The Ku Klux Klan as Extension

In 1871, a congressional committee investigated Ku Klux Klan terror in the Reconstruction South. The testimony offered to (and the findings of) the “Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States” aids scholars in answering an important historical question: How did Americans — Northerners, Southerners, black, white, white hooded, and more — view Klan activities and violence as they related to Southern history, whether recent or deep? Based on the evidence, it is safe to posit that Northern sympathizers viewed the Klan as an extension of historical Southern disorder, while Southern apologists saw it as rooted in traditions of Southern order. Both historical contexts were of course defined by the need to preserve white supremacy. Interestingly, this thesis also prompts us to consider where Americans placed the Confederate army on a spectrum of blame for the war.

The majority report, issued by the Republicans on the committee, drew a connection between the South’s insurrectionary strain in the early 1860s and the “cowardly midnight prowlers and assassins who scourge and kill the poor and defenseless” that followed.[1] Although “less than obedience” from Southerners “the Government cannot accept,” Klan sentiment was comprehensible, even expected. “The strong feeling which led to rebellion and sustained brave men, however mistaken, in resisting the Government…cannot be expected to subside at once, nor in years,” the majority wrote.[2] The South’s rebellious streak was not yet wholly tamed. “It required full forty years to develop disaffection into sedition, and sedition into treason. Should we not be patient if in less than ten we have a fair prospect of seeing so many who were armed enemies becoming obedient citizens?”[3] In other words, while the Klan tortured, raped, and murdered blacks for exercising their new rights as citizens and achieving economic success and community development, many white Southerners had fallen back in line — the mindset of disorder and insurrection was being purged, but more time was needed.

Interestingly, while centering the Klan in “remnants of rebellious feeling, the antagonisms of race, [and] the bitterness of political partisanships,” the Republicans also sought to frame the organization as a disgrace to the Confederate army, as if the military had been divorced from such elements.[4] Confederate soldiers were “brave men,” as noted, who made an “enormous sacrifice of life and treasure,” truly “magnanimous enemies,” but the Klan “degrade[d] the soldiers of Lee and Johnston into” nothing but cutthroat bandits.[5] The committee majority understood that former Confederate soldiers and Klansmen were often one and the same.[6] Here the Republicans issued an appeal to soldierly pride and military order or decorum — the Confederate army was an honorable force, operating under the rules of war, it and each combatant simply following orders; the Klan was lawless, its vigilante violence in homes and churches a far cry from proper clashes on the battlefield. It was no place for a good soldier. The KKK, then, was an extension of Southern rebelliousness, but not an extension (rather, a devolution) of the mechanism of that rebellion, the Confederate military. These ideas were expressed in the same paragraph of the report, and it appears no contradiction was found, which may suggest that Republican officials of the era indeed saw the rebel army as in some fashion outside insurrectionary elements of the South, or secondary to them, i.e. a mere tool of secessionist public officials. If this public presentation represented sincere belief, no inconsistency exists. Yet it could be, if Republicans privately thought differently, that this was a valid contradiction far too useful to be noticed or corrected: it was too important to both find the roots of the Klan in Southern disobedience to government and to urge true soldiers not to partake in disorder (the press covered the hearings closely, so the appeal would find readers).[7]

White Southerners and Klansmen, of course, saw the KKK as evolving from rather different historical trends. How explicit was former Confederate soldier William M. Lowe of Alabama when he testified before the committee that “The justification or excuse which was given for the organization of the Ku-Klux Klan was, that it was essential to preserve society,” for given “the feebleness with which the laws were executed, the disturbed state of society, it was necessary that there should be some patrol… [This] had been a legal and recognized mode of preserving the peace and keeping order in the former condition of these States.”[8] “And it was, therefore,” a committee member asked, “natural that it should be resumed?” Lowe confirmed. The Klan, then, was an extension of the slave patrols of the antebellum South. Interest in maintaining law and order was again rooted in the control and subjugation of blacks, evidenced not only by Klansmen’s documented terror but by how they described perceived threats to white society during the hearings.[9] For example, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, likely the founder of the KKK, testified that blacks were “becoming very insolent,” and Southern whites were “alarmed,” afraid they would be “attacked.”[10] White “ladies were ravished by some of these negroes,” who would also “kill stock” and “carry arms.”[11] The Klan formed to “protect the weak; to protect the women and children,” and to prevent “insurrection” and black vengeance.[12] (Identical concerns motivated whites to fight for the Confederacy, according to historian Chandra Manning.[13]) Haiti had fallen to black revolutionaries, Forrest said, and it was critical the same did not occur in the South.[14] In sum, the Klan was not the real lawless force — it existed to “enforce the laws” in a dangerous time.[15] This indeed mirrored the function of slave patrols, which sought to maintain white dominance.[16] The Klan was seen as the natural successor to or resumption of former systems of order and oppression.

Of course, the irony of insurrectionist soldiers framing their violence against black voters, politicians, landowners, businesses, churches, schools, etc. as preventing insurrection was either lost or ignored — or contemporarily nonexistent.[17] It is difficult to know which from these texts. Again, there is room for questions concerning how 1870s Americans, this time including Southerners, saw the Confederate army. If it was judged far less culpable in the rebellion as Confederate legislators, a simple tool, then irony would be more a modern construction, imagined by a resident of the twenty-first century with rather different views. But if the army was thought less outside the insurrection, as central as politicians, then Forrest’s framing was cynical, hypocritical. Given Manning’s research on soldiers’ motivations, cited above, there may be a case for this. Still, popular assessment of institutional responsibility could nevertheless remain distinct from common individual motivations.

To conclude, the idea that Northerners and Southerners viewed the Ku Klux Klan differently, as an extension of rebellious tendencies or proper white law enforcement, is as well-supported in the 1871 hearing documents as it is expected. Yet its full exploration not only replaces mere assumption with historical evidence, it reveals unexpected nuances and generates new historical questions. Future studies should examine Americans’ private thoughts on “the Klan in historical context,” the Klan as successor, utilizing letters, journals, and so on — the hearings only offer public sentiments. Historians should also explore the new, associated problems, gathering public and private texts. Outlining to what extent the Confederate army was considered insurrectionary, compared to state leaders, will advance our understanding of the mentalities of hearing participants, and be a worthwhile contribution to the field in its own right.

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[1] Shawn Leigh Alexander, Reconstruction Violence and the Ku Klux Klan Hearings (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015), 127.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 127, 102, 113.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid., 118.

[9] Ibid., 35-102 for testimony on KKK violence and intimidation.

[10] Ibid., 108.

[11] Ibid., 108, 113.

[12] Ibid., 109.

[13] Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2008), 12, 36-39, 217-218.

[14] Alexander, Hearings, 112.

[15] Ibid., 110. See Lowe’s remarks on page 118.

[16] Vanessa Holden, Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021), especially chapter one.

[17] Alexander, Hearings, 7, 35-102.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: Questioning Supreme Court Power

A study of events relating to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates that occurred the following year, can help answer an interesting historical question: How did politicians of 1850s America understand the concept of checks and balances? Or, more specifically, how did they want judicial checks to be publicly understood? This is not so straightforward. True, the concept of “checks and balances” and its functionality to the “separation of powers” — terms coined by Montesquieu in his 1748 The Spirit of the Laws — were foundational to the design of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 (justified in the Federalist Papers, such as 47, 48, and 51). But the Lincoln-Douglas debates suggest (public-facing) perceptions of mutual regulation could differ dramatically among antebellum politicians, and were a bit dissimilar to modern understandings, in that efficacy was more doubted.

The Dred Scott decision declared that black Americans, even free persons, were not citizens of the United States and were not entitled to associated rights. Further, it was decreed unconstitutional to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had created such a prohibition, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had allowed territorial residents to decide the issue for themselves, were nullified. This was only the second time the Supreme Court had overturned federal law, and the first time it had rejected a major one.[1] Marbury v. Madison in 1803 explicitly established the Supreme Court’s power to wield such a check when it overturned a minor provision of federal legislation.[2] Article III of the Constitution, rather short indeed, does not specifically grant this power; it had to be extrapolated from an interpretation. It should be understood that the novelty of what occurred with Dred Scott left room for many questions.

Interestingly, the pro-slavery politician Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s rival candidate for a U.S. Senate seat representing Illinois, publicly questioned the effectiveness of the Dred Scott ruling. He had no qualms about the decision — he would “always bow in deference” to the Court, and thought Lincoln’s objections were misguided for a nation “made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man.”[3] But he wondered in the famous debates whether total openness to slavery in the territories could be enforced, saying that “if the people of a territory want slavery they will have it, and if they do not want it they will drive it out… Slavery cannot exist a day in the midst of an unfriendly people with unfriendly laws.”[4] Americans out west would need the proper local legislation and police enforcement to either ban slavery or protect it.[5] The Court’s ruling did not matter. Here Douglas’ view was perhaps slanted by an earnest devotion to popular sovereignty. He wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then in 1857 had opposed the creation of Kansas as a slave state because the residents did not desire it.[6] He defended the popular will more fiercely than slavery. But Douglas was perhaps also aiming not to lose moderate Illinois voters — too much allegiance to Dred Scott in a free state could be a political mistake, therefore it was better to stress a respect for the decision but doubt its effectiveness. In any event, we observe an interesting view on a seismic judicial check in the 1850s: it is meaningless in practice. In modern times, with many Supreme Court declarations of unconstitutionality under our belt, such a perspective is more rare. Lincoln derided Douglas’ theory of slavery’s survival, saying it was historically untrue and that territorial legislatures would have no choice but to tolerate slavery, just as they had earlier been forced to tolerate freedom.[7]

Lincoln also questioned the Court’s efficacy, from a different angle. After criticizing perceptions of the “sacredness” of the Dred Scott ruling, pointing out that courts change their minds and overrule their prior decisions all the time, Lincoln essentially wondered whether Congress could overturn or ignore a decision of the Supreme Court. Again, the relative novelty of what the Court had done, Lincoln’s sincere perspectives on checks and balances, and his desire to gain anti-slavery voters must all be considered as factors in such an astounding proposition. “Douglas will have it,” Lincoln said, “that all hands must take this extraordinary decision, made under these extraordinary circumstances, and give their vote in Congress in accordance with it, yield to it and obey it in every possible sense.”[8] He then pointed out that a couple decades prior, the Court had ruled that a national bank was constitutional (note this did not throw out established federal legislation, but upheld it). But later President Andrew Jackson “said that the Supreme Court had no right to lay down a rule to govern a co-ordinate branch of the government…”[9] He vetoed Congress’ recharter of the bank, declaring it unconstitutional. In the 1830s, the belief that the judicial branch could regulate and guide the legislative branch was not so universal, despite Marbury. One may be tempted to wave this off as part of Jackson’s personal penchant for ignoring restrictions on his authority, but here Lincoln is asking similar questions about the Court’s power in the 1850s, and pointing out Douglas once asked them as well: “I will venture here to say, that I have heard Judge Douglas say that he approved of General Jackson for that act.”[10] Lincoln insisted that “each member [of Congress] had sworn to support [the] Constitution as he understood it.”[11] Should Supreme Court understandings supercede congressional or presidential understandings? What Lincoln heavily implies here — he never goes so far as confident assertion — is that if another branch of government could reject a judicial finding of constitutionality, could one not reject a finding of unconstitutionality?[12] Douglas, despite any earlier ideas on a similar but not identical case, marveled that anyone would insinuate Congress could reverse a Court decision.[13]

Research of other documents will provide a wider view of what 1850s public officials made of the Court’s first overthrow of major federal legislation. Based on the debates, Douglas and Lincoln agreed with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who pushed the Dred Scott decision through with questionable constitutional interpretations, that the Court had such a right.[14] Did others disagree? More likely, were more politicians speculating on what came after judicial rulings — such as whether federal, state, or territorial legislatures could wave them aside, as both Douglas and Lincoln suggested? What other concerns existed? And in the same way the debates do not evidence how widespread such questions were, they cannot be utilized to parse earnest belief from political theatre. How much did Lincoln and Douglas actually believe what they were saying, and how much was for power interests, or ideological interests? We would need to turn to their private letters or journal entries and hope for comparative material, doing the same with other public officials offering subversive questions and bold interpretations in front of voters.

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[1] Paul Finkelman, Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017), 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Ibid., 204.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 179-180.

[7] Ibid., 212-213.

[8] Ibid., 199.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lincoln only flirts with contradiction concerning a legislature’s response to a Supreme Court ruling. When Douglas insisted that enslavement would not survive in some territories due to local lawmakers refusing to pass affirmative legislation or enforce the Court’s decision, Lincoln argued that they would nevertheless be forced to permit slavery (p. 213). To refuse was to “violate and disregard your oath” to the Constitution, and besides, “how long would it take the courts to hold your votes unconstitutional and void? Not a moment” (ibid). But here (two months earlier), Lincoln wonders whether Congress could flout the Court’s ruling, adding that “If I were in Congress, and a vote should come up on a question whether slavery should be prohibited in a new territory, in spite of that Dred Scott decision, I would vote that it should” (198). Members of Congress should vote how they understand the Constitution. However, this is not a true contradiction, as Lincoln appears to see Congress, not territorial legislatures, as possibly having the power to override the Court. One legislature is a federal branch, the other not. Douglas also comes close to contradiction with his insistence that the Dred Scott ruling be respected — it is “a rule of law binding on this country” made by “the ultimate tribunal on earth” (201) — while also insisting popular sovereignty would reign in the territories despite the decision. But he has wiggle room as well: what ought to be respected not always is.

[13] Finkelman, Dred Scott, 201.

[14] Ibid., 30-38, 194-195, 198-199.

Manliness in Grey and Blue

What role did manhood play in the Civil War? Beyond soldiering and fighting for country being a manly activity and duty, two historical realities stand out.

In What This Cruel War Was Over, historian Chandra Manning posits that ideologies of gender, while one factor of many, motivated Confederate soldiers to fight to preserve slavery. “Slavery,” she writes, “was necessary to white Southerners’ conception of manhood…” (Manning, 12). Its abolition would undermine gender constructions of the 1860s South. To be a man was to possess “mastery” over blacks, women, and children; it was also to see to the prosperity and protection of one’s family (ibid). Emancipation would overturn the social order and unleash violent acts of black vengeance, both destroying white families (12, 217-218). At the extreme, Southern soldiers feared white enslavement. The “hellish undertaking,” an Alabama private wrote, of “Lincoln & his hirelings” would ensure whites were “doomed to slavery” (39). Abolition would mean, another Confederate opined, “fire, sword, and even poison as instruments in desolating our homes, ruining us…” (38). White male control over white women would slip away alongside control over blacks, with one soldier from Georgia writing that slaves were already discussing “whom they would make their wives among the young [white] ladies” (36). Slavery had to be protected to preserve authority over others and the security of families, which were central to white male identity.

Manning further argues that black men recognized a link between slavery and manhood. (Of course, this was likewise not the only reason they fought for abolition.) Slavery stripped a man of what he held dear: the ability to protect his family, his humanity and dignity, and so on (12, 219). Only through abolition could the black man become a full man, in the individual and collective sense. Myths of inferiority, animality, and childishness could be washed away with the courage, agency, principles, and effectiveness displayed while serving in the Union army (129). A black soldier wrote of fighting for “the foundation of our liberty” and the “liberty of the soul” to “sho forth our manhood” (130). Another, from Missouri, aimed to reestablish possession and protection of his children when he wrote to their mistress and declared he was coming for them: the mistress would “burn in hell” if she further interfered with his “God given rite” to have his own children (ibid). Another black volunteer declared the war would help the race “attain greatness as a type in the human family” (ibid). For African American troops, to be a man was to be free, to be independent, to protect one’s family; it was also to be considered as much a man as any white male. Thus, slavery had to be destroyed.

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Glorifying the Bible, Constitution, or Declaration Is Always a Moral Dead End

Originalism — trying to follow the intent of the writers of the Constitution — is a risky business. So is basing one’s ethics on the bible. Why? Because you may end up looking like Mr. Taney or Mr. Dew.

The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision declared that black Americans, even free ones, could not be citizens of the United States and were not entitled to rights. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, stated that blacks

are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [1787] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them. It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or lawmaking power, to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the Constitution. The duty of the court is to interpret the instrument they have framed with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted…

Taney reiterated:

[Blacks] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race.

The Declaration is mentioned often as well:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is [sic] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included…

Clearly, basing one’s beliefs and policy positions on older documents from barbaric times is a fine way to continue the barbarism. This is true whether or not you judge originalism to be the proper method of legal interpretation. In the context of American slavery, the same continuation occurred with the bible. In the antebellum era Thomas R. Dew, president of the College of William and Mary, denied

most positively that there is anything in the Old or New Testament which would go to show that slavery, when once introduced, ought at all events to be abrogated, or that the master commits any offense in holding slaves. The children of Israel themselves were slaveholders and were not condemned for it. All the patriarchs themselves were slaveholders; Abraham had more than three hundred, Isaac had a “great store” of them; and even the patient and meek Job himself had “a very great household.” When the children of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they made one whole tribe “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” and they were at that very time under the special guidance of Jehovah; they were permitted expressly to purchase slaves of the heathen and keep them as an inheritance for their posterity; and even the children of Israel might be enslaved for six years.

When we turn to the New Testament, we find not one single passage at all calculated to disturb the conscience of an honest slaveholder. No one can read it without seeing and admiring that the meek and humble Saviour of the world in no instance meddled with the established institutions of mankind; he came to save a fallen world, and not to excite the black passions of man and array them in deadly hostility against each other. From no one did he turn away; his plan was offered alike to all—to the monarch and the subject, the rich and the poor, the master and the slave. He was born in the Roman world, a world in which the most galling slavery existed, a thousand times more cruel than the slavery in our own country; and yet he nowhere encourages insurrection, he nowhere fosters discontent; but exhorts always to implicit obedience and fidelity.

What a rebuke does the practice of the Redeemer of mankind imply upon the conduct of some of his nominal disciples of the day, who seek to destroy the contentment of the slave, to rouse their most deadly passions, to break up the deep foundations of society, and to lead on to a night of darkness and confusion! “Let every man,” (says Paul) “abide in the same calling wherein he is called. Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather” (I Corinth. vii. 20, 21)… Servants are even commanded in Scripture to be faithful and obedient to unkind masters. “Servants,” (says Peter) “be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle but to the froward. For what glory is it if when ye shall be buffeted for your faults ye take it patiently; but if when ye do will and suffer for it, yet take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (I Peter ii. 18, 20). These and many other passages in the New Testament most convincingly prove that slavery in the Roman world was nowhere charged as a fault or crime upon the holder, and everywhere is the most implicit obedience enjoined.

Here Dew argues that the bible looks upon slavery approvingly, which justifies American slavery. One should avoid saying “The bible was used to justify slavery,” as is common. First, this implies the bible was twisted, distorted in some way. Not really: the text was written in a slave society — of course it isn’t going to declare slavery immoral and worthy of abolition. It was written in a society of absolute male rule and horror over homosexuality, of course it calls for a boot on the neck of women and gays. These were primitive desert tribes. Their characters, including God himself and the biblical heroes, ordered and carried out such oppression (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible). Even those who insist that God decided to switch from barbarism to loving one’s neighbor with the arrival of Christ — who believe that Jesus marked the change for humanity, when the crushing of slaves, women, and gays suddenly became immoral and against God’s Will — will notice that the oppression of all three groups continues in the New Testament (which is still the inspired and flawless Word of God), as seen in Dew’s writing and my Horrific Things. As one might expect from the brutal Iron Age of the Middle East. (Note how an atheist in the twenty-first century and the religious, pro-slavery head of an Anglican college in the early 1800s can agree: it’s fairly obvious the bible has no moral issue with slavery.) Second, “The bible was used to justify slavery” is passive voice that erases the doer and implies that religious beliefs were solely an afterthought in propping up the “peculiar institution.” “Many Christians used the bible to justify slavery” is better — someone is involved at last — but “Many Christians believed the bible justified slavery and said so” is best. These weren’t all just enslavers searching for ways to excuse what they were doing and at some point thought the bible could help them out. Perhaps some followed that path, but most Southerners were Christians (like most Americans) who believed in the scriptures long before they began defending slavery publicly. It’s how people were raised, in the one true religion that condoned enslavement. Most slavery advocates were sincere believers, some even pastors, who did not consider slavery wrong because of what their sacred text said. “Whoever believes that the written word of God is verity itself,” a Richmond paper noted, “must consequently believe in the absolute rectitude of slave-holding.” No one can deny the economic and racial motives of pro-slavery Americans, but neither should earnest religious belief be ignored. Many factors were at work.

Taney and Dew held repugnant views, all will agree. But many today race to be just like them. The bible oppresses women and gays, therefore gays should have no right to marry (58% of weekly churchgoers still oppose same-sex marriage), adopt, or be served in places of business, and women should not be pastors (the largest Protestant denomination just expelled five churches for having female ministers, citing scripture). Many deeply conservative Christians would nod approvingly over the former, while frowning in distaste at the latter. The question for them is obvious. If Dew was wrong, why are you right? Why is it permissible for the modern believer to reject the bible’s approval of slavery or women’s subordination, but not its condemnation of gay people? Cherrypicking indeed. And if Taney’s originalist view of the Constitution led him to moral trouble, and brought calamity upon black Americas, we should probably be more skeptical of the document, more careful not to glorify. Constitutions or declarations of independence written in 2023 wouldn’t accept slavery or racism, wouldn’t tolerate unfree persons worth three-fifths of a human being, nor edicts that slaves who make it to free states are not free, nor “merciless Indian Savages,” for one minute. (See also How the Founding Fathers Protected Their Own Wealth and Power.) Our patriotic texts were written in an indecent time as well. We live in a more civilized society now. You can still believe originalist readings are best legal practice, but you must recognize that original intentions can be wrong and must be willing to push wholeheartedly for amendments to eradicate such wrongs.

