and to help others. Most of Foster's women live under conditions men prescribe. Describing her fewer, but more publicly active, subjects, Yellin's work, narrower in focus but less traditional in approach, is more successful. Foster's work is ambitious but flawed.

Shortly after the Revolution, antislavery American males adopted an English abolitionist slogan--"Am I Not a Man and a Brother," which accompanied an illustration of a chained black male slave--and gave it widespread publicity. Yellin's book begins as a close analysis of the later, related slogan and accompanying illustration--"Am I Not a Woman and a Sister"--which challenged white women to respond and helped to inspire both abolition and women's rights. Other writers, notably Blanche Glassman Hersh, in The Slavery of Sex: Feminist-Abolitionists in America (1978), have focused on the connection between the two great reform movements. What is new and imaginative in this book is the close visual and textual analysis of the slogan and its representations in numerous forms, and the consideration of related women's texts--the novels of Lydia Maria Child, the writings of Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Harriet Jacob's journal, and Sojourner Truth's speeches. With trained eye and ear, Yellin explores the silent discourse of black and white women and "the political subtext" of her documents, moving from the radical implications of the female abolitionists' works to the encoding and weakening of the symbol of the chained slave in male cultural artifacts, literary works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, and sculptures by William Wetmore Story and Hiram Powers.

Yellin does not pretend that close reading or observation is sufficient to explicate her sources. Her background research is impressively broad, covering such topics as Roman medals, the prints of Durer, and antislavery coins. Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter is analyzed only after his exposure to the slavery issue is made clear. Before discussing Powers's The Greek Slave, Yellin narrates events that occurred around him during his twenty-year residence in Cincinnati, events which included the destruction of James Birney's abolitionist press and a famous fugitive slave case. Henry James receives similar treatment.

Yellin's argument is fairly straightforward. Without reference to any contemporary studies about the value of the visual image, she succinctly describes the abolitionists' acceptance of emotional appeals. The First Anti slavery Convention of American Women in 1837 recommended multiplying "pictorial representations" of slavery a "hundred fold, so that the speechless agony of the fettered slave may unceasingly appeal to the heart of the patriot, the philanthropist, and the christian" (p. 5). That image of the female slave, chained to the ground and appearing far more helpless and vulnerable than the athletic-looking male slave, inspired white women who increasingly identified with their enslaved sisters as they became aware that they themselves were oppressed. "We were manacled ourselves," Abby Kelley noted (p. 50). Often, however, white abolitionist women confused causes and issues, conflating their own situations with the far worse condition of female slaves. Sometimes, too, they acted as though female slaves were incapable of helping themselves, but they recognized that in working to end the oppression of blacks they were liberating themselves.

Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth, slave and ex-slave, understood the differences between being legally chattel and legally free. Put simply, white women were not in irons. In Yellin's well-chosen words, Jacobs and Truth transformed themselves "from the objects of the discourse of others into the subjects of their own discourse" (p. 79). In the process, Truth exposed the racism of the antislavery movement and Jacobs made sexuality central to her work, describing her out-of-wedlock baby as a tie to life; together they presented the most serious antebellum challenge to the patriarchal definition of true womanhood.

In the hands of abolitionist women, white and black, the image of the chained slave, however applied, was powerful and effective, although, Yellin argues, Harriet Beecher Stowe's representation of Sojourner Truth in her article "The Lybian Sibyl" portrayed a knowledgeable but passive figure, who became the inspiration for William Wetmore Story's 1861 sculpture, a pensive figure much like that of defeated barbarians in Roman art. Similarly, Hiram Powers's Greek Slave (1841-1847) was a figure of resignation, and, since the figure was not black, hardly recognizable as a slave except for her chained wrists. The iconography of the antislavery feminists had been reencoded, "pressed ... into the service of patriarchal discourse" (p. 124).

Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) completed the reencoding, being "perhaps the most complex and influential literary work that uses the antislavery women's iconography to reject their ideology" (p. 125). Hester, a publicly exposed woman, a thing, in the end achieves her identity not by protesting but by conforming. Hawthorne did not like reformers. Hester, like Hawthorne on slavery, believed that change would come for women in Heaven's own time. In Hawthorne, as in Powers, the chained woman was a victim, not a person capable of asserting power.

Women and Sisters is an exciting book; still, the discussion of the white woman-slave analogy needs to be expanded. It is not sufficient to cite Jacobs and Truth that white women were not in chains. The nature of marriage for white women needs to be described. How close were white women to being unfree? Without implying that all women were horribly oppressed by dictatorial husbands, one needs to note that married white women were raped and beaten, that they lost their children and their property, that--however free they were before marrying--as wives they had few rights and little protection. Black slave women and white married women had more in common than one reads of in this book. The analogy was concrete, real, and useful.

