Women and Sisters: the Antislavery Feminists In American Culture.

Authors Avatar


By Jean Fagan Yellin

Book Review by:

Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture examines the lives of the antislavery feminists in the antebellum period of American history. Through careful research and thoughtful insight, Jean Yellin, distinguished Professor of English Emerita at Pace University, New York City, New York, focuses her attention on the leading figures in reform, abolitionism and feminism. Familiar reformers and images are given new meaning in this original study, which includes the images of slavery in sculpture, cartoons, prints, coins and medallions in classical antiquity and the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book combines methodology from history, art and literature.

The most common image studied depicts a suppliant slave woman kneeling or sitting in chains, being liberated by a white female reformer. The motto "Am I not a woman and a Sister?"(4) heads the picture with an appropriate scriptural message, "Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them," (4)showing the religious and paternalistic concerns of the reformers. This image of the slave woman is then compared to the white woman, who was considered an "Angel in the House"(5) when she remained silent and invisible in public, but played a more active role at home.

Part one discusses the French abolitionist image of a "fettered slave," which dates from 1789. As early as 1830, Philadelphia poet Elizabeth Chandler issued appeals and letters to American women to free slaves from their bondage. She was the first American writer to make the image of a female slave a subject of her poems(22). Black abolitionists Sarah Mapps, Douglass and Sarah Forten copied the motif for use in needlepoint and letters. (24) Other antislavery writers like William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child duplicated the image in their newspapers and books.(35) In 1836, members of the Boston Female Antislavery Society used the image of a "fettered slave" to celebrate their legal freeing of a young girl from slavery. By that time, there were sixty female abolitionist societies in America employing the female slave picture in letterheads, pamphlets and coins. (52)

Join now!

Part two describes how the reformers sought to break the chains of the double slavery of women which united black and white in a common struggle. From a historical point of view, the author's research on the white and black antislavery feminists is the most interesting part of the book. By focusing her research on five women, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth, Yellin gives insight into the minds and hearts of antislavery feminists, a brave group of women who challenged angry mobs by daring to speak out in public. A minority clearly ahead ...

This is a preview of the whole essay