Old texts are troublesome. See, Taney and Dew were right — the bible does offer plenty of support for slavery, the Founding Fathers did not envision black political equality. The lesson here is to think more critically about documents of the past. To recognize the risk of going to morally flawed works for moral or legal guidance.

Of course, there are plenty of moral edicts and actions to be found in the bible (“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” Ephesians 4:32), and other antebellum Christians believed the bible did not approve of slavery and said so — as most Americans were Christians, it is also the case that most Northerners and abolitionists were Christians (study the fiery, admirable Quakers, for instance). All sorts of beliefs and interpretations can spring from books containing much good and much bad. Obviously, there is also much that is valuable in the Declaration and Constitution. I wrote elsewhere that “the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems.” There is a lot to appreciate. And sometimes originalism produces moral outcomes, as one would expect from documents with much good in them (liberal justices use originalism as well; both sides use it when beneficial and reject it when inconvenient). We simply have to recognize the bad that comes with the good, and do something about it. The Constitution should be changed for the better, as it has been over two dozen times since the national founding, with amendments overriding the original articles. The moral flaws of the bible can simply be ignored, rejected from personal belief and public policy; most believers ignore how the New Testament lifts up slavery and male rule already — society can be far more decent than that — and should do the same with its antigay sentiment.

That’s how the moral person regards foundational texts from more backward, oppressive times. Don’t glorify. Keep what’s good. Burn the rest.

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‘The Chinese Question’: How Economics Molded Racism, Which Molded Economics

With good reason, a 2022 Bancroft Prize went to The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics, by historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University. Ngai makes two major contributions. First, the work adds to the field’s understanding of how politico-economic concerns can create or influence racist beliefs. Second, it offers an important new observation on how China fell behind the West, adding late nineteenth-century factors to those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries highlighted by scholars like Kenneth Pomeranz. Ngai’s central contributions are in fact linked: economics and politics impacted racism, which impacted economics and politics.

In the United States, Australia, and South Africa, Chinese migrants and entrepreneurs pursuing gold mining and other enterprises met fierce resistance from whites. In California, for instance, politicians seeking votes whipped white miners, already concerned about the growing Chinese population, into a frenzy in the 1850s, resulting in discriminatory acts and violence (Ngai 85-88). Miners from China were framed as threats to white jobs, as a danger to the entire labor system. Whites falsely cast the Chinese as “coolies,” or indentured workers to bosses in China, servile by nature and paid little if anything to travel overseas and mine for gold. How could U.S. mining companies and white workers with higher wages — the free labor system — possibly compete with this? All this paralleled white worker anxiety over black slavery, concerns over displacement (ibid), only it was perhaps made more acute by the understanding that the valuable metal was a limited resource. The Chinese were invaders, robbing the U.S. of gold and with it opportunity (85, 134). This perception led to racist legislation, including exclusion laws that in the 1870s barred the immigration of ethnic Chinese persons (149-153). Though the British colonies of Australia and South Africa had unique experiences, certain interests in these places also stoked racism, at times centered around the Chinese race as a “moral menace,” “industrial evil” (269), or heathen invasion force (111), and eventually led to exclusion as well.

These policies hurt the growth of China, Ngai argues. “Anglo-American settler racism” played a role in “the development of global capitalism” (5). “Exclusion” specifically was “integral” (2). Opponents of exclusion had warned that ending migration would be a blow to trade and commerce, and it appears they were correct (274). “Exclusion meant fewer outlets for Chinese merchants and investors abroad,” as they were denied entry and business (274-275). Chinese capitalists were cut off from the most powerful and richest Western nations. They had to focus on southeast Asia. The restriction of the Western market decimated China’s tea industry, previously 55% of all exports (280). “Between 1886 and 1905, the volume of China’s annual tea exports fell by more than half, from 246 million pounds to 112 million pounds” (ibid). The U.S. had brought in 65% of its tea from China in 1867, but by 1905 it was down to 23% (281). Animus against the Eastern nation and its people had come to “outweigh…all other considerations, including those of a commercial nature,” an Australian analyst noted at the time (ibid). “The myriad nations all trade with each other,” Huang Zunxiang bemoaned in his poem “Exclusion of the Immigrants,” so “how can the Chinese be refused?” (271). As a further economic consequence of immigration bans, the Chinese in British colonies and America found it more difficult to send money (the strong pound and U.S. dollar) back to families in China, and the number of such workers who could even attempt this was of course capped (286-288).

Ngai writes that her “intention is to clarify racism’s historical origins and reproduction as a strategy of political interests” (xviii). Placing anti-coolieism, anti-Chinese racism, under the lights is as important as past scholarship that considered how racist depictions of Africans developed to justify slavery (see Harman, A People’s History of the World) — unintelligent savages could only benefit from enslavement. Economic interests pushed forward racist narratives. Likewise, notions of servile, inferior Chinese slaves (85, 107-108) served and protected white miners. Ngai’s text further serves to “illuminate how the politics of the Chinese Question was part of the ‘great divergence’ between the West and China in the nineteenth century” (310). The exclusion acts that shut the door on Chinese immigration and trade were a contributing factor, or perhaps a solidifying one, in the West surpassing China in economic might and development, alongside the factors uncovered by prior historians, such as proximity to coal and the existence of overseas colonies. It represents another blow to the old notion that the “Great Divergence” was a story of “inherent superiority or inferiority of Western versus Asian civilizations” or their capitalisms (309). Demonstrating economic contributions to racial ideologies would make for a powerful book, as would showing how racist beliefs and their policies impacted the relative power of global economies — doing both is award-worthy.

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A Scathing Review of the Last History Book I Read

Historian Vanessa M. Holden’s Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community argues that the August 1831 slave uprising in Virginia commonly known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion was in fact a community-wide rebellion involving black women, both free and unfree.[1] Holden writes that the event should be called the “Southampton Rebellion,” indicative of the county, for it “was far bigger than one man’s inspired bid for freedom.”[2] A community “produced [Turner]” and “the success of the Southampton Rebellion was the success of a community of African Americans.”[3] The scholar charts not only women’s everyday resistance prior to the revolt, participation in the uprising, and endurance of its aftermath, but also that of children. Sources are diverse, including early nineteenth-century books and Works Progress Administration interviews, and much material from archives at the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.[4] Holden is an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Kentucky; her work has appeared in several journals, but Surviving Southampton appears to be her first book.[5] Overall, it is one of mixed success, for while community involvement in the revolt is established, some of Holden’s major points suffer from limited evidence and unrefined rhetoric.

This is a work of — not contradictions, but oddities. Not fatal flaws, but sizable question marks. For a first point of critique, we can examine Holden’s second chapter, “Enslaved Women and Strategies of Evasion and Resistance.” While it considers enslaved women’s important “everyday resistance” such as “work stoppages, sabotage, feigned illness, and truancy,” plus the use of code and secret meetings, that occurred before the revolt, it offers limited examples of women’s direct participation in the Southampton Rebellion.[6] There are two powerful incidents. A slave named Charlotte attempted to stab a white owner to death, while Lucy held down a mistress at another farm to prevent her escape.[7] After the revolt was quelled, both were executed.[8] The chapter also details more minor happenings: Cynthia cooked for Nat Turner and the other men, Venus passed along information, and Ester, while also taking over a liberated household, stopped Charlotte from killing that owner, which one might describe as counterrevolutionary.[9] This is all the meaningful evidence that comprises a core chapter of the text. (It is telling that this chapter has the fewest citations.[10]) It is true that Holden seeks to show women’s participation in resistance before and after the Southampton Rebellion, not just during its three days. Looking at the entire book, this is accomplished. But to have so few incidents revealing women’s involvement in the central event creates the feeling that this work is a “good start,” rather than a finished product. And it stands in uncomfortable contrast to the language of the introduction.

Holden notes in the first few pages of Surviving Southampton that historians have begun adopting wider perspectives on slave revolts.[11] As with her work, there is increasing focus on slave communities, not just the men after whom the revolts are named. “However,” Holden writes, “even though new critiques have challenged the centrality of individual male enslaved leaders and argued for the inclusion of women in a broader definition of enslaved people’s resistance, violent rebellion remains the prerogative of enslaved men in the historiography.”[12] To scholars, Holden declares, “enslaved men rebel while enslaved women resist.”[13] She is of course right to challenge this gendered division. But a chapter 2 that is light on evidence does not suffice to fully address the problem. The rest of the book does not help much — chapter 3, on free blacks’ involvement in the revolt, features just one free woman of color, who testified, possibly under coercion, in defense of an accused rebel, stating that she had urged him not to join Turner.[14] Not exactly a revolutionary urging, though she was saving a man’s life in court, a resistive act. Charlotte and Lucy were certainly rebels, and one might describe those who provided nourishment, information, or legal defense to the men using the same phrasing, but more evidence is needed to strengthen the case. Holden’s women-as-rebels argument is not wrong, it just needs more support than two to five historical events.

The position would be further aided by excising or editing bizarre, undermining elements, such as a passage at the end of the second chapter. There is a mention of the “divergent actions of Ester and Charlotte,” followed by a declaration that “instead of labeling enslaved women as either for or against the rebellion, it is more useful to understand enslaved women as embedded in its path and its planning.”[15] It is fair to say that we cannot fully know Ester’s stance on the revolution — she could have been against it and saved that enslaver, or she could have been for it and taken the same action. We do not actually know if she was counterrevolutionary. But Charlotte’s violent action surely reveals an embrace of the revolt. It is at least a safe assumption. Is Holden’s statement not stripping female slaves of their agency? Not for nor against rebellion, just in its path, swept up in the events of men? How can women be rebels if they are not for the rebellion? Here we do have a contradiction, and not just of the introduction, for nine pages earlier in chapter 2 the author wrote: “Past histories of the Southampton Rebellion regard Ester and Charlotte’s story as anomalous and their actions as spontaneous. However, their motives were not different from those of male rebels.”[16] Here the women have agency, their revolutionary motives purportedly known. The attempted stabbing was “as much a part of the Southampton Rebellion” as anything else.[17] It is a strange shift from empowering Ester and enslaved women as freedom fighters to downplaying Charlotte and advising one not to mark women as for the rebellion.

Language is a consistent problem in the book, and this is intertwined with organization and focus issues. This is apparent from the beginning. First one reads the aforementioned pages of the introduction, where it is clear Holden wants to erase a gendered division in scholarship and lift the black woman to one who “rebels,” not simply “resists.” The reader may then sit up, turn the book over, and wonder about the subtitle: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. True, as we have seen, much of the text concerns everyday resistance before and after the uprising, but the fact that “rebellion” is not in the title instead is just slightly inconsistent with what Holden is rightly trying to do.

Similarly, look to an entire chapter that stands out as odd in a book allegedly focused on African American Women. Chapter 4 concerns children’s place in the Southampton Rebellion, and focuses almost exclusively on boys. In a short text — only 125 pages — an entire chapter is a significant portion. Why has Holden shifted away from women? Recall, returning to the introduction, that the University of Kentucky scholar aims to show that the revolt was a community-wide event. It was not solely defined by the deeds of men, nor women, nor slaves, nor freepersons — it also involved children, four of whom stood trial and were expelled from Virginia.[18] Here Surviving Southampton has a bit of an identity crisis. It cannot fully decide if it wants to focus on women or on the community as a whole. The title centers black women, as does Holden’s rebuke of the historiography for never framing women “as co-conspirators in violent rebellion…[only] as perpetrators of everyday resistance.”[19] Chapter 2 covers women to correct this. But the thesis has to do with the idea that “whole neighborhoods and communities” were involved.[20] Thus, the book has a chapter on children (boys), free black men alongside women, and so on. The subtitle of this work should have centered the entire community, not just women, and the introduction should have brought children as deeply into the historiographical review as women.

Finally, we turn to the author’s use of the phrases “geographies of evasion and resistance” and “geographies of surveillance and control.”[21] What this means is the how and where of oppressive tactics and resistive action. Geographies of resistance could include a slave woman’s bed, as when Jennie Patterson let a fugitive stay the night.[22] There existed a place (bed, cabin) and method (hiding, sheltering) of disobedience — this was a “geography.” Likewise, slave patrols operated at certain locations and committed certain actions, to keep slaves under the boot — a geography.[23] At times, Holden writes, these where-hows, these sites of power, would overlap.[24] The kitchen was a place of oppression and revolt for Charlotte.[25] Just as Patterson’s cabin was a geography of resistance, it was also one of control, as slave patrols would “visit all the negro quarters, and other places of suspected assemblies of unlawful assemblies of slaves…”[26] Thus, the scholar posits, blacks in Southampton County had to navigate these overlaps and use their knowledge of oppressive geographies “when deciding when and how to resist,” when creating liberatory geographies.[27]

As an initial, more minor point of critique, use of this language involves much repetition and redundancy. Repetitive phrasing spans the entire work, but can also be far more concentrated: “Enslaved women and free women of color were embedded in networks of evasion and resistance. They navigated layered geographies of surveillance and control. They built geographies of evasion and resistance. These women demonstrate how those geographies become visible in Southampton County through women’s actions.”[28] Rarely are synonyms considered. As an example of redundancy, observe: “These geographies of surveillance and control were present on individual landholdings, in the neighborhood where the rebellion took place, and throughout the country.”[29] Geographies were present? In other words, oppressive systems Holden bases on place were at places. There are many other examples of such things.[30]

The “geography of evasion and resistance” is not only raised ad nauseam, it seems to be a dalliance with false profundity.[31] It has the veneer of theory, but in reality little explanatory value. Of course oppressive systems and acts of rebellion operated in the same spaces; of course experience with and knowledge of the former informed the latter (and vice versa). This is far too trite to deserve such attention; it can be noted where appropriate, without fanfare. “Layered geographies of surveillance and survival” sounds profound, and its heavy use implies the same (note also that theory abhors a synonym), but it is largely mere description. Does the concept really help us answer questions? Does it actually deepen our understanding of what occurred in Patterson’s cabin or Charlotte’s kitchen? Of causes and effects? Does it mean anything more than that past experience (knowledge, actions, place) influences future experience, which is important to show in a work of history but is nevertheless a mere truism?

Granted, Holden never explicitly frames her “geography” as theory. But the historian consistently stresses its importance (“mapping” a resistive geography appears in the introduction and in the last sentence of the last chapter) and ascribes power to it.[32] After charting the ways enslaved women resisted before the rebellion, Holden writes: “Understanding the layered social and physical geography of slavery in Southampton and Virginia is important for understanding Black women’s roles in the Southampton Rebellion more broadly. Most remained firmly rooted to the farms where they labored as men visited rebellion on farm after farm late in the summer of 1831.”[33] Well, of course patterns — places, actions — of everyday resistance might foreshadow and inform women’s wheres and hows once Turner began his campaign. Elsewhere Holden notes that small farms and the nature of women’s work allowed female slaves greater mobility and proximity to white owners, a boon to resistance.[34] Women were “uniquely placed to learn, move through, and act within the layered physical and social geographies of each farm.”[35] Again, this is fancy language that merely suggests certain realities had advantages and could be helpful to future events. It goes no deeper, and it is truly puzzling that it is so emphasized. Such facts could have been briefly mentioned without venturing into the realm of theme and pseudo-theory.

Overall, Surviving Southampton deserves credit for bringing the participation of women, children, and free blacks in the 1831 uprising into the conversation. Our field’s understanding of this event is indeed broadened. But this would have been a much stronger work with further evidence and editing. Quality writing and sufficient proof are subjective notions, but that in no way diminishes their importance to scholarship. As it stands, this text feels like an early draft. Both general readers and history students should understand its limitations.

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[1] Vanessa Holden, Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021), 5-10. 

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 2, 6.

[4] Ibid., x, 132-134 for example.

[5] “Vanessa M. Holden,” The University of Kentucky, accessed March 2, 2023, ​​

[6] Holden, Surviving Southampton, 23, 35.

[7] Ibid., 28, 36.

[8] Ibid., 37, 81.

[9] Ibid., 28, 36.

[10] Ibid., 132-134.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ibid., 52.

[15] Ibid., 37.

[16] Ibid., 28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 79.

[19] Ibid., 6.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., chapter 1 for instance.

[22] Ibid., 24.

[23] Ibid., 12-22.

[24] Ibid., 12.

[25] Ibid., 28.

[26] Ibid., 20.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 37.

[29] Ibid., 8.

[30] See ibid., 9: “The generational position of Black children as the community of the future was culturally significant and a pointed concern for African American adults, whose strategies for resistance and survival necessarily accounted for these children. Free and enslaved Black children and youths were a significant part of their community’s strategies for resistance and survival.”

[31] The near-irony of this paper’s phrasing is not lost.

[32] Holden, Surviving Southampton, 8, 120.

[33] Ibid., 25.

[34] Ibid., 34-35.

[35] Ibid., 34.

How Women Were Driven Away From Politics After the American Revolution

Historian Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic reads like a sequel to historian Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters, the 1980 text that charted women’s leap into political activity in the 1760s and ’70s.[1] During the American Revolution, women debated politics, published editorials, and engaged in boycotts, protests, and other forms of disruptive action, which undermined gender norms but was nonetheless applauded by men as important to the cause.[2] Zagarri explores what came after: from the 1780s to the 1820s, a subset of women, called “female politicians,” continued their involvement in political activity, supporting newly formed parties and attempting to influence elections.[3] A wider debate arose over women’s role in society, with the ideals of the revolution such as natural rights and equality feeding a new ideology of “women’s rights,” which clashed with the traditional order of absolute male power.[4] With desperate times, the great battle for independence, in the past, there was less enthusiasm for an expanding feminine sphere. Those on this side of the debate pushed for women to return to the home and serve as “republican wives” and “republican mothers,” positive influences on husbands and sons, the helmsmen of the new nation, especially as partisanship threatened to tear the United States apart.[5] Women were considered more moral beings, who could restore rationality, civility, and peace among men.[6] By the 1830s, the “backlash” to women’s entrance into informal politics (or formal, in the case of female-enfranchised New Jersey) came to dominate American attitudes, and soon women “vehemently denied the political nature” of their words and deeds, and “distanced themselves from party politics and electoral affairs,” to avoid being attacked and “vilified.”[7] In positing that a significant feminine advance and evolving attitudes were swiftly hammered back, and rooting her explanation in changing societal realities (bitter partisanship, universal suffrage for white men, strengthening parties, scientific claims of women’s inferiority), Zagarri has made a substantial contribution to the field of early American history.[8]

Zagarri has also set the standard for bountiful evidence entwined with brevity of text. Indeed, Revolutionary Backlash is not even 190 pages. The George Mason professor of early American history has produced three prior texts on the era, all of them roughly the same length. The brevity, and clarity of writing, make Backlash accessible for a general audience. But the evidence is voluminous, and notably includes what one might call explicit “missing links.” For example, it is important that Zagarri demonstrates that men (and other women) pushed women to stay home and guide husbands and sons to be of wise character at the expense of engaging in the political arena themselves. Finding mutual exclusion in the historical record helps dismiss the possibility that women were asked to be republican mothers but were also tolerated in a new sphere, as they were during the revolution. True, the historian can track change by examining the available documents and noting the prevalence of an idea in one era (for instance, celebration of women’s political participation) and another idea in the next era (condemnation of the same), but it must be stressed that finding historical actors discussing — and creating — the shift itself can be exceedingly difficult. They would make any argument far more powerful. Here Zagarri has succeeded, unearthing explicit sources that connect old philosophies with new, musing over both, rejecting one, advocating the other. One speaker insisted that wives and mothers ought to guide and mold males to be “future Citizens, future Legislators, Magistrates, Judges and Generals” but would be ridiculed if they attempted to engage in political battles themselves.[9] A newspaper article declared, prescriptively, that party affiliations like “Fed. and Rep. and Demo. ingrate to woman’s ear,” rejecting the activities of female politicians, but stated women should work “behind the scene” to cool off feuds among men and raise children who cared more about brotherhood and freedom than party ideology.[10] These finds are triumphs, and the fact that there are very few of them cited, compared to a wealth of “unlinked” documents (discussing a woman’s domestic guiding role or the impropriety of political women, but not both), speaks to how difficult they can be to find and the depth of Zagarri’s research.

Zagarri largely uses primary sources throughout her work — newspapers, letters, memoirs, books, pamphlets, plays, and so on, many found in archives at the Library of Congress, Harvard University, and several state historical societies.[11] Included artwork is particularly interesting, including a circa 1815 illustration of a woman, holding an infant, trying to prevent male partisans from coming to blows, a visualization of women’s pacifying role.[12] Or a painting from that year, depicting a relatively diverse political gathering, compared to an 1852 painting of the same that featured only white males — politics, no matter how informal, was no longer an activity for women.[13] Zagarri uses secondary sources from historians, and others, such as political scientists and literary critics,[14] to supplement her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works, but they are largely mined for their primary citations and rarely mentioned by name in-text.

