For this brief post, I wish to talk about a few documentaries I have found via YouTube on the African American experience. As a surprisingly memorable Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to think about what we as historians and instructors in the classroom can use for both research and teaching tools. There is plenty in these documentaries that should interest us as both historians of the United States and of intellectual discourse in the nation’s history. Remember: they are only a sampling of what is available via YouTube, not to mention other streaming services that your college or university (if you happen to be a student or professor at one) has access to through its library.
Phillis Wheatley walked the White City, thanks mainly to the black women of Pittsburgh. A bronze bust of the colonial-era poet, contracted by a local group of women citizens and crafted by African-American sculptress Edmonia Lewis, gazed out at the World’s Fair of 1893. The Paris-trained Lewis reduced her usual fees to finish the commission. “This is indeed a little history, and always to be remembered,” she wrote of recreating Wheatley. Around Wheatley, in the Woman’s Building, roughly 200,000 attendees came in waves. In a show of intellectual citizenship that amplified new political needs, American women gathered to hear a global congress of speakers address them in the poet’s shadow. Six African-American women leaders, all presidents or pioneers in diverse fields, stood ready to take the Chicago stage and talk history. Today, resuming my series on early American women intellectuals, let’s see another set of founders step out of their frames and speak. Continue reading
Historical Perspective: The Women’s March of 2017 and the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913
By Michele Rosen
Since November 9, I’ve been thinking a lot about Alice Paul. I’ve always found it remarkable that Paul continued to fight for women’s rights even after putting her body on the line for seven years to win the fight for women’s suffrage. If she were alive today, I think Paul would be saddened but not surprised by the loss of the first female major party candidate for president. I also think she would have been front and center at the Women’s March on Washington. Given these thoughts, it’s no surprise that, while participating in the Women’s March, I saw the unfolding events in part through the lens of the Woman Suffrage Procession, which Paul organized on the day before Inauguration Day in 1913, and at which thousands of women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand their right to vote in the first large-scale inauguration protest (Dwyer).
As Alan Barth wrote, “News is only the first rough draft of history.” As a former journalist, I felt as if I was standing in just such a rough draft from the moment I arrived on the steps of the Capitol on the way to the rally on January 21, 2017. Emerging as it did in the skeletal remains of the inauguration, with barriers, fences, and stands still lining the streets, the March felt like a rebirth: a phoenix rising out of the ashes, wearing a knitted pink pussy hat and carrying a sign that read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” We cannot know now how historians of the future will perceive the march, whether it will be a footnote or one of the first signs of a re-emergent progressive movement. But a number of speakers at the rally emphasized the event’s historical significance. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand explicited referred to the Woman Suffrage Procession, adding that the March represented “the beginning of the revival of the women’s movement.” Angela Davis asserted that the marchers must “recognize that we are collective agents of history.” Several other speakers referred to feminists and activists of the past, from their mothers and grandmothers to Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. While we cannot know the place of the March in history, we can afford ourselves of the lessons of history by considering the March in the context of the Woman Suffrage Procession and its aftermath.
Normally, around this time of year, we at S-USIH would post something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and American intellectual history. Considering that today is King’s actual birthday—we as a nation observe it tomorrow—I highly recommend reading works on King and intellectual history. Whether it is Richard King’s book on civil rights history and intellectual history, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom, or the still-underrated From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson, and numerous works in between, King’s legacy within intellectual history is one that has been explored time and again by historians. Not to mention the fact that King’s legacy as shaped by American memory is also slowly being explored by historians, and King offers plenty for intellectual historians to explore.
Today, though, I would like to take a moment to talk about Coretta Scott King. Her own leadership in the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after MLK’s death—is worth its own monograph length work. After all, Coretta Scott was already an activist and thinker long before she met Martin Luther King, Jr.
She was named for the ship that stole her away. At seven years old, Phillis Wheatley crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, another dot in the mosaic of roughly six million enslaved Africans who landed in the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Small and so young, she became Boston merchant John Wheatley’s gift to wife Susannah. Early on, Phillis’ talent shone. She mastered Latin and Greek, earning transatlantic praise for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry by an African-American, published in London in 1773. She sat for an author portrait, toured England, met George Washington, and, finally, secured her freedom before dying, impoverished, in 1784.
