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 of their time, these women were even attacked by other female reformers like Catherine Beecher, an educational reformer who founded female academies to make women better "domestic angels." (102)
Aristocratic Angelina Grimke, broke with her South Carolina family to champion the twin reforms of antislavery and feminism. In her "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,"(121) she saw herself as a martyr for the cause of national reform and abolitionism. Social banishment by her family and friends in the North and South was the price she paid for following her conscience. As a lecturer and reformer, she was the first American woman to speak before the Massachusetts legislature in 1838. (126)
Angelina and Sarah Grimke urged Christian women in the North and South to convince their fathers, husbands and brothers to end slavery by petitioning Congress and state legislatures. The author sees a new image of American womanhood emerging from the lectures of the Grimke sisters, that of a self- liberating female who frees the slaves and herself from double social oppression. (137) In public debates in 1837 and 1838 sexual discrimination was connected with racial oppression through Biblical arguments.
Lydia Maria Child, journalist, novelist and reformer, made the concept of sisterhood a literary subject. Focusing on the adverse affects of slavery on the free population, her romantic novels dealt with the themes of sexual abuse and miscegenation. The sad theme of the "Tragic Mulatto" involved a woman of mixed blood who could not attain romantic bliss through marriage with a white man because of racial taboos.
The most powerful black speaker and reformer of the period was Sojourner Truth, who gave an African-American perspective to the slavery debate. Born a slave named Isabella in New York in 1797, she was freed by a state emancipation law in 1827. A powerful speaker, she contrasted the white woman's lot with that of a slave woman like herself, who was forced to give up her thirteen children to the slave trade. (152) As a free woman she worked as a domestic and was able to free some of her children from slavery. A religious mystic, she assumed a new name and began to travel and preach in 1843. Her electrifying speech in 1851 at the Akron Women's Rights Convention silenced male critics and clergymen with the revolutionary idea, "a'nt I a woman?" She showed the harsh reality of a slave woman's life as a reproducer of slaves for the market economy. (155)
Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” described the sexual oppression of a slave by her owner, a taboo subject in the era. The autobiography gives a good account of a slave family and the background of violence and jealousy on the plantation which burdened the life of a slave mother. Jacobs and Sojourner Truth showed that former slaves were not powerless, passive creatures, but were as capable as white women of self- liberation.
Part three describes the female slave image in stone and story by analyzing Hiram Powers's sculpture “The Greek Slave” and Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter. By the 1840s and 1850s, American writers and artists came up with a new image of resignation in the slave emblem, similar to the passive picture of “The Libyan Sibyl” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The marble sculpture of “The Greek Slave” broadened the slave emblem to include white slavery in the Muslim world by depicting Greeks enslaved by the Turks. Both pro-slave and anti-slave advocates used the statue as propaganda. A new version of womanhood emerged which was different from the images of the antislavery feminists. Here the slave was seen as a passive victim who accepts her lot with Christian resignation, hoping for a reward in heaven, thereby reinforcing patriarchy. (165-166)
In his earlier writings, Nathaniel Hawthorne showed hostility toward feminist reformers. In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne looked at the idea of psychological slavery through his main character Hester Prynne, an adulteress who bore an illegitimate child. Prynne accepts her lot at the end of the book and symbolizes the woman as a victim. She conforms to the patriarchal notions of true womanhood. (170-171)
The last section of the book discusses Henry James's 1886 novel The Bostonians. In this satire, James is most critical of the feminist movement. He models the character of Miss Birdseye on Elizabeth Peabody, a reformer and notorious eccentric. Verena Tarrant, the heroine of the novel, has to choose between marriage to a handsome southern man or a career as a crusader for women's rights. She decides to marry her suitor and abandon the public lecture circuit, thus reinforcing patriarchal notions of female domesticity. (180-183)
By the turn-of-the-century, the suffrage movement adopted a new image of women to champion Progressive reform; that of the "Bugler Girl," with short hair and flowing robes stepping on broken chairs with the motto "Votes for Women." This image complemented the imperialism of the decade. (190) Only remnants of the old antislavery emblem remained in the statue “Forever Free” by black artist Edmonia Lewis.
The book suffers from a monotonous writing style. It reads like the author trying to include all her research whether or not it fits her theme. The discussions of The Scarlet Letter and The Bostonians are the least successful parts of the book. A comparative discussion of the antislavery feminists in England and Brazil might have been more interesting than the literary images discussed. The book can be well recommended historians of women's history. Its significance derives from its comprehensive research, compassion and challenging insights.
Yellin, Jean. WOMEN AND SISTERS: THE ANTISLAVERY FEMINISTS IN AMERICAN CULTURE. Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 1989.