Together, her evidence convincingly demonstrates that women were involved in informal and formal politics after the American Revolution (chapters 1-3), and that reactionary developments pushed them out (chapters 4 and 5), solidifying and codifying notions of male privilege and superiority. This restored a gender order that many men and women were afraid was collapsing. “As women are now to take a part in the jurisprudence of our state,” a New Jersey paper wrote concerning women voters, “we may shortly expect to see them take the helm — of government.”[15] When Elizabeth Bartlett was nominated for register of deeds in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, a pseudonymous woman wrote in a Boston magazine whether women would soon be “Governor, Senator, Representative[?]… I have some curiosity to know where we are to stop.”[16] The major factors the George Mason historian outlines put such fears to rest, eroding women’s progress and shoring up the gender hierarchy. Locating documents that explicitly demonstrated intentionality — showing that suffrage for white men and its laws that excluded female voters, that the entrenchment of the parties and end of “street” politics involving non-voters, or that essentialist science that questioned women’s mental capacities were consciously intended to drive women from the political sphere — would have bolstered Zagarri’s causal argument, but such sources are as difficult to find as “missing links,” if not more so.[17] The sources that show a push for women to avoid political disputes and instead quietly better the characters of males at home, to save a divided nation, come tantalizingly close, but never delivering the killing blow of stepping beyond happy, “circumstantial” developments for power to a place of explicit plans to take advantage of a polarization crisis and cast women out of politics. Still, the reader is left with little doubt that animosity toward female politicians fed the calls for women to terminate attempts at direct influence and shift to indirect, domestic efforts, and shaped the other oppressive developments as well.

In conclusion, Zagarri thoroughly accomplishes her aims. The reader will not soon forget the bold advocacy of early republic women, the debate over women’s rights, and the (other) dramatic societal developments that hardened attitudes against women activists and wrought stricter subjugation. Equally interesting is how female politicians continued working. Successfully driven away from the parties and any form of governance such as voting or elected office, the core of politics, women operated on the periphery, creating their own social reform organizations to advocate against slavery, prostitution, and alcohol.[18] They spoke, wrote, rallied, organized, boycotted, petitioned or lobbied public officials, and even tried to get the right candidates elected, all while fiercely denying their involvement in politics or interest in rejecting male authority over them.[19] They framed their activities as moral, not political, work. They were moral beings pushing for moral reform, which fell into the feminine sphere, not the male sphere of government.[20] They used the very ideology, moral purity, that precipitated their expulsion from the center of politics, a blow to women’s rights, to protect their continued advocacy, a bitingly clever and largely effective reframing, given how Americans understood politics in that age.[21] Revolutionary Backlash is must reading for anyone seeking to understand American women’s history, the political history of the early republic, creative resistance, or the fickle nature of progress.

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[1] Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996). Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash, 5.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

[5] Ibid., 5-6.

[6] Ibid., 124-134.

[7] Ibid., 4, 9.

[8] Ibid., 6-7, 180.

[9] Ibid., 132.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 231.

[12] Ibid., 131.

[13] Ibid., 162, 164.

[14] Ibid., 110, 180.

[15] Ibid., 78.

[16] Ibid., 79.

[17] These are similar concepts, but not precisely the same. A missing link shows how one idea replaced another. A finding of intentionality shows why someone did something. You might find the true motive of a historical actor but not see the bridge between old and new ideas; conversely, you might see a bridge but not a motive. Some sources, however, could be both a missing link and a finding of intentionality. A term for this is forthcoming.

[18] Ibid., 142.

[19] Ibid., 142-145.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 146 suggests women saw a hard divide between their moral crusades and legitimate political activity. Though this may be difficult to grasp today, Zagarri seeks to “analyze politics in the terms in which people at the time understood the concept” (page 8).

Historians on Capitalism’s Ascendance

What conditions must be present to declare that capitalism has finally come to dominate one’s society? American historians have varying views on this, as the meaning of capitalism is varied. Further complicating matters, the new paradigm in scholarship is to worry less about precise definitions of capitalism, as Seth Rockman points out in “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” — an acceptance of the “varieties of capitalism” would seem to make a determination of hegemonic conditions more challenging. Our question has become harder to answer as research has progressed, not easier. Still, historians’ answers and interpretations are interesting. As Paul Gilje writes in “The Rise of Capitalism in the Early Republic,” some of course simply point to capitalist ownership of the means of production — businesses, the factories, the tools and equipment, the resources, and so on — but others disavow domination until capitalists also control the political system. The level of industrialization is another suggestion, but historians such as Jonathan Prude and William Stott urge a step away from centering mechanization and new technology, instead focusing on the division of labor, which brings artisans of the early American republic, a key period of transition, deeper into the story of capitalism’s rise. In other words, for our purposes, hegemonic capitalism would not be reached until the division of labor (the creation of goods being broken down into small steps that low-skilled wage workers could accomplish, replacing the full-task, high-skilled creator, increasing production) had come to define society, regardless of the state of industrialization and even, perhaps, who owned the means of production and the State. 

Further, wage labor, Rockman notes, has long been considered the “sine qua non of capitalism,” its essential element. Before capitalism came to dominate, for instance in eighteenth-century America, most people were involved in their own familial agricultural production — most workers, including artisans and merchants, did not work for someone else, receiving a wage from an employer. The shift to wage labor was a massive change. However, Rockman writes, New Capitalist Studies have drifted away from wage work as the essential characteristic of the capitalist system. Millions of American slaves certainly worked for someone else, and while they received no wages this was a form of exploitation that could not be ignored in the story of economic development. In other words, some historians, those who see slavery as integral to capitalism rather than oppositional or anomalous (see Gilje), may look beyond widespread wage labor for the key characteristic of hegemonic capitalism. They may look instead, for example, to the ubiquity of a new ideology. Michael Zakim and Gary Kornblith’s Capitalism Takes Command phrased it as “capital’s transformation into an ism.” The wider culture adopted principles beneficial to business, though this took some time. As John Larson writes in “The Genie and the Troll: Capitalism in the Early American Republic,” despite some historians positing that capitalism arrived in America with the first European ships, others have demonstrated that the yeoman farmers of the early republic still held cultural values detached from the capitalistic ethos, disinterested in profit. But eventually values like individualism and competition did replace community reciprocity, respected hierarchy, and other norms (see Gilje and Larson). Could one claim that capitalism had reached predominance without the new self-interested belief system doing so as well?

Let’s consider how a few other historians addressed this question of what constitutes capitalism and how American society transitioned to it in the early republic period. In “The Enemy is Us: Democratic Capitalism in the Early Republic,” Gordon Wood addresses the debate between “moral economy” and “market economy” historians of the early American republic. The former posit that period farmers lacked a capitalistic, profit-driven mindset, focusing only on family and community needs. The latter argue that farmers engaged in market exchange to a high enough degree to evidence that capitalism’s grip on society occurred before moral economy historians would like to admit. Wood argues that moral economy proponents have strained reason in their attempts to portray farmers without any capitalistic ethos. Farmers are portrayed as merely providing for their families no matter how intensely they engage in the market. They cannot be capitalistic because, for the caricature-crafting moral economist historians, by definition capitalists have greedy, evil intentions. Wood critiques such thinkers for a lack of nuance and for attempting to fit the early republic into a Marxian framework that strictly requires a checklist of elements for the existence of capitalism; for instance, if there was no class exploitation of American farmers, there was no capitalism, despite the existing free market and other characteristics. Among the evidence Wood uses are the writings of a period laborer to show the true nature of economic activities and social relations. The cartoonish capitalists, Wood writes, did not bring about capitalism, but rather ordinary people with moral and market sensibilities; indeed, the essay breaks down some barriers between the sides of the historical debate.

Jean-Christophe Agnew helms the afterword of Capitalism Takes Command, delivering a short essay entitled “Anonymous History.” The piece concerns the financial instruments of capitalism and their effect on ordinary Americans, such as farmers, in the early republic period. Agnew argues that the “paperwork” of capitalism, the new financial, commercial, and legal devices — the mortgages, debts, securities, bonds, investments, lines of credit, and so forth — powered the shift from a society of family-centered production to industrial capitalism. Farmers became caught up in these instruments, pulling them from their private worlds and communities and into a truly national economic system. Agnew draws on the essays featured in Capitalism Takes Command for evidence, touching on several of their themes and theses, pulling them together. He cites, for instance, nineteenth-century farmers who felt their world had been turned upside down as they were sucked into the developing commercial system, worrying they would “die of mortgage” and complaining the mortgage “watched us every minute, and it ruled us right and left,” to quote a poem. The historian’s title, “Anonymous History,” refers to a focus on the economic practices, such as use of these financial instruments, that impacted ordinary people, rather than a focus on big names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, who do not appear in the book.

Wood argues that farmers had more of an entrepreneurial spirit and sought profit in the market, touching on the ideology and free market elements necessary for capitalism’s ascendance and moving the timeline up a bit, to the chagrin of moral economist historians. Agnew also finds earlier, more advanced capitalist development among farmers, though it is more against their will and to their detriment; he focuses on the financialization characteristics of the new economic system. These historians are not alone in their conclusions. Robert E. Wright, in “Capitalism and the Rise of the Corporate Nation,” also centers financial instruments in the story of capitalism’s ascendance. Investment, credit, and loans allowed corporations to hugely expand production and profits; corporations then came to dominate the U.S. economy. Agnew and Wright would concur that modern capitalism entails widespread financialization, which became a true force in the early republic period. Jeanne Boydston, who penned “The Woman Who Wasn’t There: Women’s Labor Market and the Transition to Capitalism in the United States,” might better relate to Gordon Wood. Wood wrote about ordinary Americans engaging in market exchange and rejected the false dichotomy of capitalist mindset vs. family-focused provider. Boydston looks at women’s economic roles in the antebellum era. Women’s work helped farms maintain their self-sufficiency and at the same time fed the market and grew the economy — for instance, women undertook outwork for textile mills, receiving compensation. What served the family served capitalism, and vice versa.

While these are not the only elements of hegemonic capitalism, they are major ones that offer a glimpse at a lively historiographical discussion. Given the nuance of the debate and the myriad definitions (or definitional apathy) inherent, it seems sensible to posit that a healthy (or unhealthy) mix of societal realities — a preeminent ideology, capitalist ownership of the means of production and governmental functions, wage labor, industrialization, financialization, a free market, the division of production tasks, and more (such as consumption levels or competition; see Larson) — are necessary to stamp capitalism as hegemonic, a thesis that should please both everyone and no one.

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Radical Feminism v. Cultural Feminism

With Daring to Be Bad, Alice Echols is the first historian to chart the rapid rise and fall of radical feminism in twentieth-century America.[1] Radical feminism, birthed in 1967, was eclipsed by cultural feminism by 1975.[2] Writing in 1989, Echols sought to demystify radical feminism for readers.[3] This required a significant exploration of the tendency that succeeded it: “A study of this sort seems to me especially important because radical feminism is so poorly understood and so frequently conflated with cultural feminism. This conceptual confusion arises in part because radical feminism was not monolithic and aspects of radical feminism did indeed anticipate cultural feminism.”[4] The latter evolved from the former, plus “cultural feminists almost always identified themselves as radical feminists and insisted that they were deepening rather than jettisoning” radicalism, creating fertile ground for disorientation.[5] Echols’ work is an intriguing history of these theories. Let us review the major distinctions between them.

Radical and cultural feminists have important points of intellectual departure. Radical feminism sought revolutionary changes in power structures, along Marxist lines, to bring about gender equality; cultural feminism was a turn inward, attention drifting away from the State and toward women’s culture, with the establishment of women’s businesses and other supports (stores, health clinics, credit unions, festivals) that to critics represented “an evasion of patriarchy rather than a full-throated struggle against it.”[6] The former was an anticapitalist movement for political transformation, the latter a self-sufficiency, self-improvement counterculture that rejected class struggle.[7] The radicals stressed the personal was political — a new system was needed to rectify oppression in the home, the bedroom, and so on.[8] Culture-minded reformers viewed matters from the other direction: the personal was the “foremost site of change,” from which a new world could be built.[9] Each movement had some form of opposition to male political supremacy and the construction of a new women’s culture, but each poured most of their energies into one arena. Echols offers a helpful parallel by pointing to the civil rights movement, which saw black nationalist offshoots that were “more involved in promoting black culture than in confronting the racist policies of the state.”[10] Of course, there were many other ideological differences among feminists. For instance, would women’s liberation be best served by minimizing male-female differences (the tack of the radicals) or placing more value on a unique female nature dismissed by the patriarchal society (the tack of the culturalists)?[11] Should you eradicate gender or celebrate it?[12]

Both tendencies left important legacies. The women in the earlier movement for social transformation demonstrated the power ordinary women have to enact political change. “They fought for safe, effective, accessible contraception; the repeal of all abortion laws; the creation of high-quality, community-controlled child-care centers; and an end to the media’s objectification of women.”[13] Unjust rape and domestic violence policies were challenged, as was exclusion from workplaces and universities.[14] Radical feminists engaged in direct action and civil disobedience, disrupting Miss America pageants and Senate hearings, hosting rallies, marches, and sit-ins.[15] Their organizing pushed the United States in a new direction. The Fourteenth Amendment was applied to women in Reed v. Reed (1971), the Equal Rights Amendment sailed through Congress (1972), the right to an abortion was guaranteed (1973), and more. With the ascendance of cultural feminism, political successes, expectedly, trailed off.[16] However, the later movement for personal transformation turned away from the talk of capitalism’s overthrow and other tenants of radicalism, broadening the tent. After the 1970s, far more women of color joined the movement, for instance.[17] In the same way, during the heyday of the radical feminists, “liberal feminism was…in some cases morediverse” than the radical feminist movement.[18] Though cultural feminism cannot be applauded for shifting focus away from political struggle, and much merit can be found in radical feminist beliefs, it is difficult to deny that more women might be attracted to a more tempered movement further divorced from the Marxist niche. This went beyond anticapitalism, as well, to other aspects of radical thinking. One of the defining texts of cultural feminism was Jane Alpert’s 1973 “Mother Right” piece, which “reaffirmed rather than challenged dominant cultural assumptions about women” by refusing to erase male-female differences, instead celebrating the “biological difference between the sexes… The unique consciousness or sensibility of women…”[19] Cultural feminism was better adapted to mainstream American ideologies, and could therefore attract a wider, more diverse following.

Overall, Daring to Be Bad offers history students and lay readers many ideas and phenomena to consider. It spotlights the bitter infighting leftwing movements typically experience. It prompts one to ask whether members of an oppressed group should focus on their commonalities or fully embrace their differences (an intersectional, but potentially paralyzing or divisive, approach). And will, as Alpert wrote, “economic and political changes…follow rather than precede sweeping changes in human consciousness”?[20] Or is it best to change social structures first, as the radicals insisted, freeing human thought, letting ideology catch up? Echols has produced both a fine history of a Leftist movement and a potential guide for future struggles.

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[1] Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), xvi.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., xvi.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., viii-ix, xviii-xix.

[7] Ibid., 6-7.

[8] Ibid., ix, 3.

[9] Ibid., xix-xx.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., xviii.

[12] Ibid., 6, 9.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Ibid., vii-viii.

[15] Ibid., ix-x.

[16] Ibid., 293.

[17] Ibid., 291.

[18] Ibid., xxii.

[19] Ibid., 250, 252.

[20] Ibid., 251.

Review: ‘Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life’

Troy R. Saxby, casual academic at the University of Newcastle, offers an intimate, engaging look at an increasingly recognized twentieth-century human rights advocate in Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life. Pauli Murray’s personal life was as turbulent and winding as her political life was significant to American justice movements. She experienced great personal loss, poverty, discrimination, health problems, and struggles with sexuality and gender identity from the 1910s to the mid-1980s.[1] Saxby’s biography seeks to “connect Murray’s inner life with her incredibly active public life,” which included civil rights activism (first pushing for the integration of the University of North Carolina), helping found the National Organization for Women to work for gender equality, becoming an influential lawyer, professor, and author, and later being the first black woman to serve as an Episcopal priest.[2] Her writings and legal arguments influenced Brown v. Board of Education (and other NAACP battles) and Reed v. Reed (the 1971 case that first applied the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to sex), broadening rights for blacks, women, and, after her death, LGBTQ Americans.[3] Considering Murray’s private struggles, Saxby argues, “is essential to understanding Murray,” with her early experiences, her most intimate feelings and thoughts, “shaping her…aspirations.”[4] This of course is a mere truism. All people are molded by prior experience, circumstances, and so on. Still, the impact Murray’s private life had on her public service is a fascinating history, and was lacking in the historiography.[5] Let us consider what motivated Pauli Murray.

One intriguing aspect of Murray’s life was her early refusal to cooperate with unjust systems. As a child in 1910s America, racial oppression led Murray to “hate George Washington, mumble allegiance to the flag, resist standing for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” and more.[6] She “boycotted segregated facilities — instead of taking public transport, she rode her bike.”[7] Not only does this foreshadow Murray’s important work for civil rights, it suggests that her central motivations were already operating, or at least in development, at seven years old, typically an age of conformity. Thus, an exploration of what drove Murray should start there.

From Saxby’s text, it could be argued that early feelings of alienation played a role — this is more of a subconscious motivation, but important nonetheless. Segregation and sexism of course “othered” the young Murray, but there is much else. She was separated from her father and many siblings at age three, after her mother’s death; she fought feelings of abandonment; caretakers like Aunt Pauline and her grandfather were not affectionate; Murray’s darker complexion stood out in her new family, and she felt like an outsider; her complexion was lighter than most of her classmates, however, drawing mockery; the family’s middle-class values kept her at a distance from neighborhood kids; “Pauli also felt different from her classmates because she did not have visible parents”; she was even left-handed, unlike most students and adults.[8] At every turn, Saxby writes, “Pauli Murray stands apart, somehow ‘other.’”[9] A complex, constant sense of difference helped mold Murray into a child who could rebel against nationalism and segregation, among other things: “Pauli’s rebellious streak, a hallmark of her adult life, emerged at school — such was her ability to turn a classroom to chaos that one of her primary school teachers would take Pauli with her whenever she was called away from the classroom.”[10] The field of psychology has shown that children lacking a sense of belonging often act out (and struggle with poor mental health).[11] Whereas other children without her experiences might go along with hands over hearts and direction toward the back of a public bus, Murray’s history of alienation led to resistance.

There were of course positive influences as well, more conscious motivations, such as her grandparents’ emphasis on black pride and uplift, and Aunt Pauline’s assurances that Murray was destined for greatness.[12] The Fitzgeralds in fact had long “avoided any contact with white people if it meant losing dignity…”[13] America and its segregation had previously been questioned and experienced. There are many factors that push us to do what we do. But Murray’s view that “in some ways, I was alien” dominates the text, especially as she becomes an adult and her feelings toward women and her interest in passing as a man develop.[14] She was, at the same time, rejected from one college for being a woman and from another for being black.[15] Murray remained The Other in myriad ways. This fact contributed to her mental health challenges.[16] That it also pushed her toward activism seems a sensible supposition: Otherness impacted her behavior as a child (so it might do the same in adulthood), and it could only be rectified through policy change. Murray’s sense of difference that contributed to behavioral nonconformity against unjust systems as a child persisted, rose to a more conscious place, and manifested anew in work in the black struggle and the feminist movement — as an adult, Murray could work to create a society with greater inclusion for herself and others. She never felt like she belonged, so she built a world with more belonging.

Overall, Pauli Murray conjures many musings on the nature of history and biography, which undergraduate and graduate students may find interesting. For instance, environment and prior experiences motivating an individual is a given, as stated, but it is also open to interpretation. What factors were at play, and how influential each was, can be argued at length, based on historical sources. Other historians may see the Fitzgeralds’ rebellion against segregation as a much more significant factor on Murray’s activist path than her sense of being an outsider. One may instead emphasize the constant tragedies of her life and consider potential connections to social oppression, such as her father being killed by a white man in an insane asylum when she was ten.[17] As we have seen, conscious and subconscious drivers can be theorized and posited, their strengths speculatively compared. The forces that molded historical actors are as powerful as they are elusive.

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[1] Troy R. Saxby, Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), xiv-xv.

[2] Ibid., xiii, xvii, 68-76.

[3] Ibid, 145-146, 212-213, 249-251.

[4] Ibid., xiv, xvi.

[5] Ibid., xv-xvi.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 6-7, 9-12, 15-16, 20, 23,    

[9] Ibid., xvii.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Kelly-Ann Allen, DeLeon L. Gray, Roy F. Baumeister, and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: A Deep Dive into the Origins, Implications, and Future of a Foundational Construct,” Educational Psychology Review 34 (August 2021):

[12] Saxby, Pauli Murray, 21-22, 38.

[13] Ibid., 24.

[14] Ibid., 24, chapter 2, for instance 45-48.

[15] Ibid., 39, 70.

[16] Ibid., 65-68.

[17] Ibid., 35.

No Suburban Housewife: The Other Women of the 1950s

The dominant social construction of womanhood from 1945 to 1960, which became the dominant historical image of women later on, was one of the suburban housewife and mother — white, middle-class, straight, and patriotic, she was content to cook, care for the home, and raise children.[1] But as Not June Cleaver, edited by historian Joanne Meyerowitz, demonstrates, the postwar era was far more complicated. Women were politicians, workers, union organizers, and strikers; they were Communists, peace activists, and secret abortionists; women were city-dwelling Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, black Americans; they were lesbians with cultural creations, Beatniks who ran away from home, the poor just trying to survive, and tireless organizers pushing for civil rights and gender equality, whose efforts would expand in the 1960s.[2] Though an anthology with the works of many historians, Meyerowitz’s text argues that women had more agency and more diverse experiences and ideologies than the historiography acknowledged; it “aims…to subvert the persistent stereotype of domestic, quiescent, suburban womanhood.”[3] She further demonstrates that the postwar literature and “public discourse on women was more complex than portrayed” in works such as Betty Friedan’s famous The Feminine Mystique, which positioned women as well-trapped in the home, thanks to inculcating cultural messaging.[4] Yet, as we will see, magazines and other media could in fact push back against the gender ideal and show this other side of the age.[5] Let’s look closely at three papers in the text, each revealing how women broke the mold.