Again, without suggesting an identity of condition, the analogy may be illustrated by correcting one of the comments of Harriet Jacobs, who pleads with her reader, in Yellin's words, "not to judge her too harshly" (p. 93). "|You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice." In fact, those sentiments were identical to ones uttered even by men in the temperance movement. By the 1840s, footsteps emerged as ominous sounds, so much so that they appear in a temperance hymn:

The wife worse than widowed, forlorn and heart-broken,

While hunger and want make her little ones cry;

All trembling and pale, hears the terrible token

Of anguish, the steps of her husband are nigh![1]

Moreover, given the centrality of the free woman-black slave analogy to Yellin, it deserves the same detailed exploration as the subjects that led her through Roman art and Durer prints. English women, whom I have called early feminists, long identified white women with slaves. In 1668, over 150 years before the abolitionists Yellin considers, Margaret Cavendish indicated that, given the conditions of life, men seemed to be "made for Liberty, and Women for slavery." In 1700, Mary Astell asked: "If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves." Several decades later, Lady Montagu found wives condemned "to daily Racks ... and to eternal Chains."[2] Mary Wollstonecraft too, in the dedication to Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) wrote: women "may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent."

More familiarity with historical sources of the Revolutionary period might haveled Yellin to the extraordinary use made of the concept of slavery by white male Americans during the Revolutionary period who compared themselves to flogged and shackled slaves. The quotations are numerous, access to them available in F. Nwabueze Okoye's remarkable, but seldom cited, article, "Chattel Slavery as the Nightmare of the American Revolutionaries" in the William and Mary Quarterly (1980).

Nonetheless, despite some historical omissions, Yellin's Women and Sisters is a major contribution to literary and historical studies of slavery and feminism.

Like Yellin, Lawrence Foster announces a clear purpose. Women, Family, and Utopia is a sequel to Foster's earlier study of Shakers, Mormons, and Oneida Community, the well-received Religion and Sexuality: Three-American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (1981), a volume that, he notes, did not give him the chance to investigate issues of contemporary concern, specifically issues of importance to feminists.

But feminists are not well served by this book. Nor is it of particular help to specialists in women's or family history. Not that the book lacks useful information or interpretation. Taking issue with many historical studies, Foster has written a sympathetic description and analysis of groups which, in his mind, had much in common in their "millennial religious vision" (p. 223) and, somewhat surprisingly, staying power. These were, after all, groups that challenged perhaps the most basic concepts of society--the organization of families and sexual relations between men and women. Shakers renounced those relations; Oneida settlers expanded them greatly, as did Mormons, at least for a select few. Each of the groups prospered, despite harassment and outside pressures.

Foster describes clearly events in the history of his communal groups. He offers numerous portraits of key individuals, including Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, Noyes, and of numerous Mormons. He covers such matters as the financial success of the Shakers, which allowed them to donate thousands of dollars to feed the New York City poor, and the breakup of the Oneida settlement and its incorporation in 1881 as the now famous Oneida Community. The book presents concise histories of three important groups whose original members (in the case of the Oneida settlers and the Mormons) and later additions (in the case of the Shakers) responded to threatening social changes in the early nineteenth century by creating enclaves and adopting new modes of relationships they felt they could control. And Foster discusses the religious and economic roles of women in all three societies, each having in common the subordination of women (and ostensibly men) to the overall well-being of the community. In all that, Women, Family, and Utopia is an exceptionally well-researched, and well-written book to which one might turn with confidence.

The problems of the book do not relate to those fascinating stories. Foster has not incorporated enough material to suit his original purpose. He is not clear about what the contemporary issues are that he feels are of importance to women; in general terms they seem to be balancing home and employment, individual and group interests. But if one thinks of feminist issues today as more radical, more political--violence against women in or out of the home, abortion, pornography, poverty, sexism, the rights of lesbians--this book has little to offer.

Despite the title, the book does not deal in great enough depth with women or families, and not at all with utopias, Foster even concluding that none of his groups was utopian, which, by his definition, involves commitment to "static perfection." Rather, the groups considered themselves "millenarian not utopian," emphasizing as they did "a concept of perfection as a continuing process of development..." (p. 293). While one should, therefore, drop "utopia" from the title, one could as legitimately drop women and families. There is at least as much material about men, there are surprising gaps in information about women, and there is very little of note about families.

Women, Family, and Utopia is mostly about men and men's desires. Perhaps that is not surprising, since the Oneida community and Mormonism were male in origin. Foster should early have posed the fundamental question of how women's interests were to be nurtured in societies, utopian or not, led by men. As Carol A. Kolmerten wrote in Women in Utopia: The Ideology of Gender in the American Owenite Communities (1990), "Utopian visions, with few exceptions have always been grounded firmly in one of the most obscure abstractions of modern history: patriarchal power" (p. 2). However much Mormonism and polygamy offered women, for example, Foster presents no evidence that any (male) Mormon leader ever consulted a single woman about church policy, and certainly not about polygamy. Rather, what one reads time and again is that Mormon men imposed polygamy over the objections of many men and without concern for women.

