Intersecionality in Proto-Feminist Writings

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I was recently working on my Master’s thesis (“The Early Feminist Leanings of Jane Austen’s Gentlewomen Characters”) and I wrote a section on intersectionality that I really liked. It is just a small portion of a larger work, slightly edited to stand alone(-ish), but I wanted to share it here.

Kate Chopin is simply a single example of what a white woman would face. The intersectionality of the proto-feminist movement was often ignored or shoved aside as just a spectacle or the trick of a singluar African-American woman. The writings of these women, often current or former slaves, were treated as a novelty instead of upheld as the writing feats they were. Women like Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth were writing and speaking on the plight of women just like there white sisters. Unlike the white female writers, Jacobs and Sojourner took into consideration the even worse situation of the African-American woman.

While Harriet Jacobs did gain some celebrity as an abolitionist writer and for her memoirs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she still had to suffer under the pressure of being an African-American woman in slaveholding American. Much of her adolescence was spent being sexually harassed and almost a decade of her adulthood was spent hiding from her master in a small crawlspace in a ceiling. Jacobs eventually fled north and lived as a fugitive until a friend was able to buy her freedom. Shortly after the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jacobs reached out to abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe about helping her write her memoir. However, Stowe initially did not believe Jacobs’ story and needed to have it confirmed by Jacobs’ white employer. Once she found out that the story was true, Stowe only wanted to use the story to further prop up her own fiction of what she believed life as a slave was.

This was a common problem faced by minority women with their writings. Not only must they fight against the patriarchy, but also against their fellow women. This was clearly explored in Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman.” In this 1851 speech, Truth argued that not only women needed the chance to be equal, but also black people. Truth made strong arguments in her speech for the equality of men and women, pointing out that as a slave she “[has] as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man” she goes on to tell listeners that there is no need to be afraid of giving women rights because a woman is a “pint” and that “[they] need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we wil take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold.”

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