Donna Penn’s “The Sexualized Woman: The Lesbian, the Prostitute, and the Containment of Female Sexuality in Postwar America” examines the lives of lesbian women of the era and the larger society’s changing reactions to their existence. For a time adorned by the stereotype of the heterosexual wife, there was considerable effort — in films, books, articles by social scientists, and so on — expended on vilifying lesbianism in a harsher manner compared to prior decades, for instance by beginning to link gay women to the pre-established categorization of prostitutes as fallen women, sexual deviants in a criminal underworld.[6] “Many prostitutes,” one expert wrote, “are latent homosexuals insofar as they resort to sexual excesses with many men to convince themselves that they are heterosexual.”[7] Lesbians were often prostitutes, prostitutes were often lesbians, it was asserted — and prostitutes, as everyone knew, were of the wicked underbelly of society.[8] This was different from the dominant prewar image of lesbians as refined middle-class women with lifelong female partners, otherwise respectable.[9] Though some lesbians took assumptions of sexual depravity to heart, struggling with sexual identity under restrictive social norms and pressures, others pushed back against demonization.[10] Defiant appearances in public, building community at lesbian bars, writing lesbian pulp fiction and articles, and more signaled a right to exist and to live true to the self.[11] More intimately, a culture of “sexual ceremony and dialogue” developed that gave lesbians a coded language to express interest beyond the repressive gaze of the larger society, and which also subtlety subverted gender norms when butch women, who mirrored the man in heterosexual relationships, made giving pleasure, rather than receiving it, their “foremost objective.”[12]

In “The ‘Other’ Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls,” Wini Breines shows the extent to which women and girls sought to escape from their dull, prescriptive futures as homemakers. Rather than happy in their place, as the standard image of the postwar era suggests, some dreaded “a life where nothing ever happened. I looked around me and saw women ironing dresses and hanging out clothes and shopping for food and playing mah-jong on hot summer afternoons, and I knew I couldn’t bear to spend my life that way, day after drab day, with nothing ever happening. The world of women seemed to me like a huge, airless prison…”[13] So, like boys and men, girls and women became or imitated Beats, the free-spirited artists, writers, and musicians of New York City who rebelled against mainstream society, its conservatism, materialism, religiosity, male careerism, and so forth.[14] Women and teens enjoyed rock and roll, jazz, sex, intellectual discourse, racial integration and black culture, bad boys, drugs, artistic creativity, Buddhism, and other experiences that they described as “Real Life,” an existence “dramatic, unpredictable, possibly dangerous. Therefore real, infinitely more worth having.”[15] Not only did these exciting countercultural lives undermine the happy housewife trope, they contradicted the hegemonic ideal of girlhood — properly behaved, virginal, neatly dressed and done up, hanging out “around the malt shop” — found in magazines, novels, films, and other cultural outlets.[16] Rebellious females also contradicted the notion, pushed by social commentators, that problem children of this generation were exclusively boys, who, unlike girls, were expected to make something of themselves, but were failing to do so after falling into delinquency, hipsterism, doping, and the rest.[17] Although the stories of female Beatniks would not be well-captured until memoirs printed in the 1970s, the 1950s saw films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, which displayed girls’ interest in troublemakers and bad boys.[18]

Finally, there’s Deborah Gerson’s “Is Family Devotion Now Subversive? Familialism Against McCarthyism,” wherein the mainstream construction of American womanhood is shattered by women running their households without their husbands, organizing, and speaking up for Communism and free speech. When the Smith Act of 1940 eventually sent leaders of the Communist Party to prison or into hiding over their political and revolutionary beliefs, their wives formed the Families Committee of Smith Act Victims, which gave “financial, material, and emotional assistance” to each other, their children, and the prisoners.[19] Fundraising allowed for childcare, trips to visit fathers behind bars, birthday presents, and more.[20] But the Families Committee also existed to fight anticommunist policies and practices.[21] It denounced the imprisonment of Reds and the FBI’s continued harassment and surveillance of the wives and children.[22] In a sense, the Smith Act blew up the postwar ideal, creating single mothers who had to enter the workforce, become heads of households, and return to the world of organizing they had known as young Communist women.[23] The Families Committee seized the opportunity to publicly turn American ideology on its head, through pamphlets, articles, and letters.[24] To be a true American, a good mother, a healthy family in the 1950s was to be anticommunist — patriotic, loyal, conformist.[25] But the U.S. government was, in its persecution of dissenters, attacking families and ignoring stated American values.[26] “No home is safe, no family life secure, as long as our loved ones are persecuted and imprisoned for exercising their constitutional right to speak out for their political ideas,” the women wrote in one pamphlet.[27] It was the Communists, in other words, who were fighting for secure, whole families, and the First Amendment. (Language that centered families, one should note, was a new tack for the Communist Party, which long focused on how power impacted workers; and the Committee itself represented a greater leadership role for women in the CP.[28]) The all-female Families Committee continued its support network and its campaign of familial rhetoric until the late 1950s, when the Supreme Court ruled imprisonment over beliefs, even revolutionary ones as long as no specific plans for violence are made, to be unconstitutional, and Communist leaders were freed or returned from hiding.[29]

Overall, while Not June Cleaver reveals women’s diverse identities, perspectives, and activities, Meyerowitz of course does not deny the conservatism of the era, nor the domestic ideal.[30] But the work makes the case that dominant ways of living and meanings of womanhood (there were of course many white, middle-class, suburban housewives) were not as dominant as the historiography suggested. There were rebels and countercultures enough to toss out myths of homogeneity. There was sufficient diversity of postwar literature to question notions of textual ideological hegemony. We mentioned lesbian pulp fiction, blockbuster films with rebellious male and female teens, and articles by and about Communist women in newspapers. Meyerowitz, in her study of nearly 500 magazine articles from Reader’s Digest, Atlantic Monthly, Ebony, Ladies’ Home Journal, and more, found that “domestic ideals coexisted in ongoing tension with an ethos of individual achievement that celebrated nondomestic activity.”[31] “All of the magazines sampled advocated both” housewifery, motherhood, and other stereotypical experiences and women’s advancement beyond them.[32] Indeed, 99 articles “spotlighted women with unusual talents, jobs, or careers,” such as in politics or journalism.[33] Another 87 articles “focused on prominent entertainers.”[34] Compared to magazines of the 1930s and 40s, there was in fact less focus on the domestic sphere.[35] But glorification persisted of the woman — sometimes the career woman — who was a “good cook” and “never a lazy housewife,” who was beautiful, married, motherly, soft-spoken.[36] The postwar era, then, was less a regression for women who found new opportunities and independence during World War II (the ranks of working women actually grew after the troops came home[37]), less a time of a universal gender ideology and a concretized women’s place, and more a clash of recent progress, new ideas, and different experiences against the larger, traditionalist society.

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[1] Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 1-3.

[2] Ibid., 3-11.

[3] Ibid., 1-2, 4, 11.

[4] Ibid., 2-3.

[5] Ibid., 229-252.

[6] Ibid., 358-372.

[7] Ibid., 370.

[8] Ibid, 370-371.

[9] Ibid., 369.

[10] Ibid., 372-378.

[11] Ibid., 375-378.

[12] Ibid., 374-376.

[13] Ibid., 389.

[14] Ibid., 382-402.

[15] Ibid, 391-392.

[16] Ibid., 385-386.

[17] Ibid., 382-383.

[18] Ibid., 396, 398.

[19] Ibid., 151.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 157, 160.

[22] Ibid., 152, 157-158, 165.

[23] Ibid., 162, 155-156.

[24] Ibid., 164-168.

[25] Ibid., 152.

[26] Ibid., 152, 165.

[27] Ibid., 165.

[28] Ibid., 166, 170-171.

[29] Ibid., 165.

[30] Ibid., 4, 9.

[31] Ibid., 231-232.

[32] Ibid., 231.

[33] Ibid., 232-233.

[34] Ibid., 232.

[35] Ibid., 249.

[36] Ibid., 233.

[37] Ibid., 4.

Dr. King, Gandhi, and…Alice Paul

In Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign, English scholars Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene seek to lift American suffragist Alice Paul into history’s pantheon of nonviolent theorists and leaders, alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.[1] One might posit, particularly after the first few pages of the introduction, that the authors intend to elevate Paul into her proper place as a major figure in the fight for women’s right to vote, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Anna Howard Shaw, having been long ignored and unknown.[2] The work does this, certainly, but is not the first to do so. Adams and Keene make clear that prior works of the 1980s and 1990s at least partially accomplished this, and clarify what makes their 2008 text different: “It is time for a thorough consideration of her campaign theory and practice.”[3] They see a “blank space” in the history of Paul, the need for an examination of “her reliance on nonviolence” and “her use of visual rhetoric,” the foundations of her theory and practice, respectively.[4] Of course, a “consideration” is not a thesis, and the reader is left to ascertain one without explicit aid. After the parenthetical citations, this is the first clue, for those who did not examine the cover biographies, that the authors are not of the field of history. Fortunately, it grows increasingly clear that Adams and Keene are arguing Paul was one of world history’s great nonviolent theorists and activists, not simply that she was one of America’s great suffragists, seconding prior works.

The introduction, after the comments on the text’s purpose, notes that Paul “established the first successful nonviolent campaign for social reform in the United States, experimenting with the same techniques that Gandhi employed in South Africa and India.”[5] This is the first mark of her full significance. The book concludes with the reiteration that she “created the first successful nonviolent campaign for social change in the United States. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, she used every possibility of a nonviolent rhetoric to bring both a greater sense of self and civil rights to a disenfranchised group.”[6] In between, especially in the second chapter, on Paul’s theory, “like Gandhi” is used repeatedly. For instance, it or something analogous is employed on pages 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, and 41. “Like Gandhi, [Paul] would not alter her course to placate unhappy adherents.”[7] (The parallel thinking and work is outlined, but the authors do not actually cite evidence concerning what influence Gandhi, leading passive resistance in South Africa until 1914 and in India after that, had on Paul, or vice versa, despite teasing that the two may have met in 1909.[8]) Not being Paul’s contemporary, King receives less attention. But by the end of the chapter and the book, the message is received: Paul’s name, her ideology and campaign, should be spoken in the same breath as other historical icons of nonviolent mass movements. There are few similar glowing comparisons to, say, Stanton or Anthony, further suggesting the authors’ primary intent.

The text is organized largely chronologically. The first chapter concerns Paul’s youth, education, and activism in England, while the second chapter, exploring Paul’s theory of nonviolence, is the most thematic. Then chapters three through nine focus on the different activities of the American campaign for women’s right to vote (“The Political Boycott,” “Picketing Wilson,” “Hunger Strikes and Jail”), following its escalation over time (1912-1920).[9] Of course, some of the activities span the decade — chapter three examines the Suffragist paper and its appeals, an ongoing effort rather than strictly an early one.

Adam and Keene use letters, newspapers, photographs, pamphlets, books, and other primary documents of the era to illuminate Paul’s campaign of powerful visuals, persistent presence, and bold acts of protest, as well as her commitment to peaceful resistance and disruption. The Suffragist publication is the most cited source, and Paul’s personal letters are oft-used as well.[10] At times, the authors also cite a plethora of secondary sources, perhaps more than average for historical texts — possibly another subtly different tack of the English academics. Five secondary sources are used on pages 28 and 29 alone, for instance. This is during an exploration of the goals, tactics, and philosophy of nonviolent action, and the effect is twofold. While it fleshes out the conclusions people like Paul, Gandhi, and King reached, it pulls the reader out of the historical moment. An example:

As Paul’s clashes with Wilson and the legislature escalated, she was keeping her movement in the public eye, but she also risked alienating those with the power to pass the bill. Increasingly strong nonviolent rhetoric could have the wrong effect, as William R. Miller notes: if campaigners “embarrass the opponent and throw him off balance,” they could “antagonize the opponent and destroy rather than build rapport.”[11]

The best works of history often use secondary sources, but this repeated structure, Paul’s strategies approved or critiqued by more modern texts on movement theory, begins to feel a bit ahistorical. It is looking at Paul through the judging lens of, in this case, Miller’s 1964 Nonviolence: A Christian Interpretation. It would have been better for Adams and Keene to use, if possible, Paul’s own writings and other primary sources to capture this idea of the cost-benefits of confronting power. Then secondary sources could be used to note that those in later decades increasingly came to accept what Paul and others had determined or theorized. Perhaps the authors were summarizing and validating that which they did not see summarized and validated in the 1910s, but this is done often enough that one suspects they were stuck in a mindset of working backward.

Nonetheless, the work’s sources powerfully accomplish its purpose, the elevation of Alice Paul. This exploration of her ideological foundations, her theory of passive resistance to change perceptions (and self-perceptions) of women, and her steadfast strength and leadership through a dangerous campaign secure her “place in history.”[12] Adams and Keene demonstrate how Paul’s Quaker background and reading of Thoreau and Tolstoy molded a devotion to nonviolent direct action and “witnessing,” or serving as an example for others.[13] And they show how closely practice — strategies and tactics — followed theory, a key to placing Paul alongside Gandhi and King. Under her direction, visual rhetoric was used to witness and make persuasive appeals, growing from “moderate to extreme forms of conventional action and then from moderate to extreme forms of nonviolent action,” all widely publicized for maximum impact.[14] It began with articles, cartoons, and photographs in publications like the Suffragist, as well as speeches and gatherings, to artful parades, coast-to-coast journeys, and lobbying, and then escalated to a boycott of Democrats for opposing women’s rights, a picket of the White House, and a badgering of President Wilson wherever he went. Upon arrest over picketing, the suffragists engaged in work and hunger strikes (Paul was force-fed). After release from prison, they burned Wilson, and his words, in effigy.[15] Rejecting the more violent methods of England’s suffragettes, Paul and the American activists were nevertheless abused by police, crowds, and prison overseers.[16] Fierce opposition stemmed from reactionary ideologies of womanhood (neither the vote nor direct action was thought the purview of proper ladies), nationalism (such strong denouncements of Wilson and pickets during World War I were deemed unpatriotic and offensive),[17] and likely power (victory could lead to domino effects — the fall of other repressive laws against women, as well as attempts by other subjugated groups to rise up). As Paul had envisioned, their struggle demonstrated to themselves and all Americans women’s strength and power, making it increasingly difficult to argue against suffrage over notions of women’s dependency and weakness.[18] Adams and Keene’s primary sources thoroughly depict all of these developments. For instance, an article in the Washington Star in early 1917, while suffragists tried not to freeze during their daily protest in the capital, demonstrated how direct action informed views on women: “Feminine superiority is again demonstrated. The President of the United States took cold during a few hours’ exposure to conditions the White House pickets had weathered for weeks.”[19]

Overall, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign is an excellent text for general readers. Due to its oddities, it may not be the best example of historical writing for undergraduate and graduate students — though that is not to say the story of Paul and the more militant American suffragists can be passed over. Adams and Keene’s thesis, though somewhat unconventional, is compelling and urgent. Alice Paul’s name must no longer be met with blank stares by the average American, but, like the name Gandhi or King, with recognition and respect for her many accomplishments.

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[1] Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), xv-xvi. 

[2] Ibid., xi-xv.

[3] Ibid., xv-xvi.

[4] Ibid., xvi.

[5] Ibid., xvi.

[6] Ibid., 247.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] For a summary of the campaign, see ibid., xiv or 40.

[10] Ibid., Works Cited and 258.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid., 247.

[13] Ibid., 21-25.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] Ibid., xiv, xvi, 40, 246.

[16] Ibid., 201-204, for example.

[17] Ibid., 92-94, 126-127, 165-166, 167-172, 216.

[18] Ibid., xvi.

[19] Ibid., 166.

An Alternative Womanhood

Deborah Gray White’s 1985 text Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South seeks to demonstrate that black womanhood — its meaning and function — in antebellum America differed substantially from white womanhood.[1] It is not only that the roles of black female slaves contrasted in many ways with those of white women, it is also the case, the Rutgers historian argues, that white society’s view of women’s nature shifted in dramatic ways when it came to black women, driven by racism and the realities of slavery.[2] Likewise, the slave experience meant black women (and men) had different perceptions of women’s nature and place.[3] If this sounds obvious, it is only due to the scholarship of White and those who followed. The relevant historiography in the mid-1980s was incomplete and, White argues, incorrect. “African-American women were close to invisible in historical writing,” and it was assumed that black women’s roles and womanhood mirrored those of white women.[4] Indeed, historians were inappropriately “imposing the Victorian model of domesticity and maternity on the pattern of black female slave life.”[5] Because white women were “submissive” and “subordinate” in white society, it was presumed that “men played the dominant role in slave society” as well.[6] Thus, female slaves recieved little attention, and beliefs that they did not assert themselves, resist slavery, do heavy (traditionally masculine) labor, and so on persisted.[7] Ar’n’t I a Woman? offers a more comprehensive examination of enslaved black women’s daily realities, sharpening the contrast with white women’s, and explores how these differences altered ideologies of womanhood.

White primarily uses interviews of elderly female ex-slaves conducted in the 1930s, part of the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Projects Administration.[8] Enslaved and formerly enslaved women left behind precious few writings.[9] Anthropological comparison and writings about American female slaves from the era — plantation records, articles, pamphlets, diaries, slave narratives, letters, and so on — supplement the WPA interviews.[10] Organized thematically, the first chapter centers the white ideology of black women’s nature, while the remaining five chapters emphasize the realities of slavery for black females and their own self-perceptions, though there is of course crossover.

Given White’s documentation, it is interesting that historians and the American South perceived black women in such disparate ways. Historians put them in their “proper ‘feminine’ place” alongside Victorian white women.[11] They were imagined to fit that mold of roles and expectations — to be respectably prudish, for example.[12] But whites, in their expectations, positioned enslaved black women as far from white womanhood as possible. This is one part of the text where the primary sources powerfully support White’s claims. For Southerners and Europeans before them, black women had a different nature, being far more lustful than white women. The semi-nudity of African women and, later, enslaved women in the South, was one factor that led whites to view black women as more promiscuous, with the fact that whites determined slave conditions seemingly unnoticed.[13] To whites, the “hot constitution’d Ladies” of Africa were “continually contriving stratagems [for] how to gain a lover,” while slaves were “negro wenches” of “lewd and lascivious” character, not a one “chaste.”[14] Black women were “sensual” and “shameless.”[15] White women, on the other hand, were covered, respectable, chaste, prudish.[16] This was true womanhood; black women stood outside it. True, there existed a long history in Europe and America of women in general being viewed as more licentious than men, but White makes a compelling case that black women were placed in an extreme category.[17] They were not expected to be prudish or in other ways fit the Victorian model of womanhood, because they were seen more as beasts than women.[18] Racism wrought a different kind of sexism.[19]

Of course, Ar’n’t I a Woman? is about realities as much as it is expectations. The work argues that enslaved girls believed in their equality with boys, as opposed to the inferiority and weakness taught and held true by whites, that the slave community practiced something far closer to gender equality, and that “women in their role as mothers were the central figures in the nuclear slave family.”[20] What it meant to be a woman was quite different for enslaved black women — a woman was physically strong, the family head, an agent of resistance and decision, worthy of equality. “In slavery and in freedom,” White concludes, “we practiced an alternative style of womanhood.”[21] Some of this appears interpretive, however. “Most slave girls grew up believing that boys and girls were equal” is a conclusion based on oral and documentary evidence that slave children engaged in the precise same work and play, without categorization of masculine and feminine spheres.[22] But White does not quote former slaves or writings of the era explicitly asserting this belief. And the conclusion is far more confident than the prior “young girls probably grew up minimizing the difference between the sexes…”[23] While White’s interpretation is not unreasonable, more primary evidence is needed before shifting from supposition to assertion.

Overall, however, this is a vital text. It convincingly demonstrates how black womanhood was viewed differently by black women and white Southerners alike compared to white womanhood. Intersections of race and gender — how sexism was different for black women due to their race, and how racism against them was impacted by their sex — are well-explained and examined.[24] Showing the interplay between these beliefs and enslaved women’s roles, White makes a course correction for the field, which had entertained various myths. Equally important, she offers an intimate view of the terrors, drudgery, resistance, support systems, families, and much else experienced by black female slaves, which had been sorely lacking in the historiography. Short in length yet broad in scope, the work is highly readable for a general audience, and experiencing it is a powerful education.

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[1] Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 22.

[2] Ibid., 5-6, 14.

[3] Ibid., 14, 141.

[4] Ibid., 3, 21-22.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 22-24.

[10] Ibid., 23-24.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 29-33.

[14] Ibid., 29-31.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 31, 22.

[17] Ibid., 27 and Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), xiii-xiv. See chapter 5, especially pages 153-162, as well.

[18] White, Woman?, 31.

[19] Ibid., 5-6.

[20] Ibid., 118, 120, 142.

[21] Ibid., 190.

[22] Ibid., 118, 92-94.

[23] Ibid., 94.

[24] Ibid., 5-6.

The American Revolution: Birthplace of Feminism?