Early Americans and early Americanists have pored over her too-brief career ever since. Phillis Wheatley’s byline alone, threading together her sacrifice and her sale, bears hard history in it. As an African-American founding mother of our national literary tradition, Wheatley owns a leading role in survey classes, public statues, and cultural memory. Wheatley’s last manuscript, 300 pages of poetry, may be lost; but we hold pieces of her legacy intact. Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I pass by her writing desk nearly every day. It’s not the one in her formal portrait. Rather, it’s the mahogany “card or tea table” that John Wheatley gifted Phillis with sometime during her long servitude. Ball-and-claw feet grip the carpet. A neat apron-front drawer has room enough for cards, ink, and a few cottony sheets of colonial paper. Sold at auction to settle her heavy debts, the poet’s desk is a rich artifact of literary technology, an Enlightenment-era laptop. Polished and bare, Phillis Wheatley’s desk raises the question: Who took up her pen? Continue reading
A few months ago, I sketched out this blog series, a new intellectual history of early American women. I was encouraged to see your reading list ideas (here and here) roll in. Over the summer, I canvassed bibliographies and archives, curating a portrait gallery of names, places, and ideas to fill many posts. I made a template, too: Supply a capsule biography; show how each woman fits into the “standard” American history survey class, or why she doesn’t; say where to find and assign her work. There’s one more (experimental!) piece to my series, A Woman’s Work, but you’ll have to keep reading for it. This is a public history project in progress, so please feel free to weigh in with ideas. We will swerve through history, ranging from the 1630s to the 1890s. Later on, I can organize subjects by theme, region, or era. The first few posts spotlight an understudied group: African-American women and the memoirs they made in order to narrate a way out of—or a way through—the “thousand natural shocks” of antebellum life and culture. Let’s begin early America in a new voice. Let’s listen to a free black woman who had little or no real social power until she made it for herself, and in three world markets. Meet Nancy Gardner Prince (1799-1859). Continue reading
Thanks to all of you for helping to build the first part of this intellectual history of early American women. In many ways, this work builds on conversations held at the 2011 USIH conference, and the comments that Ray Haberski kindly gathered and posted here. Now it’s time to crowdsource a bibliography for the second phase, which spans the Victorian period, from 1848 to 1891. For now, I define intellectual history as ideas in action. And so I’m interested in it all: manuscripts, monuments, myths, memorials, biographies, secondary sources, and public history sites that feature/analyze the intellectual and cultural contributions of early American women. Following up on L.D. Burnett’s sage notice of new media’s ability to broaden the realm of traditional academic scholarship, I’m seeking citations for related blogs/posts here, too, in order to form a sound bibliographical foundation. A short list appears below. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add suggestions in the comments. Continue reading
Embarking on a study of early American women’s intellectual history calls for a strong bibliographical base, and I’m using this post to learn your news and views of useful literature. Hopefully, we can refer to and build on Patrick S. O’Donnell’s excellent list of resources regarding “Women Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment,” published here. Since this nascent project has a public history feel—I’m interested in how women’s lives and intellectual contributions (ca. 1612-1891) are reflected in everything from standard scholarship to city statues and social crusades—I have listed select digital and archival resources for the first phase (1612-1848), below.
This is, of course, only a preliminary list. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add your recommendations in the comments.
Professor Helen Stuart Campbell could not vote, so she took America to task in print. Between 1881 and 1918, Campbell published books and articles describing women as “prisoners of poverty” and denouncing a widespread low-wage system that privileged men. In The Problem of the Poor (1882) and Women Wage Earners (1893), she upheld a common reform agenda of the day: higher wages, better working conditions, Christian lives. Women bore the brunt of the nineteenth century’s rapid industrial progress, as the professor argued in her novels and newspaper articles. It was past time for high society to recognize urban poverty, she wrote, and “bring order out of the chaos that threatens us.” Helen Campbell’s great plan of social improvement, inspired by her work in a New York City waterfront mission and as an early organizer of the National Household Economics Association, received mixed reviews. Occasionally, Campbell (1839-1918) offered her University of Wisconsin economics students a ray of hope, by writing and serializing Victorian parables where women workers—however briefly—shone. Continue reading