But Foster does not use that information for any serious analysis of the nature of that society. He cites a few instances of Joseph Smith's taking plural wives, and reveals that one woman was sixteen when Smith presented himself and another fourteen. While Foster is aware of the pressure on girls, including the threat that there could be no salvation without acceptance of polygamous offers, he does not then consider the nature of the society that tolerated such pressure--what it says about women's place, even in a society that accepted women's suffrage and women's professional employments (topics he does discuss with clarity).

Nor does Foster go from those particulars about Smith's plural marriages to any general account of marriage ages, which by now would be standard in any book dealing with family. Other studies have shown that polygamous husbands (who were a small minority) married first at an average age of twenty-three, again at thirty-six; the average age for a man at his third marriage was forty; the average age of the women such men married was twenty, twenty-five, and twenty-two. Surely that deserves comment.[3]

Foster does not have much to say about families, their sizes, discipline, arrangements. One learns that there were children among the Shakers--orphans or children brought by married people who joined the community--but one learns nothing about how they were raised, schooled, punished. The same can be said for treatment of the Oneida children. Nor is there information about Mormon families. While family size in America was declining, and women on the frontier were practicing birth control, Mormon women had large families as the Mormons tried to establish for themselves a powerful society. But for details of Mormon family size, one must look elsewhere. One study indicates that monogamous wives had an average of 7.83 children, polygamous wives 7.45.[4] What that meant in the lives of the women is left to the imagination.

Women, Family, and Utopia lacks adequate information about who the women were who joined these communal groups. Obviously, their joining, when they were free to make their own decisions, had something to do with their reactions to their contemporary societies, perhaps particularly to the nature of marriage. Appropriately, Foster asks why thousands of Americans were "so dissatisfied with conventional marriage and sex-role patterns" (p. 4) that they would join innovative groups, but he hardly attempts an answer. There is little here about marriage or sex-roles. The best information is in a devastating quotation from an 1823 Shaker work on marital sex and its consequences that noted "the pains and sorrows of childbirth," "the libidinous passions of ... husband[s]," and the deaths of thousands of women "in consequence of the unseasonable and excessive indulgence of this passion" (pp. 35-36).

That powerful statement is not set in context, its accuracy demonstrated, its radicalness emphasized, nor referred to again as it might have been in a discussion of those large Mormon families. Comments as explicit and provocative as that Shaker outburst are rare in 1823, rare even among women's rights activists later in the century. This book begs for comparative information about traditional marriage, changing marriage and divorce laws, child custody, options, about family violence, and family size. About marriage in the outside communities one learns little besides details about Ann Lee, who endured four painful deliveries, all of her children dying before age six. Noyes thought the "|the law of marriage worketh wrath'" (p. 94), and he thought married women lived in "slavelike, domestic bondage" (p. 94), but there is no description of that bondage. While Foster notes that contemporary feminists emphasize a notion of male oppression, he thinks Shakers might challenge that notion, without providing any supporting reasons. That women fled from marriage, that women in child-bearing years predominated in Shaker communities might be sufficient evidence to cause one to doubt Foster's conclusion.[5]

Lastly, although Foster openly acknowledges that this book is in part a reworking of his earlier study and admits in his preface that many of the chapters, now substantially revised, first appeared elsewhere, he does not adequately indicate the extent of the duplication. This is not a book that brings together an author's scattered articles, but one that incorporates long sections, word for word, from his 1981 text. At times, that appears simply questionable, as when he refers to "recent research" about antebellum sexual problems, his sources being books from 1977 and 1978, which were in fact quite recent when he first cited them in 1981. More serious, at least to me, are similarities between the conclusions of the last two books, including the word for word repetition of the last two sentences.

Yellin and Foster have written books that deal with women who responded in different ways to the evils they perceived. Their books share a flaw in not adequately describing the societies their subjects criticized. In Foster's case, there are other serious omissions. In Yellin's case, one can simply indicate that more material would have made a very good book better. [1.] "Woes of Intemperance," in John Marsh, Temperance Hymn Book and Minstrel: A Collection of Hymns, Songs and Odes, for Temperance Meetings and Festivals (1841), p. 17. [2.] Jerome Nadelhaft, "The Englishwoman's Sexual Civil War: Feminist Attitudes towards Men, Women, and Marriage 1650-1740," Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1982), p. 567. [3.] For a summary of this information, see Julie Roy Jeffrey, Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippp West 1840-1880 (1979), p. 165. [4.] Jeffrey, p. 165. [5.] Ruby Rohrlich, "The Shakers: Gender Equality in Hierarchy," in Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch, Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers (1984).

Jerome Nadelhaft, Department of History, University of Maine, is the author of The Disorder of War: The Revolution in South Carolina (1981), and is writing a book about wife abuse in nineteenth-century America.
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Author:Nadelhaft, Jerome
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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