Historian Mary Beth Norton, in her 1980 text Liberty’s Daughters, argues that the American Revolution changed colonial women’s self-perceptions, activities, and familial relationships.[1] The tumultuous years of 1775 to 1783, and the decade or so that preceded them, reformed the private lives and identities of literate, middle- and upper-class white women in particular, those in the best position to leave behind writings chronicling their thoughts and lives — though Norton stresses that the war touched most all women, making it safe to assume its effects did as well to some degree.[2] Early and mid-eighteenth century women generally existed within a “small circle of domestic concerns,” believing, alongside men, in strictly defined permissible feminine behavior, proper roles for women, and their own inferiority and limited capabilities.[3] Politics, for instance, was “outside the feminine sphere.”[4] But in the 1760s and early 1770s, Norton posits, the extreme political climate in the colonies, the tensions and clashes with the British government and army, began to shake up the gender order and create new possibilities. Women began writing in their journals of the major events of the day, avidly reading newspapers, debating politics as men did, participating in boycotts and marches, and even seizing merchant goods.[5] They published articles and formed relief efforts and women’s organizations.[6] The Revolution, in other words, was women’s entry into public life and activism, with no more apologies or timidity when pushing into the male sphere of policy, law, and action.[7]

The war also changed women’s labor. Some worked with the colonial army as cooks, nurses, and laundresses, often because they needed stable income with husbands away.[8] More still took over the domestic leadership and roles of their absent husbands, managing farms and finances alike, and would later no longer be told they had not the sense or skills for it.[9] Political debate, revolutionary action, and household leadership with business acumen profoundly shifted women’s views of themselves. “Feminine weakness, delicacy, and incapacity” were questioned.[10] Equal female intelligence was affirmed.[11] Some women even applied the language of liberty, representation, and equality to critiques of women’s subservience.[12] While still constrained in countless ways, by the end of the century, these new ways of thinking had opened even more opportunities for women. More independent, they insisted they would choose their own husbands, delay marriage, or not marry at all; more confident in their abilities, they pushed for girls’ education and broke into the male field of teaching; and so on.[13]

Norton’s engaging text is organized thematically, with a tinge of the chronological. It charts the “constant patterns of women’s lives” in the first half, what stayed the same for American women from before the Revolution to after, and the “changing patterns” in the second, how their lives differed.[14] Norton describes this as “rather complex,” stemming from various modes of thought on many issues changing or remaining static at different times — they did not “fit a neat chronological framework.”[15] The result for the reader is mixed. On the one hand, the layout does allow Norton to demonstrate how women viewed themselves and society before the war, then chart ideological growth and offer causal explanations. This is helpful to the thesis. On the other hand, the first half contains a wealth of historical information that is, essentially, only tangential to the thesis. For if the text presents what did not change, as interesting and valuable as that is, this has little to do with the argument that the American Revolution altered women’s lives. For example, Norton explores views on infants, nursing, and weaning in the first half of the work.[16] As these were “constant” beliefs in this era, not impacted by dramatic events, they are not much explored in the second half. Thus, the reader may correctly consider much information to be irrelevant to the main argument. Of course, it is clear that Norton did not set out only to correct the historiography that concluded “the Revolution had little effect upon women” or ignored the question entirely; she also saw that a wide range of assumptions about eighteenth-century American women were wrong, which to correct would take her far beyond the scope of Revolution-wrought effects.[17] Inclusion of this secondary argument and its extra details makes Liberty’s Daughters a richer and even more significant historical work, but gears it toward history undergraduates, graduates, and professionals. A general audience text might have been slimmer with a fully chronological structure, focusing on select beliefs in the first half (pre-Revolution) that change in the second (political upheaval and war).

Norton uses letters, journal entries, newspaper articles, and other papers — primarily the writings of women — from hundreds of colonial families to build her case.[18] She presents documents from before, during, and after the war, allowing fascinating comparisons concerning women’s ways of thinking, activities, and demands from society. A potential weakness of the historical evidence — there are few — mirrors a point the historian makes in her first few pages. Literacy and its relation to class and race have already been mentioned, constituting a “serious drawback”: the sample is not “representative.”[19] Similarly, are there enough suggestions of new ways of thinking in these hundreds of documents to confidently make assertions of broad ideological change? In some cases yes, in others perhaps not. For example, Norton cites women’s views on their “natural” traits. Before the Revolution, “when women remarked upon the characteristics they presumably shared with others of their sex, they did so apologetically.”[20] One trait was curiosity. Norton provides just a single example of a woman, Abigail Adams, who felt compelled to “‘excuse’ the ‘curiosity…natural to me…’”[21] The question of curiosity then returns in the second half of the text, after the war has changed self-perceptions. Norton finds that women had abandoned the apologies and begun pushing back against male criticism of their nature by pointing out that men had such a nature as well, or by noting the benefits of derided traits.[22] Here the author offers two examples. “The sons of Adam,” Debby Norris wrote in 1778, “have full as much curiosity in their composition…”[23] Judith Sargent Murray, in 1794, declared that curiosity was the cure for ignorance, worthy of praise not scorn.[24] Clearly, one “before” and two “after” citations are not an adequate sample size and cannot be said to be representative of women’s views of curiosity. It is often only when one looks beyond the specific to the general that Norton’s evidence becomes satisfactory. Curiosity is considered alongside delicacy, vanity, helplessness, stupidity, and much else, and the mass accumulation of evidence of beliefs across topics and time convincingly suggests women’s views of their traits, abilities, and deserved treatment were changing.[25] One might say with more caution that connotations concerning curiosity shifted, but with greater confidence that women’s perceptions of their nature transformed to some degree.

Overall, Norton’s work is an important contribution to the field of American women’s history, correcting erroneous assumptions about women of the later eighteenth century, showing the war’s effects upon them, and offering sources some historians thought did not exist.[26] While one must be cautious of representation and sample size, in more than one sense, and while the thesis could have been strengthened with data tabulation (x number of letters in early decades mentioned politics, y number in later decades, z percentage contained apologies for entering the male sphere of concern, etc.), Norton provides a thorough examination and convincing argument based on a sufficient body of evidence. Few students will forget the new language found in primary documents after the outbreak of war, a metamorphosis from the commitment “not to approach the verge of any thing so far beyond the line of my sex [politics]” to “We are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”[27]

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[1] Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), xix, 298.

[2] Ibid., xviii-xx.

[3] Ibid, chapter 1, xviii. 

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] Ibid., 155-157.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] Ibid., 156.

[8] Ibid., 212-213.

[9] Ibid., chapter 7, 222-224.

[10] Ibid., 228.

[11] Ibid., chapter 9.

[12] Ibid., 225-227, 242.

[13] Ibid., 295, chapter 8, chapter 9.

[14] Ibid., vii, xx.

[15] Ibid., xx. 

[16] Ibid., 85-92.

[17] Ibid., xviii-xix.

[18] Ibid., xvii.

[19] Ibid., xix.

[20] Ibid., 114.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 239.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., chapters 4 and 8 in comparison, and parts I and II in comparison.

[26] Ibid., xvii-xix.

[27] Ibid., 122, 226.

The “Witches” Killed at Salem Were Women Who Stepped Out of Line

In The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, historian Carol F. Karlsen argues that established social attitudes toward women in seventeenth-century New England, and earlier centuries in Europe, explain why women were the primary victims of witch hunts in places like Salem, Fairfield, and elsewhere.[1] Indeed, she posits, women who willingly or inadvertently stepped out of line, who violated expected gender norms, were disproportionately likely to be accused in Puritan society. After establishing that roughly 80% of accused persons in New England from 1620 to 1725 were women, and that men represented both two-thirds of accusers and all of those in positions to decide the fates of the accused, Karlsen observes women’s deviant behaviors or states of affairs that drew Puritan male ire.[2] For instance: “Most witches in New England were middle-aged or old women eligible for inheritances because they had no brothers or sons.”[3] When husbands or fathers had no choice but to leave property to daughters and wives, this violated the favored and common patrilineal succession of the era. Further, women who committed the sins of “discontent, anger, envy, malice, seduction, lying, and pride,” which were strongly associated with their sex, failed to behave as proper Christian women and thus hinted at allegiances to the devil, putting them at risk of accusation.[4] The scholar is careful to note, however, that in the historical record accusers, prosecutors, juries, magistrates, and so on did not explicitly speak of such things as evidence of witchcraft.[5] But the trends suggest that concern over these deviations, whether subliminal or considered, played a role in the trials and executions.

Karlsen’s case is well-crafted. Part of its power is its simplicity: a preexisting ideology about women primed the (male and female) residents of towns like Salem to see witches in female form far more often than male. The fifth chapter could be considered the centerpiece of the work because it most closely examines the question of what a woman was — the view of her nature by the intensely patriarchal societies of Europe and how this view was adopted and modified, or left intact, by the Puritans. Christian Europe saw women as more evil than men.[6] They were of the same nature as Eve, who sought forbidden knowledge, betrayed God, and tempted man. Believed to be “created intellectually, morally, and physically weaker,” women were thought to have “more uncontrollable appetites” for sins like the seven above.[7] It is Karlsen’s exploration of this background that is foundational to the argument. If Christians had long seen women as more evil, a notion of witches-as-women in New England would have been a natural outgrowth (America’s early female religious dissenters, among other developments, added fuel to the fire).[8] The fact that associations between women and witchcraft existed in the European mind before the Puritans set foot in North America reinforces this.[9] Karlsen quotes fifteenth- and sixteenth-century writers: “More women than men are ministers of the devil,” “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable,” “Because Christ did not permit women to administer his sacraments…they are given more authority than men in the administration of the devil’s execrations,” and so on.[10] Another penned that middle aged and older women received no sexual attention from men so they had to seek it from the devil.[11]

Indeed, Karlsen’s use of primary sources is appreciable. She extensively cites witchcraft trials in New England and works by ministers such as Cotton Mather, not only as anecdotal evidence but also, alongside public and family records, to tabulate data, primarily to show that women were special targets of the witch hunts and that most had or might receive property.[12] The author leaves little room for disputing that witch hunt victims were not quite model Puritan women, and that the Puritans believed that those who in any way stepped outside their “place in the social order were the very embodiments of evil,” and therefore had to be destroyed.[13] The work is organized along those lines, which is sensible and engaging. But a stumble occurs during a later dalliance with secondary sources.

One piece of the story — appearing on the last couple pages of the last chapter — stands out as underdeveloped. Karlsen posits that the physical ailments the Puritans blamed on possession, such as convulsions and trances, were psychological breaks, a “physical and emotional response to a set of social conditions,” indeed the social order itself.[14] The gender hierarchy and oppressive religious system were, in other words, too much to bear. Karlsen does cite anthropologists that have studied this phenomenon in other societies, where the minds of oppressed peoples, usually women, split from normalcy and enter states that allow them to disengage from and freely lash out at their oppressors, as, Karlsen argues, possessed New England women did.[15] But the causes of physical manifestations are such a significant part of the story that they deserve far more attention, indeed their own chapter (most of Karlsen’s final chapter explores the questions of who was most likely to be possessed, how they acted, and how the Puritans explained the phenomenon, though it is framed as a culturally-created power struggle early on).[16] This would allow Karlsen room to bring in more sources and better connect the New England story to other anthropological findings, and to flesh out the argument. For instance, she writes that convulsions and other altered states would have been “most common in women raised in particularly religious households,” but does not show that this was true for possessed women in New England.[17] How the ten men who were possessed fit into this hypothesis is unclear.[18] Things also grow interpretive, a perhaps necessary but always perilous endeavor: “…in their inability to eat for days on end, [possessed women] spoke to the depths of their emotional hunger and deprivation, perhaps as well to the denial of their sexual appetites.”[19] This is unsupported. In the dim light of speculation and limited attention, other causes of “possession,” such as historian Linnda Caporael’s ergotism theory (convulsions and hallucinations due to a fungus found in rye), remain enticing.[20] Minds are forced to remain open to causes beyond social pressures, and indeed to multiple, conjoining factors. How physical symptoms arose, of course, does not affect the thesis that prior ideology led to the targeting of women. The concern is whether the anthropological theory fit so well with Karlsen’s thesis — the targeting of women and the physical ailments being the results of a repressive society — that she both gravitated toward the latter and did not grant it the lengthier study it warranted.

Overall, Karlsen’s work is important. As she noted in her introduction, prior historians had given little focus to the role of gender in American witch hunts.[21] Their witch hunts had little to do with the suspicions about women’s nature or the dismay over women pushing against the gender hierarchy and religious order. Written in the late 1980s, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman represented a breakthrough and a turning point. It is a must read for anyone interested in the topic.

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[1] Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), xiii-xiv. See chapter 5, especially pages 153-162, for European origins.

[2] Ibid., 47-48.

[3] Ibid., 117.

[4] Ibid., 119.

[5] Ibid., 153.

[6] Ibid., 155.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 127-128 and chapter 6.

[9] Ibid., chapter 5.

[10] Ibid., 155-156.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] See for example ibid., 48-49, 102-103.

[13] Ibid., 181.

[14] Ibid., 248-251.

[15] Ibid., 246-247, with anthropologists cited on footnote 69, page 249, and footnote 71, page 251.

[16] Ibid., 231, 246.

[17] Ibid., 250.

[18] Ibid., 224.

[19] Ibid., 250.

[20] Linnda R. Caporael, “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?,” Science 192, no. 4234 (1976): 21–26,

[21] Karlsen, The Devil, xii-xiii.

Scotty’s Missing Finger

James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott wasn’t often the centerpiece of “Star Trek” storylines, but he could always be counted on to save the day by eking some kind of miracle out of the Enterprise’s transporters or warp engines. Doohan’s performance was lively, and “Scotty” lovable and charismatic, even if the Canadian actor’s for-television accent was once included on the BBC’s list of “Film Crimes Against the Scottish Accent.” According to The Guardian, Doohan based the voice on that of a Scottish soldier he met in World War II.

Indeed, Doohan was a soldier before he had any interest in acting. He joined the Canadian artillery after high school, right as the largest conflict in human history was brewing. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and was sent to Britain to prepare for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy (Valour Canada). Long before Scotty saved Kirk, Spock, and his other comrades from all sorts of alien enemies and celestial phenomena, he led men into the fires of D-Day, June 6, 1944. 

Following a naval and aerial bombardment, Canadian units stormed Juno Beach. James Doohan and his men unknowingly ran across an anti-tank minefield, being too light to detonate the defenses (Snopes). Bullets piercing all around, they reached cover and advanced inland. Doohan made his first two kills of the war by silencing German snipers in a church tower in Graye Sur Mer. 

After securing their positions, Doohan and his troops rested that evening. But just before midnight, everything went wrong for our future chief engineer. Stepping away from the command post for a smoke, on his way back his body was riddled with at least half a dozen bullets. The middle finger of his right hand was torn off, four bullets hit his knee, and one hit his chest, but did minimal injury because it happened to strike the silver cigarette case in his breast pocket. But this was no German attack. It was friendly fire.

According to Valour Canada, James Doohan was shot by a Canadian sentry who mistook him in the night for a German soldier. This sentry has been described as “nervous” and “trigger-happy” (Snopes). Doohan later said that his body had so much adrenaline pumping through it after the shooting that he walked to the medical post without even realizing his knee had been hit.
Doohan survived the incident and the war, moved to the United States, and started acting in 1950 (IMDb). Sixteen years later, after small roles in “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and more, he landed the part that would bring him global fame. According to, Doohan had a hand double to conceal the missing finger while filming close-ups on “Star Trek.” However, it is still obvious in many shots, stills of which fans have collected, for instance on this Stack Exchange.

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Purpose, Intersectionality, and History

This paper posits that primary sources meant for public consumption best allow the historian to understand how intersections between race and gender were used, consciously or not, to advocate for social attitudes and public policy in the United States and the English colonies before it. This is not to say utilization can never be gleaned from sources meant to remain largely unseen, nor that public ones will always prove helpful; the nature of sources simply creates a general rule. Public sources like narratives and films typically offer arguments.[1] Diaries and letters to friends tend to lack them. A public creation had a unique purpose and audience, unlikely to exist in the first place without an intention to persuade, and with that intention came more attention to intersectionality, whether in a positive (liberatory) or negative (oppressive) manner.

An intersection between race and gender traditionally refers to an overlap in challenges: a woman of color, for instance, will face oppressive norms targeting both women and people of color, whereas a white woman will only face one of these. Here the meaning will include this but is expanded slightly to reflect how the term has grown beyond academic circles. In cultural and justice movement parlance, it has become near-synonymous with solidarity, in recognition of overlapping oppressions (“True feminism is intersectional,” “If we fight sexism we must fight racism too, as these work together against women of color,” and so on). Therefore “intersectionality” has a negative and positive connotation: multiple identities plagued by multiple societal assaults, but also the coming together of those who wish to address this, who declare the struggle of others to be their own. We will therefore consider intersectionality as oppressive and liberatory developments, intimately intertwined, relating to women of color.

Salt of the Earth, the 1954 film in which the wives of striking Mexican American workers ensure a victory over a zinc mining company by taking over the picket line, is intersectional at its core.[2] Meant for a public audience, it uses overlapping categorical challenges to argue for gender and racial (as well as class) liberation. The film was created by blacklisted Hollywood professionals alongside the strikers and picketers on which the story is based (those of the 1950-1951 labor struggle at Empire Zinc in Hanover, New Mexico) to push back against American dogma of the era: normalized sexism, racism, exploitation of workers, and the equation of any efforts to address such problems with communism.[3] Many scenes highlight the brutality or absurdity of these injustices, with workers dying in unsafe conditions, police beating Ramon Quintero for talking back “to a white man,” and women being laughed at when they declare they will cover the picket line, only to amaze when they ferociously battle police.[4]

Intersectionality is sometimes shown not told, with the protagonist Esperanza Quintero facing the full brunt of both womanhood and miserable class conditions in the company-owned town (exploitation of workers includes that of their families). She does not receive racist abuse herself, but, as a Mexican American woman whose husband does, the implication is clear enough. She shares the burdens of racism with men, and those of exploitation — with women’s oppression a unique, additional yoke. In the most explicit expositional instance of intersectionality, Esperanza castigates Ramon for wanting to keep her in her place, arguing that is precisely like the “Anglos” wanting to put “dirty Mexicans” in theirs.[5] Sexism is as despicable as racism, the audience is told, and therefore if you fight the latter you must also fight the former. The creators of Salt of the Earth use intersectionality to argue for equality for women by strategically tapping into preexisting anti-racist sentiment: the men of the movie understand that bigotry against Mexican Americans is wrong from the start, and this is gradually extended to women. The audience — Americans in general, unions, the labor movement — must do the same.

A similar public source to consider is Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. Like Salt of the Earth, Beloved is historical fiction. Characters and events are invented, but it is based on a historical happening: in 1850s Ohio, a formerly enslaved woman named Margaret Garner killed one of her children and attempted to kill the rest to prevent their enslavement.[6] One could perhaps argue Salt of the Earth, though fiction, is a primary source for the 1950-1951 Hanover strike, given its Hanover co-creators; it is clearly a primary source for 1954 and its hegemonic American values and activist counterculture — historians can examine a source as an event and what the source says about an earlier event.[7] Beloved cannot be considered a primary source of the Garner case, being written about 130 years later, but is a primary source of the late 1980s. Therefore, any overall argument or comments on intersectionality reflect and reveal the thinking of Morrison’s time.

In her later foreword, Morrison writes of another inspiration for her novel, her feeling of intense freedom after leaving her job to pursue her writing passions.[8] She explains:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. In the eighties, the debate was still roiling: equal pay, equal treatment, access to professions, schools…and choice without stigma. To marry or not. To have children or not. Inevitably these thoughts led me to the different history of black women in this country—a history in which marriage was discouraged, impossible, or illegal; in which birthing children was required, but “having” them, being responsible for them—being, in other words, their parent—was as out of the question as freedom.[9]

This illuminates both Morrison’s purpose and how intersectionality forms its foundation. “Free” meant something different to women in 1987, she suggests, than to men. Men may have understood women’s true freedom as equal rights and access, but did they understand it also to mean, as women did, freedom from judgment, freedom not only to make choices but to live by them without shame? Morrison then turns to intersectionality: black women were forced to live by a different, harsher set of rules. This was a comment on slavery, but it is implied on the same page that the multiple challenges of multiple identities marked the 1980s as well: a black woman’s story, Garner’s case, must “relate…to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s ‘place.’”[10] In Beloved, Sethe (representing Garner) consistently saw the world differently than her lover Paul D, from what was on her back to whether killing Beloved was justified, love, resistance.[11] To a formerly enslaved black woman and mother, the act set Beloved free; to a formerly enslaved man, it was a horrific crime.[12] Sethe saw choice as freedom, and if Paul D saw the act as a choice that could not be made, if he offered only stigma, then freedom could not exist either. Recognizing the unique challenges and perspectives of black women and mothers, Morrison urges readers of the 1980s to do the same, to graft a conception of true freedom onto personal attitudes and public policy.

Moving beyond historical fiction, let us examine a nonfiction text from the era of the Salem witch trials to observe how Native American women were even more vulnerable to accusation than white women. Whereas Beloved and Salt of the Earth make conscious moves against intersectional oppression, the following work, wittingly or not, solidified it. Boston clergyman Cotton Mather’s A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning (1693) begins by recounting how Mercy Short, an allegedly possessed servant girl, was once captured by “cruel and Bloody Indians.”[13] This seemingly out of place opening establishes a tacit connection between indigenous people and the witchcraft plaguing Salem. This link is made more explicit later in the work, when Mather writes that someone executed at Salem testified “Indian sagamores” had been present at witch meetings to organize “the methods of ruining New England,” and that Mercy Short, in a possessed state, revealed the same, adding Native Americans at such meetings held a book of “Idolatrous Devotions.”[14] Mather, and others, believed indigenous peoples were involved in the Devil’s work. Further, several other afflicted women and girls had survived Native American attacks, further connecting the terrors.[15]

This placed women like Tituba, a Native American slave, in peril. Women were the primary victims of the witch hunts.[16] Tituba’s race was an added vulnerability (as was, admittedly, a pre-hysteria association, deserved or not, of Tituba with magic).[17] She was accused and pressured into naming other women as witches, then imprisoned (she later recanted).[18] A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning was intended to describe Short’s tribulation, as well as offer some remedies,[19] but also to explain its cause. Native Americans, it told its Puritan readers, were heavily involved in the Devil’s work, likely helping create other cross-categorical consequences for native women who came after Tituba. The text both described and maintained a troubling intersection in the New England colonies.

A captivity narrative from the previous decade, Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, likewise encouraged intersectional oppression. This source is a bit different than A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning because it is a first-hand account of one’s own experience; Mather’s work is largely a second-hand account of Short’s experience (compare “…shee still imagined herself in a desolate cellar” to the first-person language of Rowlandson[20]). Rowlandson was an Englishwoman from Massachusetts held captive for three months by the Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wompanoag during King Philip’s War (1675-1676).[21] Her 1682 account of this event both characterized Native Americans as animals and carefully defined a woman’s proper place — encouraging racism against some, patriarchy against others, and the full weight of both for Native American women. To Rowlandson, native peoples were “dogs,” “beasts,” “merciless and cruel,” creatures of great “savageness and brutishness.”[22] They were “Heathens” of “foul looks,” whose land was unadulterated “wilderness.”[23] Native society was animalistic, a contrast to white Puritan civilization.[24]

Rowlandson reinforced ideas of true womanhood by downplaying the power of Weetamoo, the female Pocassett Wompanoag chief, whose community leadership, possession of vast land and servants, and engagement in diplomacy and war violated Rowlandson’s understanding of a woman’s proper role in society.[25] Weetamoo’s authority was well-known by the English.[26] Yet Rowlandson put her in a box, suggesting her authority was an act, never acknowledging her as a chief (unlike Native American men), and emphasizing her daily tasks to implicitly question her status.[27] Rowaldson ignored the fact that Weetamoo’s “work” was a key part of tribal diplomacy, attempted to portray her own servitude as unto a male chief rather than Weetamoo (giving possessions first to him), and later labeled Weetamoo an arrogant, “proud gossip” — meaning, historian Lisa Brooks notes, “in English colonial idiom, a woman who does not adhere to her position as a wife.”[28] The signals to her English readers were clear: indigenous people were savages and a woman’s place was in the domestic, not the public, sphere. If Weetamoo’s power was common knowledge, the audience would be led to an inevitable conclusion: a Native American woman was inferior twofold, an animal divorced from true womanhood.

As we have seen, public documents make a case for or against norms of domination that impact women of color in unique, conjoining ways. But sources meant to remain private are often less useful for historians seeking to understand intersectionality — as mentioned in the introduction, with less intention to persuade comes less bold or rarer pronouncements, whether oppressive or liberatory. Consider the diary of Martha Ballard, written 1785-1812. Ballard, a midwife who delivered over eight hundred infants in Hallowell, Maine, left a daily record of her work, home, and social life.[29] The diary does have some liberatory implications for women, subverting ideas of men being the exclusive important actors in the medical and economic spheres.[30] But its purpose was solely for Ballard — keeping track of payments, weather patterns, and so on.[31] There was little need to comment on a woman’s place, and even less was said about race. Though there do exist some laments over the burdens of her work, mentions of delivering black babies, and notice of a black female doctor, intersectionality is beyond Ballard’s gaze, or at least beyond the purpose of her text.[32]

Similarly, private letters often lack argument. True, an audience of one is more likely to involve persuasion than an audience of none, but still less likely than a mass audience. And without much of an audience, ideas need not be fully fleshed out nor, at times, addressed at all. Intersectional knowledge can be assumed, ignored as inappropriate given the context, and so on. For instance, take a letter abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sarah Grimké wrote to Sarah Douglass of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society on February 22, 1837.[33] Grimké expressed sympathy for Douglass, a black activist, on account of race: “I feel deeply for thee in thy sufferings on account of the cruel and unchristian prejudice…”[34] But while patriarchal norms and restrictions lay near the surface, with Grimké describing the explicitly “female prayer meetings” and gatherings of “the ladies” where her early work was often contained, she made no comment on Douglass’ dual challenge of black womanhood.[35] The letter was a report of Grimké’s meetings, with no intention to persuade. Perhaps she felt it off-topic to broach womanhood and intersectionality. Perhaps she believed it too obvious to mention — or that it would undercut or distract from her extension of sympathy toward Douglass and the unique challenges of racism (“Yes, you alone face racial prejudice, but do we not both face gender oppression?”). On the one hand, the letter could seem surprising: how could Grimké, who along with her sister Angelina were pushing for both women’s equality and abolition for blacks at this time, not have discussed womanhood, race, and their interplays with a black female organizer like Douglass?[36] On the other, this is not surprising at all: this was a private letter with a limited purpose. It likely would have looked quite different had it been a public letter meant for a mass audience.

In sum, this paper offered a general view of how the historian can find and explore intersectionality, whether women of color facing overlapping challenges or the emancipatory mindsets and methods needed to address them. Purpose and audience categorized the most and least useful sources for such an endeavor. Public-intended sources like films, novels, secondary narratives, first-person narratives, and more (autobiographies, memoirs, public photographs and art, articles, public letters) show how intersectionality was utilized, advancing regressive or progressive attitudes and causes. Types of sources meant to remain private like diaries, personal letters, and so on (private photographs and art, some legal and government documents) often have no argument and are less helpful. From here, a future writing could explore the exceptions that of course exist. More ambitiously, another might attempt to examine the effectiveness of each type of source in producing oppressive or liberatory change: does the visual-auditory stimulation of film or the inner thoughts in memoirs evoke emotions and reactions that best facilitate attitudes and action? Is seeing the intimate perspectives of multiple characters in a novel of historical fiction most powerful, or that of one thinker in an autobiography, who was at least a real person? Or is a straightforward narrative, the writer detached, lurking in the background as far away as possible, just as effective as more personal sources in pushing readers to hold back or stand with women of color? The historian would require extensive knowledge of the historical reactions to the (many) sources considered (D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation famously sparked riots — can such incidents be quantified? Was this more likely to occur due to films than photographs?) and perhaps a co-author from the field of psychology to test (admittedly present-day) human reactions to various types of sources scientifically to bolster the case.

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[1] Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 10th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 14.

[2] Salt of the Earth, directed by Herbert Biberman (1954; Independent Productions Corporation).

[3] Carl R. Weinberg, “‘Salt of the Earth’: Labor, Film, and the Cold War,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 24, no. 4 (October 2010): 41-45.

  Benjamin Balthaser, “Cold War Re-Visions: Representation and Resistance in the Unseen Salt of the Earth,” American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (June 2008): 347-371.

[4] Salt of the Earth, Biberman.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), xvii.

[7] Kathleen Kennedy (lecture, Missouri State University, April 26, 2022).

[8] Morrison, Beloved, xvi.

[9] Ibid, xvi-xvii.

[10] Ibid., xvii.

[11] Ibid., 20, 25; 181, 193-195. To Sethe, her back was adorned with “her chokecherry tree”; Paul D noted “a revolting clump of scars.” This should be interpreted as Sethe distancing herself from the trauma of the whip, reframing and disempowering horrific mutilation through positive language. Paul D simply saw the terrors of slavery engraved on the body. Here Morrison subtly considers a former slave’s psychological self-preservation. When Sethe admitted to killing Beloved, she was unapologetic to Paul D — “I stopped him [the slavemaster]… I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” — but he was horrified, first denying the truth, then feeling a “roaring” in his head, then telling Sethe she loved her children too much. Then, like her sons and the townspeople at large, Paul D rejected Sethe, leaving her.

[12] Ibid., 193-195.

[13] Cotton Mather, A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning, in George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the New England Witch Trials (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012), 259.

[14] Ibid, 281-282.

[15] Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 83.

[16] Michael J. Salevouris and Conal Furay, The Methods and Skills of History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 211.

[17] Godbeer, Salem, 83.

[18] Ibid., 83-84.

[19] Burr, Narratives, 255-258.

[20] Ibid., 262.

[21] Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018).

[22] Ibid., 76-77, 113-114.

[23] Ibid., 100, 76.

[24] This was the typical imperialist view. See Kirsten Fischer, “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3-11.

[25] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), chapter one.

[26] Ibid., 264.

[27] Ibid.

   Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 81, 103.

[28] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 264, 270.

[29] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

[30] Ibid., 28-30.

[31] Ibid., 168, 262-263.

[32] Ibid., 225-226, 97, 53.

[33] Sarah Grimké, “Letter to Sarah Douglass,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 94-95.

[34] Ibid., 95.

[35] Ibid., 94.

[36] Ibid., 84-148.

‘Beloved’ as History

In one sense, fiction can present (or represent, a better term) history as an autobiography might, exploring the inner thoughts and emotions of a survivor or witness. In another, fiction is more like a standard nonfiction work, its omniscient gaze shifting from person to person, revealing that which a single individual cannot know and experience, but not looking within, at the personal. Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved exemplifies the synthesis of these two commonalities: the true, unique power of fiction is the ability to explore the inner experiences of multiple persons. While only “historically true in essence,” as Morrison put it, the novel offers a history of slavery and its persistent trauma for the characters Sethe, Paul D, Denver, Beloved, and more.[1] It is posited here that Morrison believed the history of enslavement could be more fully understood through representations of the personal experiences of diverse impacted persons. This is the source of Beloved’s power.

One way to approach this is to consider different perspectives of the same event or those similar. To Sethe, her back was adorned with “her chokecherry tree”; Paul D noted “a revolting clump of scars.”[2] This should be interpreted as Sethe distancing herself from the trauma of the whip, reframing and disempowering horrific mutilation through positive language. Paul D simply saw the terrors of slavery engraved on the body. Here Morrison subtly considers a former slave’s psychological self-preservation. As another example, both Sethe and Paul D experienced sexual assault. Slaveowners and guards, respectively, forced milk from Sethe’s breasts and forced Paul D to perform oral sex.[3] Out of fear, “Paul D retched — vomiting up nothing at all. An observing guard smashed his shoulder with the rifle…”[4] “They held me down and took it,” Sethe thought mournfully, “Milk that belonged to my baby.”[5] Slavery was a violation of personhood, an attack on motherhood and manhood alike. Morrison’s characters experienced intense pain and shame over these things; here the author draws attention to not only the pervasive sexual abuse inherent to American slavery but also how it could take different forms, with different meanings, for women and men. Finally, consider how Sethe killed her infant to save the child from slavery.[6] Years later, Sethe was unapologetic to Paul D — “I stopped him [the slavemaster]… I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” — but he was horrified, first denying the truth, then feeling a “roaring” in his head, then telling Sethe she loved her children too much.[7] Then, like her sons and the townspeople at large, Paul D rejected Sethe, leaving her.[8] This suggests varying views on the meaning of freedom — death can be true freedom or the absence of it, or perhaps whether true freedom is determining one’s own fate — as well as ethics and resistance and love; a formerly enslaved woman and mother may judge differently than a formerly enslaved man, among others.[9]

Through the use of fiction, Morrison can offer diverse intimate perspectives, emotions, and experiences of former slaves, allowing for a more holistic understanding of the history of enslavement. This is accomplished through both a standard literary narrative and, in several later chapters, streams of consciousness from Sethe, Denver, Beloved, and an amalgamation of the three.[10] Indeed, Sethe and Paul D’s varying meanings and observations here are a small selection from an intensely complex work with several other prominent characters. There is much more to explore. It is also the case that in reimagining and representing experiences, Morrison attempts to make history personal and comprehensible for the reader, to transmit the emotions of slavery from page to body.[11] Can history be understood, she asks, if we do not experience it ourselves, in at least a sense? In other words, Beloved is history as “personal experience” — former slaves’ and the reader’s.[12]

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[1] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), xvii.

[2] Ibid., 20, 25.

[3] Ibid., 19-20, 127.

[4] Ibid., 127.

[5] Ibid., 236.

[6] Ibid., 174-177.

[7] Ibid., 181, 193-194.

[8] Ibid., 194-195.

[9] Morrison alludes, in her foreword, to wanting to explore what freedom meant to women: ibid., xvi-xvii.

[10] Ibid., 236-256.

[11] Morrison writes that to begin the book she wanted the reader to feel kidnapped, as Africans or sold/caught slaves experienced: ibid., xviii-xix. 

[12] Ibid., xix.

‘Salt of the Earth’: Liberal or Leftist?

Labor historian Carl R. Weinberg argues that the Cold War was fought at a cultural level, films being one weapon to influence American perspectives on matters of class and labor, gender, and race.[1] He considers scenes from Salt of the Earth, the 1954 picture in which the wives of striking Mexican American workers ensure a victory over a zinc mining company by taking over the picket line, that evidence a push against hierarchical gender relations, racial prejudice, and corporate-state power over unions and workers.[2] Cultural and literary scholar Benjamin Balthaser takes the same film and explores the scenes left on the cutting room floor, positing that the filmmakers desired a stronger assault against U.S. imperialism, anti-communism at home and abroad (such as McCarthyism and the Korean War), and white/gender supremacy, while the strikers on which the film was based, despite their sympathetic views and militancy, felt such commentary would hurt their labor and civil rights organizing — or even bring retribution.[3] Balthaser sees a restrained version born of competing interests, and Weinberg, without exploring the causes, notices the same effect: there is nearly no “mention of the broader political context,” little commentary on communism or America’s anti-communist policies.[4] It is a bit odd to argue Salt of the Earth was a cultural battleground of the Cold War that had little to say of communism, but Weinberg falls roughly on the same page as Balthaser: the film boldly takes a stand for racial and gender equality, and of course union and workers’ rights, but avoids the larger ideological battle, capitalism versus communism. They are correct: this is largely a liberal, not a leftist, film.

This does not mean communist sympathies made no appearance, of course: surviving the editing bay was a scene that introduced the character of Frank Barnes of “the International” (the Communist International), who strongly supported the strike and expressed a willingness to learn more of Mexican and Mexican American culture.[5] Later, “Reds” are blamed for causing the strike.[6] And as Weinberg notes, the Taft-Hartley Act, legislation laced with anti-communist clauses, is what forces the men to stop picketing.[7] Yet all this is as close as Salt comes to connecting labor, racial, and women’s struggles with a better world, how greater rights and freedom could create communism or vice versa. As Balthasar argues, the original script attempted to draw a stronger connection between this local event and actual/potential political-economic systems.[8] The final film positions communists as supporters of positive social changes for women, workers, and people of color, but at best only implies that patriarchy, workplace misery or class exploitation, and racism were toxins inherent to the capitalist system of which the United States was a part and only communism could address. And, it might be noted, the case for such an implication is slightly weaker for patriarchy and racism, as the aforementioned terms such as “Reds” only arise in conversations centered on the strike and the men’s relationships to it.

True, Salt of the Earth is a direct attack on power structures. Women, living in a company town with poor conditions like a lack of hot water, want to picket even before the men decide to strike; they break an “unwritten rule” by joining the men’s picket line; they demand “equality”; they mock men; they demand to take over the picket line when the men are forced out, battling police and spending time in jail.[9] Esperanza Quintero, the film’s protagonist and narrator, at first more dour, sparkles to life the more she ignores her husband Ramon’s demands and involves herself in the huelga.[10] By the end women’s power at the picket line has transferred to the home: the “old way” is gone, Esperanza tells Ramon when he raises a hand to strike her.[11] “Have you learned nothing from the strike?” she asks. Likewise, racist company men (“They’re like children”) and police (“That’s no way to talk to a white man”) are the villains, as is the mining company that forces workers to labor alone, resulting in their deaths, and offers miserable, discriminatory pay.[12] These struggles are often connected (intersectionality): when Esperanza denounces the “old way,” she compares being put in her place to the “Anglos” putting “dirty Mexicans” in theirs.[13] However, it could be that better working conditions, women’s rights, and racial justice can, as the happy ending suggests, be accomplished without communism. Without directly linking progress to the dismantling of capitalism, the film isolates itself from the wider Cold War debate.

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[1] Carl R. Weinberg, “‘Salt of the Earth’: Labor, Film, and the Cold War,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 24, no. 4 (October 2010): 42.

[2] Ibid., 42-44.

[3] Benjamin Balthaser, “Cold War Re-Visions: Representation and Resistance in the Unseen Salt of the Earth,” American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (June 2008): 349.

[4] Weinberg, “Salt,” 43.

[5] Salt of the Earth, directed by Herbert Biberman (1954; Independent Productions Corporation).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Balthaser, “Cold War,” 350-351. “[The cut scenes] connect the particular and local struggle of the Mexican American mine workers of Local 890 to the larger state, civic, and corporate apparatus of the international cold war; and they link the cold war to a longer U.S. history of imperial conquest, racism, and industrial violence. Together these omissions construct a map of cold war social relations…”

[9] Salt of the Earth, Biberman.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

Work, Activism, and Morality: Women in Nineteenth-Century America

This paper argues that nineteenth-century American women viewed work as having a moral nature, and believed this idea extended to public advocacy. The latter is true in two senses: 1) that public advocacy also had a moral nature, and 2) that at times a relationship existed between the moral nature of their work and that of their activism. Private work could be seen as a moral duty or an evil nightmare, depending upon the context, and different women likewise saw activism as either right and proper or unethical and improper. More conservative women, for instance, did not support the shattering of traditional gender roles in the public sphere, the troubling efforts of other women to push for political and social change, no matter the justification. Abolition, women’s rights, and Native American rights, if worth pursuing at all, were the purview of men. Reformist women, on the other hand, saw their public roles as moral responsibilities that echoed those of domestic life or addressed its iniquities. While the moral connection between the two spheres is at times frustratingly tenuous and indirect, let us explore women’s divergent views on the rightness or wrongness of their domestic work and political activity, while considering why some women saw relationships between them. In this context, “work” and its synonyms can be defined as a nineteenth-century woman’s everyday tasks and demeanor — not only what she does but how she behaves in the home as well (as we will see, setting a behavioral example could be regarded as crucial a role in domestic life as household tasks).

In the 1883 memoir Life Among the Piutes, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (born Thocmentony) expressed a conviction that the household duties of Piute women and men carried moral weight.[1] She entitled her second chapter “Domestic and Social Moralities,” domestic moralities being proper conduct regarding the home and family.[2] “Our children are very carefully taught to be good,” the chapter begins — and upon reaching the age of marriage, interested couples are warned of the seriousness of domestic responsibilities.[3] “The young man is summoned by the father of the girl, who asks him in her presence, if he really loves his daughter, and reminds him, if he says he does, of all the duties of a husband.”[4] The concepts of love, marriage, and becoming a family were inseparable from everyday work. The father would then ask his daughter the same question. “These duties are not slight,” Winnemucca Hopkins writes. The woman is “to dress the game, prepare the food, clean the buckskins, make his moccasins, dress his hair, bring all the wood, — in short, do all the household work. She promises to ‘be himself,’ and she fulfils her promise.”[5] “Be himself” may be indicative of becoming one with her husband, or even submitting to his leadership, but regardless of interpretation it is clear, with the interesting use of present tense (“fulfils”) and lack of qualifiers, that there is no question the woman will perform her proper role and duties. There is such a question for the husband, however: “if he does not do his part” when childrearing he “is considered an outcast.”[6] Mothers in fact openly discussed whether a man was doing his duty.[7] For Winnemucca Hopkins and other Piutes, failing to carry out one’s domestic labor was a shameful wrong. This chapter, and the book in general, attempts to demonstrate to a white American audience “how good the Indians were” — not lazy, not seeking war, and so on — and work is positioned as an activity that makes them ethical beings.[8] And ethical beings, it implies, do not deserve subjugation and brutality. True, Winnemucca Hopkins may have emphasized domestic moralities to garner favor from whites with certain expectations of duty — but that does not mean these moralities were not in fact roots of Piute culture; more favor could have been curried by de-emphasizing aspects whites may have felt violated the social norms of work, such as men taking over household tasks, chiefs laboring while remaining poor, and so on, but the author resists, which could suggest reliability.[9]

Like tending faithfully to private duties, for Winnemucca Hopkins advocacy for native rights was the right thing to do. A moral impetus undergirded both private and public acts. White settlers and the United States government subjected the Piutes, of modern-day Nevada, to violence, exploitation, internment, and removal; Winnemucca Hopkins took her skills as an interpreter and status as chief’s daughter to travel, write, petition, and lecture, urging the American people and state to end the suffering.[10] She “promised my people that I would work for them while there was life in my body.”[11] There was no ambiguity concerning the moral urgency of her public work: “For shame!” she wrote to white America, “You dare to cry out Liberty, when you hold us in places against our will, driving us from place to place as if we were beasts… Oh, my dear readers, talk for us, and if the white people will treat us like human beings, we will behave like a people; but if we are treated by white savages as if we are savages, we are relentless and desperate; yet no more so than any other badly treated people. Oh, dear friends, I am pleading for God and for humanity.”[12] The crimes against the Piutes not only justified Winnemucca Hopkins raising her voice — they should spur white Americans to do the same, to uphold their own values such as faith, belief in liberty, etc. For this Piute leader, just as there existed a moral duty to never shirk domestic responsibilities, there existed a moral duty to not turn a blind eye to oppression.

Enslaved women like Harriet Jacobs understood work in a different way. The nature of her domestic labor was decidedly immoral.[13] In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), she wrote “of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations… of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders… of young girls dragged down into moral filth… of pools of blood around the whipping post… of hounds trained to tear human flesh… of men screwed into cotton gins to die…”[14] Jacobs, a slave in North Carolina, experienced the horrors of being sexual property, forced household work, and the spiteful sale of her children.[15] Whereas Winnemucca Hopkins believed in the rightness of her private work and public advocacy, related moral duties to the home and to her people, Jacobs had an even more direct connection between these spheres: the immorality of her private work led straight to, and justified, her righteous battle for abolition. Even before this, she resisted the evil of her work, most powerfully by running away, but also by turning away from a slaveowner’s sexual advances, among other acts.[16]

After her escape from bondage, Jacobs became involved in abolitionist work in New York and wrote Incidents to highlight the true terrors of slavery and push white women in the North toward the cause.[17] Much of her story has been verified by (and we know enough of slavery from) other sources; she is not merely playing to her audience and its moral sensitivities either.[18] One should note the significance of women of color writing books of this kind. Like Winnemucca Hopkins’ text, Jacobs’ contained assurances from white associates and editors that the story was true.[19] Speaking out to change hearts was no easy task — prejudiced skepticism abounded. Jacobs (and her editor, Lydia Maria Child) stressed the narrative was “no fiction” and expected accusations of “indecorum” over the sexual content, anticipating criticisms that could hamper the text’s purpose.[20] Writing could be dangerous and trying. Jacobs felt compelled to use pseudonyms to protect loved ones.[21] She ended the work by writing it was “painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage.”[22] Winnemucca Hopkins may have felt similarly. In a world of racism, doubt, reprisals, and trauma, producing a memoir was a brave, powerful act of advocacy.

Despite the pain (and concern her literary skills were inadequate[23]), Jacobs saw writing Incidents as the ethical path. “It would have been more pleasant for me to have been silent about my own history,” she confesses at the start, a perhaps inadvertent reminder that what is right is not always what is easy. She then presents her “motives,” her “effort in behalf of my persecuted people.”[24] It was right to reveal the “condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse,” to show “Free States what Slavery really is,” all its “dark…abominations.”[25] Overall, the text is self-justifying. The evils of slavery warrant the exposé (Life Among the Piutes is similar). Jacobs’ public advocacy grew from and was justified by her experience with domestic labor and her moral values.

These things, for more conservative women, precluded public work. During the abolition and women’s rights movements of the nineteenth century, less radical women saw the public roles of their sisters as violating the natural order and setting men and women against each other.[26] Catherine Beecher, New York educator and writer, expressed dismay over women circulating (abolitionist) petitions in her 1837 “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females.”[27] It was against a woman’s moral duty to petition male legislators to act: “…in this country, petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES, to fall entirely without [outside] the sphere of female duty. Men are the proper persons to make appeals to rulers whom they appoint…”[28] (This is an interesting use of one civil inequity to justify another: only men can vote, therefore only men should petition.) After all, “Heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station…”[29] Christianity was the foundation of the gender hierarchy, which meant, for Beecher, that women entering the political sphere violated women’s divinely-decreed space and responsibilities. Women’s “influence” and “power” were to be exerted through the encouragement of love, peace, and moral rightness, as well as by professional teaching, in the “domestic and social circle.”[30] In other words, women were to hint to men and boys the proper way to act in politics only while at home, school, and so forth.[31] This highlights why domestic “work” must reach definitionally beyond household tasks: just as Winnemucca Hopkins and Jacobs were expected to maintain certain demeanors in addition to completing their physical labors, here women must be shining examples, moral compasses, with bearings above reproach.

Clearly, direct calls and organizing for political and social change were wrong; they threatened “the sacred protection of religion” and turned woman into a “combatant” and “partisan.”[32] They set women against God and men. Elsewhere, reformist women were also condemned for speaking to mixed-sex audiences, attacking men instead of supporting them, and more.[33] Beecher and other women held values that restricted women to domestic roles, to “power” no more intrusive to the gender order than housework — to adopt these roles was moral, to push beyond them immoral. The connection between the ideological spheres: one was an anchor on the other. (Limited advocacy to keep women in domestic roles, however, seemed acceptable: Beecher’s essay was public, reinforcing the expectations and sensibilities of many readers, and she was an activist for women in education, a new role yet one safely distant from politics.[34]) Reformist women, of course, such as abolitionist Angelina Grimké, held views a bit closer to those of Jacobs and Winnemucca Hopkins: women were moral beings, and therefore had the ethical responsibility to confront wrongs just as men did, and from that responsibility came the inherent social or political rights needed for the task.[35]

The diversity of women’s beliefs was the product of their diverse upbringings, environments, and experiences. Whether domestic labor was viewed as moral depended on its nature, its context, its participants; whether engagement in the public sphere was seen as the same varied according to how urgent, horrific, and personal social and political issues were regarded. Clearly, race impacted how women saw work. The black slave could have a rather different perspective on moral-domestic duty than a white woman (of any class). One historian posited that Jacobs saw the evils of forced labor as having a corrosive effect on her own morals, that freedom was a prerequisite to a moral life.[36] A unique perspective born of unique experiences. Race impacted perspectives on activism, too, with voices of color facing more extreme, violent motivators like slavery and military campaigns against native nations. Factors such as religion, political ideology, lack of personal impact, race, class, and so on could build a wall of separation between the private and public spheres in the individual mind, between where women should and should not act, but they could also have a deconstructive effect, freeing other nineteenth-century American women to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. That domestic work and public advocacy had moral natures, aligning here, diverging there, at times connecting, has rich support in the extant documents.

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[1] Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Life Among the Piutes (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Press, 2017), 25-27.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid. 25-26.

[4] Ibid. 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 27-28.

[10] Ibid., 105-108 offers examples of Winnemucca Hopkins’ advocacy such as petitioning and letter writing. Her final sentence (page 107) references her lectures on the East coast.  

[11] Ibid., 105.

[12] Ibid., 106.

[13] “Slavery is wrong,” she writes flatly. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jennifer Fleischner (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 95.

[14] Ibid., 96.

[15] Ibid., chapters 5, 16, 19.

[16] Ibid., 51 and chapter 27.

[17] Ibid., 7-18, 26.

[18] Ibid., 7-9.

[19] Ibid., 26-27, 207-209.

   Winnemucca Hopkins, Piutes, 109-119.

[20] Jacobs, Incidents, 25-27.

[21] Ibid., 25.

[22] Ibid., 207.

[23] Ibid., 25-26.

[24] Ibid., 26.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Catherine Beecher, “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 109-110.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 110.

[29] Ibid., 109.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 110.

[32] Ibid., 109-110.

[33] “Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y.,” in ibid., 163.

“Pastoral Letter: The General Association of Massachusetts Churches Under Their Care,” in ibid., 120.

[34] Beecher, “Duty,” 109.

[35] Angelina Grimké, “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States,” in ibid., 103. See also Angelina Grimké, “Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier” in ibid., 132.

[36] Kathleen Kennedy (lecture, Missouri State University, April 12, 2022).

How the Women’s Rights Movement Grew Out of the Abolitionist Struggle

The women’s rights movement of mid-nineteenth century America grew out of the preceding and concurrent abolitionist movement because anti-slavery women recognized greater political power could help end the nation’s “peculiar institution.” The emancipation of women, in other words, could lead to the emancipation of black slaves. This is seen, for example, in the writings of abolitionist activist Angelina Grimké. “Slavery is a political subject,” she wrote in a letter to a friend on February 4, 1837, summarizing the words of her conservative critics, “therefore women should not intermeddle. I admitted it was, but endeavored to show that women were citizens & had duties to perform to their country as well as men.”[1] If women possessed full citizen rights, Grimké implied, they could fully engage in political issues like slavery and influence outcomes as men did. The political project of abolishing slavery necessitated political rights for the women involved in and leading it.

Other documents of the era suggest this prerequisite for abolition in similar ways. Borrowing the ideas of the Enlightenment and the national founding, abolitionists positioned the end of slavery as the acknowledgement of the inalienable rights of enslaved persons — to achieve this end, women’s rights would need to be recognized as well. In 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society created a petition for women to sign that urged the District of Columbia to abolish slavery, calling for “the restoration of rights unjustly wrested from the innocent and defenseless.”[2] The document offered justification for an act as bold and startling (“suffer us,” “bear with us” the authors urge) as women petitioning government, for instance the fact that the suffering of slaves meant the suffering of fellow women.[3] Indeed, many Americans believed as teacher and writer Catherine Beecher did, that “in this country, petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES, to fall entirely without [outside] the sphere of female duty. Men are the proper persons to make appeals to rulers whom they appoint…”[4] It would not do for women to petition male legislators to act. In drafting, circulating, and signing this petition, women asserted a political right (an inalienable right of the First Amendment) for themselves, a deed viewed as necessary in the great struggle to free millions of blacks. (Many other bold deeds were witnessed in this struggle, such as women speaking before audiences.[5]

Beecher’s writings reveal that opponents of women’s political activism understood abolitionists’ sentiments that moves toward gender equality were preconditions for slavery’s eradication. She condemned the “thirst for power” of abolitionists; women’s influence was to be exerted through the encouragement of love, peace, and moral rightness, as well as by professional teaching, in the “domestic and social circle.”[6] The male sex, being “superior,” was the one to go about “exercising power” of a political nature.[7] Here gender roles were clearly defined, to be adhered to despite noble aims. The pursuit of rights like petitioning was, to Beecher, the wrong way to end the “sin of slavery.”[8] Yet this castigation of the pursuit of public power to free the enslaved supports the claim that such a pursuit, with such a purpose, indeed took place.

Overall, reformist women saw all public policy, all immoral laws, within their grasp if political rights were won (a troubling thought to Beecher[9]). In September 1848, one Mrs. Sanford, a women’s rights speaker at a Cleveland gathering of the National Negro Convention Movement, summarized the goals of her fellow female activists: they wanted “to co-operate in making the laws we obey.”[10] The same was expressed a month before at the historic Seneca Falls convention.[11] This paralleled the words of Grimké above, as well as her 1837 demand that women have the “right to be consulted in all the laws and regulations by which she is to be governed…”[12] Women saw themselves as under the heel of immoral laws. But as moral beings, Grimké frequently stressed, they had the responsibility to confront wrongs just as men did, and from that responsibility came the inherent political rights needed for such confrontations.[13] If a law such as the right to own human beings was unjust, women would need power over lawmaking, from petitioning to the vote, to correct it.

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[1] Angelina Grimké, “Letter to Jane Smith,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 93.

[2] The American Anti-Slavery Society, “Petition Form for Women,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 85.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Catherine Beecher, “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 110.

[5] “Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y.,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 163.

[6] Beecher, “Duty,” 109.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 111.

[9] Ibid., 110.

[10] “Proceedings of the Colored Convention,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 168.

[11] “Seneca Falls,” 165.

[12] Angelina Grimké, “Human Rights Not Founded on Sex,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 135.

[13] Angelina Grimké, “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 103. See also Angelina Grimké, “Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier” in ibid., 132.

The Gender Order in Colonial America

Early New England history cannot be properly understood without thorough examination of the ways in which women, or the representations of women, threatened or maintained the gender hierarchy of English society. This is a complex task. Documents written by women and men alike could weaken or strengthen the ideology and practice of male dominance, just as the acts of women, whether accurately preserved in the historical record, distorted in their representation, or lost to humankind forever, could engage with the hierarchy in different ways. (The deeds of men could as well, but that falls beyond the scope of this paper.) This is not to say that every act or writing represented a conscious decision to threaten or shore up the gender order — some likely were, others likely not — but for the historian the outcome or impact grows clear with careful study. Of course, this paper does not posit that every source only works toward one end or the other. In some ways a text might undermine a social system, in other ways bolster it. Yet typically there will be a general trend. Uncovering such an overall impact upon the hierarchy allows for a fuller understanding of any given event in the English colonies during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. (That is, from the English perspective. This paper considers how the English saw themselves and others, yet the same analysis could be used for other societies, a point we will revisit in the conclusion.)

Let us begin with a source that works to maintain the gender order, Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Rowlandson was an Englishwoman from Massachusetts held captive for three months by the Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wompanoag during King Philip’s War (1675-1676). Her text, which became popular in the colonies, carefully downplays the power of Weetamoo, the female Pocassett Wompanoag chief, whose community leadership, possession of vast land and servants, and engagement in diplomacy and war violated Rowlandson’s Puritan understanding of a woman’s proper place in society.[1] As historian Lisa Brooks writes, “Throughout her narrative, Rowlandson never acknowledged that Weetamoo was a leader equal to a sachem [chief], although this was common knowledge in the colonies. Rather, she labored to represent Weetamoo’s authority as a pretension.”[2] In contrast, Rowlandson had no issue writing of “Quanopin, who was a Saggamore​ [chief]” of the Narragansetts, nor of “King Philip,” Metacom, Wompanoag chief.[3] It was appropriate for men to hold power.

That Rowlandson presented Weetamoo’s authority as an act is a plausible interpretation of the former’s lengthy depiction of Weetamoo dressing herself — this “proud Dame” who took “as much time as any of the Gentry of the land.”[4] She was playing dress-up, playing a part, Rowlandson perhaps implied, an idea that grows stronger with the next line: “When she had dressed her self, her work was to make Girdles of Wampom…”[5] The gentry do not work; the powerful do not labor. How can a working woman have authority? Further, Rowaldson ignored the fact that wampum “work” was a key part of tribal diplomacy, attempted to portray her servitude as unto Quinnapin rather than Weetamoo (giving possessions first to him), and later labeled the chief an arrogant, “proud gossip” — meaning, Brooks notes, “in English colonial idiom, a woman who does not adhere to her position as a wife.”[6] Rowlandson likely felt the need, whether consciously or not, to silence discomforting realities of Native American nations. Weetamoo’s power, and a more egalitarian society, threatened the English gender order, and it would thus not do to present dangerous ideas to a wider Puritan audience.

“Likely” is used as a qualifier because it must be remembered that publication of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God had to go through male Puritan authorities like clergyman Increase Mather, who wrote the preface.[7] It remains an open question how much of this defense of the gender hierarchy comes from Rowlandson and how much from the constraints of that hierarchy upon her: under the eyes of Mather and others, a narrative that did not toe the Puritan line would simply go unpublished. But the overall impact is clear. Rowlandson, as presented in the text, held true to the proper role of women — and thus so should readers.

Conflict with native tribes and captivity narratives held a central place in the colonial English psyche. One narrative that did more to threaten the gender order was that of Hannah Dustin’s captivity, as told by religious leader Cotton Mather, first from the pulpit and then in his 1699 Decennium Luctousum. Unlike his father Increase, Cotton Mather was in a bit of a bind. Dangerous ideas were already on the loose; his sermon and writings would attempt to contain them.[8] Hannah Dustin of Massachusetts was captured by the Abenaki in 1697, during King William’s War. She was placed in servitude to an indigenous family of two men, three women, and seven children.[9] Finding themselves traveling with so few captors, Dustin and two other servants seized hatchets one night and killed the men and most of the women and children.[10] Dustin and the others scalped the ten dead and carried the flesh to Boston, earning fifty pounds, various gifts, and much acclaim. Mather’s representation of Dustin would have to confront and contextualize a seismic disturbance in the social order: women behaving like men, their use of extreme violence.

Mather first turned to the bible for rationalization, writing that Dustin “took up a Resolution, to imitate the Action of Jael upon Sisera…”[11] In Judges 4, a Kenite woman named Jael hammered a tent peg through the skull of the (male) Canaanite commander Sisera, helping the Israelites defeat the Canaanite army. Mather’s audiences would understand the meaning. Puritan women’s subservient and submissive status was rooted in the bible, yet there were extreme circumstances where female violence was justified; being likewise against the enemies of God, Dustin’s gruesome act could be tolerated. Mather then used place as justification: “[B]eing where she had not her own Life secured by any Law unto her, she thought she was not Forbidden by any Law to take away the Life of the Murderers…”[12] In other words, Dustin was in Native American territory, a lawless space. This follows the long-established colonizer mindset of our civilization versus their wilderness and savagery, but here, interestingly, the condemned latter was used as justification for a Puritan’s act.[13] Being unprotected by Puritan laws in enemy lands, Mather wrote, Dustin saw herself as also being free from such laws, making murder permissible. However, the clergyman’s use of “she thought” suggests a hesitation to fully approve of her deed.[14] He nowhere claims what she did was right.

Clearly, Mather attempted to prevent erosion of the gender order through various privisos: a woman murdering others could only be agreeable before God in rare situations, she was outside Puritan civilization and law, plus this was only her view of acceptable behavior. He was also sure to present her husband as a “Courageous” hero who “manfully” saved their children from capture at risk of his own life, as if a reminder of who could normally and properly use violence.[15] Yet Mather could not shield from the public what was already known, acts that threatened the ideology of male superiority and social dominance. The facts remained: a woman got the best of and murdered two “Stout” men.[16] She killed women and children, typically victims of men. She then took their scalps and received a bounty, as a soldier might do. Further, she was praised by men of such status as Colonel Francis Nicholson, governor of Maryland.[17] Mather could not fully approve of Dustin’s actions, but given the acclaim she had garnered neither could he condemn them. Both his relaying of Dustin’s deed and his tacit acceptance presented a significant deviation from social norms to Puritan communities.

Finally, let us consider the diary of Martha Ballard, written 1785-1812. Ballard, a midwife who delivered over eight hundred infants in Hallowell, Maine, left a daily record of her work, home, and social life. This document subverts the gender order by countering the contemporaneous texts positioning men as the exclusive important actors in the medical and economic spheres.[18] It is true that this diary was never meant for public consumption, unlike other texts. However, small acts by ordinary people undermine social systems, whether wittingly or not, and are never known to others. If this is true, surely texts, by their nature, can do the same. Either way, the diary did not remain private: it was read by Ballard’s descendants, historians, and possibly librarians, meaning its impact trickled beyond its creator and into the wider society of nineteenth century New England.[19]

Written by men, doctors’ papers and merchant ledgers of this period were silent, respectively, on midwives and women’s economic functions in towns like Hallowell, implying absence or non-involvement, whereas Ballard’s diary illuminated their importance.[20] She wrote, for example, on November 18, 1793: “At Capt Meloys. His Lady in Labour. Her women Calld… My patient deliverd at 8 hour 5 minute Evening of a fine daughter. Her attendants Mrss Cleark, Duttum, Sewall, & myself.”[21] This passage, and the diary as a whole, emphasized that it was common for midwives and women to safely and skilfully deliver infants, not a man or doctor present.[22] Further, her documentations such as “I have been pulling flax,” “Dolly warpt a piece for Mrs Pollard of 39 yards,” and “Dolly warpt & drawd a piece for Check. Laid 45 yds” made clear that women had economic responsibilities that went beyond their own homes, turning flax into cloth (warping is a key step) that could be traded or sold.[23] Women controlled their labor, earning wages: “received 6/ as a reward.”[24] Though Ballard’s text presents everyday tasks of New England women of her social class, and had a limited readership compared to Rowlandson or Mather’s writings, it too presents dangerous ideas that might bother a reader wedded to the gender hierarchy: that women could be just as effective as male doctors, and that the agency and labor of women hinted at possibilities of self-sufficiency.

The events in this essay, the captivity of English women during war and the daily activities of many English women during peace, would look different without gender analysis, without considering how the acts of women and representations of events related to the gender order. Rowlandson would simply be ignorant, failing to understand who her actual master was, Weetamoo’s position, and so on. Dustin’s violence would be business as usual, a captive killing to escape, with all of Mather’s rationalizations odd and unnecessary. Ballard’s daily entries would just be minutiae, with no connection to or commentary on the larger society from whence they came. Indeed, that is the necessary project. Examining how the gender hierarchy was defended or confronted provides the proper context for a fuller understanding of events — from an English perspective. A future paper might examine other societies, such as Native American nations, in the same way. Clearly, the acts of indigenous women and the (English) representations of those acts influenced English minds, typically threatening their hierarchy. But how did the acts of indigenous women and men, those of English women and men, and indigenous representations of such things engage with Native American tribes’ unique gender systems? We can find hints in English representations (Weetamoo may have been dismayed Rowlandson violated indigenous gender norms[25]), but for an earnest endeavor, primary sources by native peoples will be necessary, just as English sources enabled this writing.

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[1] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), chapter one.

[2] Ibid., 264.

[3] Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018), 81.

[4] Ibid., 103.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 264, 270.

[7] Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 28.

  Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 264.

[8] “The Captivity of Hannah Dustin,” in Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018), 170-173.

[9] Ibid., 172.

[10] Ibid., 173.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kirsten Fischer, “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3-19.

[14] “Hannah Dustin,” 173.

[15] Ibid., 171-172.

[16] Ibid., 172.

[17] Ibid., 173.

[18] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 28-30.

[19] Ibid., 8-9, 346-352.

[20] Ibid., 28-30.

[21] Ibid., 162-163.

[22] See Ibid., 170-172 for infant mortality data.

[23] Ibid., 36, 73, 29.

[24] Ibid., 162. See also page 168.

[25] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 265.

The First American Bestseller: Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 ‘The Sovereignty and Goodness of God’

Historian John R. Gramm characterized Mary Rowlandson, an Englishwoman captured by allied Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wompanoag warriors during King Philip’s War (1675-1676), as “both a victim and colonizer.”[1] This is correct, and observed in what is often labeled the first American bestseller. Rowlandson’s narrative of her experience, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, is written through these inseparable lenses, a union inherent to the psychology of settler colonialism (to be a colonizer is to be a “victim”) and other power systems. Reading the narrative through both lenses, rather than one, avoids both dehumanization and a colonizer mindset, allowing for a more nuanced study.

Rowlandson as victim appears on the first page, with her town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, attacked by the aforementioned tribes: “Houses were burning,” women and children clubbed to death, a man dying from “split open…Bowels.”[2] At the final page, after she was held against her will for three months, forced to work, and ransomed for twenty pounds, she was still elaborating on the “affliction I had, full measure (I thought) pressed down and running over” — that cup of divinely ordained hardships.[3] Between war, bondage, the loss of her infant, and the elements such as hunger and cold, Rowlandson was a woman experiencing trauma, swept up in events and horrors beyond her control. “My heart began to fail,” she wrote, signifying her pain, “and I fell a weeping…”[4]

Rowlandson knew she was a victim. She did not know she was a colonizer, at least not in any negatively connoted fashion. Also from opening to close are expressions of racial and moral superiority. Native peoples are “dogs,” “beasts,” “merciless and cruel,” marked by “savageness and brutishness.”[5] She saw “a vast difference between the lovely faces of Christians, and the foul looks of these Heathens,” whose land was unadulterated “wilderness.”[6] Puritan society was civilization, native society was animalistic. That Rowlandson’s views persist despite her deeper understanding of and integration with Wompanoag society could be read as evidence of especially strong prejudices (though publication of her work may have required toeing the Puritan line). Regardless, her consciousness was thoroughly defined by religion and what historian Kristen Fischer called the “imperial gaze.”[7] Rowlandson’s town of Lancaster was in the borderlands, meaning more conflict with Native Americans; she was a prosperous minister’s wife, making religion an even more central part of her life than the average Puritan woman. (Compare this to someone like midwife Martha Ballard, whose distance from Native Americans and lower social class built a consciousness around her labor and relationships with other working women.[8]) Not only is the distinction between herself (civilized) and them (beastly) clear in Rowlandson’s mind, so is the religious difference — though for many European Americans Christianity and civilization were one and the same. The English victims are always described as “Christians,” which positions the native warriors as heathen Others (she of course makes this explicit as well, as noted).

These perspectives, of victim and colonizer, cannot be easily parsed apart. Setting aside Rowlandson’s kidnapping for a moment, settler colonization in some contexts requires a general attitude of victimhood. If “savages” are occupying land you believe God granted to you, as Increase Mather, who wrote Rowlandson’s preface, stated plainly, that is a wrong that can be addressed with violence.[9] Rowlandson is then a victim twofold. First, her Puritan promised land was being occupied by native peoples. Second, she was violently captured and held. To be a colonizer is to be a victim, by having “your” land violated by societies there before you, and by experiencing the counter-violence wrought by your colonization.

To only read Rowlandson’s captivity as victimhood is to simply adopt Rowlandson’s viewpoint, ignoring the fact that she is a foreigner with attitudes of racial and religious superiority who has encroached on land belonging to native societies. To read the captivity only through a colonizer lens, focusing on her troubling presence and views, is to dehumanize Rowlandson and ignore her emotional and physical suffering. When Chief Weetamoo’s infant dies, Rowlandson “could not much condole” with the Wampanoags, due to so many “sorrowfull dayes” of her own, including losing her own baby. She sees only the “benefit…more room.”[10] This callousness could be interpreted as a belief that Native Americans did not suffer like full human beings, mental resistance to an acknowledgement that might throw colonialism into question.[11] That is the colonizer lens. Yet from a victim-centered reading, it is difficult to imagine many contexts wherein a kidnapped person would feel much sympathy for those responsible for her captivity and servitude, the deaths of her infant and neighbors, and so on. Victim and colonizer indeed.

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[1] John R. Gramm (lecture, Missouri State University, February 15, 2022).

[2] Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018), 74.

[3] Ibid., 118.

[4] Ibid., 88.

[5] Ibid., 76-77, 113-114.

[6] Ibid., 100, 76.

[7] Kirsten Fischer, “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3-19.

[8] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999). Ballard and her husband, a working middle-class woman and a tax collector, faced financial hardship and ended up living in “semi-dependence on their son’s land”; see page 265. Compare this to Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 15-16: coming from and marrying into large landowning families, Rowlandson did not need to work to survive. Given her background, her consciousness goes beyond women and work, to larger collective concerns of community, civilization, and faith.

[9] Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 28.

  Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 11.

[10] Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 97.

[11] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 282.

Two Thoughts on Salem

Christians Blamed Native Americans for Witchcraft

Boston clergyman Cotton Mather saw New Englanders like Mercy Short as particularly vulnerable to attacks by the Devil in the late seventeenth century due to the presence of Christianity on Native American land (or, more in his parlance, land formerly occupied only by the indigenous). Mather’s A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning of 1693 opens with two sentences outlining how Mercy Short was captured by “cruel and Bloody Indians” in her youth.[1] They killed her family and held her for ransom, which was eventually paid. This first paragraph may seem out of place, its only purpose seemingly being to evoke sympathy: see how much this young woman has suffered. “[S]he had then already Born the Yoke in her youth, Yett God Almighty saw it Good for her to Bear more…”[2]

However, the paragraph serves to establish a tacit connection between indigenous people and the witchcraft plaguing Salem. This is made more explicit later in the text, when Mather writes that someone executed at Salem testified “Indian sagamores” had been present at witch meetings to organize “the methods of ruining New England,” and that Mercy Short, in a possessed state, revealed the same, adding Native Americans at such meetings held a book of “Idolatrous Devotions.”[3] Mather, and others, believed Indigenous peoples were involved in the Devil’s work, so torturous to New Englanders. This was perceived to be a reaction to the Puritan presence. “It was a rousing alarm to the Devil,” Mather wrote in The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), “when a great company of English Protestants and Puritans came to erect evangelical churches in a corner of the world where he had reigned…”[4] The Devil, displeased that Christianity was now “preached in this howling wilderness,” used native peoples to try to drive the Puritans out, including the sorcery of “Indian Powwows,” religious figures.[5] Because of Christianity’s presence in the “New World,” people like Mercy Short were far more at risk of diabolical terror — Mather thought “there never was a poor plantation more pursued by the wrath of the Devil…”[6]

The Accusers Parroted Each Other and No One Noticed

During the Salem witch trials of 1692, hysteria spread and convictions were secured due in part to near-verbatim repetition among the accusers. It seems likely that, rather than arousing suspicion, the fact that New Englanders accusing their neighbors of witchcraft used the precise same phrasing was viewed as evidence of truthtelling. Elizabeth Hubbard, testifying against a native woman named Tituba, reported: “I saw the apparition of Tituba Indian, which did immediately most grievously torment me…”[7] This occurred until “the day of her examination, being March 1, and then also at the beginning of her examination, but as soon as she began to confess she left off hurting me and has hurt me but little since.”[8] This is nearly identical to the testimony that occurred the same day from Ann Putnam, Jr. She said, “I saw the apparition of Tituba, Mr. Parris’s Indian woman, which did torture me most grievously…till March 1, being the day of her examination, and then also most grievously also at the beginning of her examination, but since she confessed she has hurt me but little.”[9] Though premeditation is in the realm of the possible (in other words, Putnam and Hubbard aligning their stories beforehand), this could be the result of spontaneous mimicking, whether conscious or subconscious, in a courtroom that was rather open (the second testifier copied the first because she was present to hear it).

This was a pattern in the trials that strengthened the believability of witchcraft tales. At the trial of Dorcas Hoar, accusers testified that “I verily believe in my heart that Dorcas Hoar is a witch” (Sarah Bibber), “I verily believe that Dorcas Hoar, the prisoner at the bar, is a witch” (Elizabeth Hubbard), “I verily believe in my heart that Dorcas Hoar is a witch” (Ann Putnam, Jr.), and “I verily believe in my heart that Dorcas Hoar is a most dreadful witch” (Mary Walcott).[10] Like the statements on Tituba, these occurred on the same day — a self-generating script that spelled destruction for the accused.

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[1] Cotton Mather, A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning, in George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the New England Witch Trials (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012), 259.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 281-282.

[4] Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, in Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 49.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Elizabeth Hubbard against Tituba,” in Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 92.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 93.

[10] “Sarah Bibber against Dorcas Hoar,” “Elizabeth Hubbard against Dorcas Hoar,” “Ann Putnam Jr. against Dorcas Hoar,” and “Mary Walcott against Dorcas Hoar,” in Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 121-122.

History, Theory, and Ethics

The writing of history and the theories that guide it, argues historian Lynn Hunt in Writing History in the Global Era, urgently need “reinvigoration.”[1] The old meta-narratives used to explain historical change looked progressively weaker and fell under heavier criticism as the twentieth century reached its conclusion and gave way to the twenty-first.[2] Globalization, Hunt writes, can serve as a new paradigm. Her work offers a valuable overview of historical theories and develops an important new one, but this paper will argue Hunt implicitly undervalues older paradigms and fails to offer a comprehensive purpose for history under her theory. This essay then proposes some guardrails for history’s continuing development, not offering a new paradigm but rather a framing that gives older theories their due and a purpose that can power many different theories going forward.

We begin by reviewing Hunt’s main ideas. Hunt argues for “bottom-up” globalization as a meta-narrative for historical study, and contributes to this paradigm by offering a rationale for causality and change that places the concepts of “self” and “society” at its center. One of the most important points that Writing History in the Global Era makes is that globalization has varying meanings, with top-down and bottom-up definitions. Top-down globalization is “a process that transforms every part of the globe, creating a world system,” whereas the bottom-up view is myriad processes wherein “diverse places become connected and interdependent.”[3] In other words, while globalization is often considered synonymous with Europe’s encroachment on the rest of the world, from a broader and, as Hunt sees it, better perspective, globalization would in fact be exemplified by increased interactions and interdependence between India and China, for example.[4] The exploration and subjugation of the Americas was globalization, but so was the spread of Islam from the Middle East across North Africa to Spain. It is not simply the spread of more advanced technology or capitalism or what is considered to be, in eurocentrism, the most enlightened culture and value system, either: it is a reciprocal, “two-way relationship” that can be found anywhere as human populations move, meet, and start to rely on each other, through trade for example.[5] Hunt seeks to overcome two problems here. First, the eurocentric top-down approach and its “defects”; second, the lack of a “coherent alternative,” which her work seeks to provide.[6]

Hunt rightly and persuasively makes the case for a bottom-up perspective of globalization as opposed to top-down, then turns to the question of why this paradigm has explanatory power. What is it about bottom-up globalization, the increasing interactions and interdependence of human beings, that brings about historical change? Here Hunt is situating her historical lens alongside and succeeding previous ones, explored early in the work. Marxism, modernization, and the Annales School offered theories of causality. Cultural and political change was brought about by new modes of economic production, the growth of technology and the State, or by geography and climate, respectively.[7] The paradigm of identity politics, Hunt notes, at times lacked such a clear “overarching narrative,” but implied that inclusion of The Other, minority or oppressed groups, in the national narrative was key to achieving genuine democracy (which more falls under purpose, to be explored later).[8] Cultural theories rejected the idea, inherent in older paradigms, that culture was produced by economic or social relations; culture was a force unto itself, comprised of language, semiotics, discourse, which determined what an individual thought to be true and how one behaved.[9] “Culture shaped class and politics rather than the other way around” — meaning culture brought about historical change (though many cultural theorists preferred not to focus on causation, perhaps similar to those engaged in identity politics).[10] Bottom-up globalization, Hunt posits, is useful as a modern explanatory schema for the historical field. It brings about changes in the self (in fact in the brain) and of society, which spurs cultural and political transformations.[11] There is explanatory power in increased connections between societies. For instance, she suggests that drugs and stimulants like coffee, brought into Europe through globalization, produced selves that sought pleasure and thrill (i.e. altered the neurochemistry of the brain) and changed society by creating central gathering places, coffeehouses, where political issues could be intensely discussed. These developments may have pushed places like France toward democratic and revolutionary action.[12] For Hunt, it is not enough to say culture alone directs the thinkable and human action, nor is the mind simply a social construction — the biology of the brain and how it reacts and operates must be taken into account.[13] The field must move on from cultural theories.

Globalization, a useful lens through which to view history, joins a long list, only partially outlined above. Beyond economics, advancing technology and government bureaucracy, geography and environment, subjugated groups, and culture, there is political, elite, or even “Great Men” history; social history, the story of ordinary people; the history of ideas, things, and diseases and non-human species; microhistory, biography, a close look at events and individuals; and more.[14] Various ways of looking at history, some of which are true theories that include causes of change, together construct a more complete view of the past. They are all valuable. As historian Sarah Maza writes, “History writing does not get better and better but shifts and changes in response to the needs and curiosities of the present day. Innovations and new perspectives keep the study of the past fresh and interesting, but that does not mean we should jettison certain areas or approaches as old-fashioned or irrelevant.”[15] This is a crucial reminder. New paradigms can reinvigorate, but historians must be cautious of seeing them as signals that preceding paradigms are dead and buried.

Hunt’s work flirts with this mistake, though perhaps unintentionally. Obviously, some paradigms grow less popular, while others, particularly new ones, see surges in adherents. Writing History in the Global Era outlines the “rise and fall” of theories over time, the changing popularities and new ways of thinking that brought them about.[16] One implication in Hunt’s language, though such phrasing is utilized from the viewpoint of historical time or those critical of older theories, is that certain paradigms are indeed dead or of little use — “validity” and “credibility” are “questioned” or “lost,” “limitations” and “disappointments” discovered, theories “undermined” and “weakened” by “gravediggers” before they “fall,” and so forth.[17] Again, these are not necessarily Hunt’s views, rather descriptors of changing trends and critiques, but Hunt’s work offers no nod to how older paradigms are still useful today, itself implying that different ways of writing history are now irrelevant. With prior theories worth less, a new one, globalization, is needed. Hunt’s work could have benefited from more resistance to this implication, with a serious look at how geography and climate, or changing modes of economic production, remain valuable lenses historians use to chart change and find truth — an openness to the full spectrum of approaches, for they all work cooperatively to reveal the past, despite their unique limitations. Above, Maza mentioned “certain areas” of history in addition to “approaches,” and continued: “As Lynn Hunt has pointed out, no field of history [such as ancient Rome] should be cast aside just because it is no longer ‘hot’…”[18] Hunt should have acknowledged and demonstrated that the precise same is true of approaches to history.

Another area that deserves more attention is purpose. In the same way that not all historical approaches emphasize causality and change, not all emphasize purpose. Identity politics had a clear use: the inclusion of subjugated groups in history helped move nations toward political equality.[19] With other approaches, however, “What is it good for?” is more difficult to answer. This is to ask what utility a theory had for contemporary individuals and societies (and has for modern ones), beyond a more complete understanding of yesteryear or fostering new research. It may be more challenging to see a clear purpose in the study of how the elements of the longue durée, such as geography and climate, of the Annales School change human development. How was such a lens utilized as a tool, if in fact it was, in the heyday of the Annales School? How could it be utilized today? (Perhaps it could be useful in mobilizing action against climate change.) The purpose of history — of each historical paradigm — is not always obvious.

Indeed, Hunt’s paradigm “offers a new purpose for history: understanding our place in an increasingly interconnected world,” a rather vague suggestion that sees little elaboration.[20] What does it mean to understand our place? Is this a recycling of “one cannot understand the present without understanding the past,” a mere truism? Or is it to say that a bottom-up globalization paradigm can be utilized to demonstrate the connection between all human beings, breaking down nationalism or even national borders? After all, the theory moves away from eurocentrism and the focus on single nations. Perhaps it is something else, one cannot know for certain. Of course, Hunt may have wanted to leave this question to others, developing the tool and letting others determine how to wield it. However, hesitation on Hunt’s part to more deeply and explicitly explore purpose, to adequately show how her theory is useful to the present, may be a simple desire to avoid the controversy of politics. This would be disappointing to those who believe history is inherently political or anchored to ethics, but either reason is out of step with Hunt’s introduction. History, Hunt writes on her opening page, is “in crisis” due to the “nagging question that has proved so hard to answer…‘What is it good for?’”[21] In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she writes, the answer shifted from developing strong male leaders to building national identity and patriotism to contributing to the social movements of subjugated groups by unburying histories of oppression.[22] All of these purposes are political. Hunt deserves credit for constructing a new paradigm, with factors of causality and much fodder for future research, but to open the work by declaring a crisis of purposelessness, framing purposes as political, and then not offering a fully developed purpose through a political lens (or through another lens, explaining why purpose need not be political) is an oversight.

Based on these criticisms, we have a clear direction for the field of history. First, historians should reject any implication of a linear progression of historical meta-narratives, which this paper argues Hunt failed to do. “Old-fashioned” paradigms in fact have great value today, which must be noted and explored. A future work on the state of history might entirely reframe, or at least dramatically add to, the discussion of theory. Hunt tracked the historical development of theories and their critics, with all the ups and downs of popularity. This is important epistemologically, but emphasizes the failures of theories rather than their contributions, and presents them as stepping stones to be left behind on the journey to find something better. Marxism had a “blindness to culture” and had to be left by the wayside, its replacement had this or that limitation and was itself replaced, and so on.[23] Hunt writes globalization will not “hold forever” either.[24] A future work might instead, even if it included a brief, similar tracking, focus on how each paradigm added to our understanding of history, continued to do so, and how it does so today. As an example of the second task, Anthony Reid’s 1988 Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680 was written very much in the tradition of the Annales School, with a focus on geography, resources, climate, and demography, but it would be lost in a structure like Hunt’s, crowded out by the popularity of cultural studies in the last decades of the twentieth century.[25] Simply put, the historian must break away from the idea that paradigms are replaced. They are replaced in popularity, but not in importance to the mission of more fully understanding the past. As Hunt writes, “Paradigms are problematic because by their nature they focus on only part of the picture,” which highlights the necessity of the entire paradigmic spectrum, as does her putting globalization theory into practice, suggesting that coffee from abroad spurred revolutionary movements in eighteenth-century Europe, sidelining countless other factors.[26] Every paradigm helps us see more of the picture. It would be a shame if globalization was downplayed as implicitly irrelevant only a couple decades from now, if still a useful analytical lens. Paradigms are not stepping stones, they are columns holding up the house of history — more can be added as we go.

This aforementioned theoretical book on the field would also explore purpose, hypothesizing that history cannot be separated from ethics, and therefore from politics. Sarah Maza wrote in the final pages of Thinking About History:

Why study history? The simplest response is that history answers questions that other disciplines cannot. Why, for instance, are African-Americans in the United States today so shockingly disadvantaged in every possible respect, from income to education, health, life expectancy, and rates of incarceration, when the last vestiges of formal discrimination were done away with half a century ago? Unless one subscribes to racist beliefs, the only way to answer that question is historically, via the long and painful narrative that goes from transportation and slavery to today via Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and an accumulation, over decades, of inequities in urban policies, electoral access, and the judicial system.[27]

This is correct, and goes far beyond the purpose of answering questions. History is framed as the counter, even the antidote, to racist beliefs. If one is not looking to history for such answers, there is nowhere left to go but biology, racial inferiority, to beliefs deemed awful. History therefore informs ethical thinking; its utility is to help us become more ethical creatures, as (subjectively) defined by our society — and the self. This purpose is usually implied but rarely explicitly stated, and a discussion on the future of history should explore it. Now, one could argue that Maza’s dichotomy is simply steering us toward truth, away from incorrect ideas rather than unethical ones. But that does not work in all contexts. When we read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he is not demonstrating that modes of discipline are incorrect — and one is hardly confused as to whether he sees them as bad things, these “formulas of domination” and “constant coercion.”[28] J.R. McNeill, at the end of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, writes that yellow fever’s “career as a governing factor in human history, mercifully, has come to a close” while warning of a lapse in vaccination and mosquito control programs that could aid viruses that “still lurk in the biosphere.”[29] The English working class, wrote E.P. Thompson, faced “harsher and less personal” workplaces, “exploitation,” “unfreedom.”[30] The implications are clear: societies without disciplines, without exploitation, with careful mosquito control would be better societies. For human beings, unearthing and reading history cannot help but create value judgements, and it is a small step from the determination of what is right to the decision to pursue it, political action. It would be difficult, after all, to justify ignoring that which was deemed ethically right.

Indeed, not only do historians implicitly suggest better paths and condemn immoral ones, the notion that history helps human beings make more ethical choices is already fundamental to how many lay people read history — what is the cliché of being doomed to repeat the unlearned past about if not avoiding tragedies and terrors deemed wrong by present individuals and society collectively? As tired and disputed as the expression is, there is truth to it. Studying how would-be authoritarians often use minority groups as scapegoats for serious economic and social problems to reach elected office in democratic systems creates pathways for modern resistance, making the unthinkable thinkable, changing characterizations of what is right or wrong, changing behavior. Globalization may alter the self and society, but the field of history itself, to a degree, does the same. This could be grounds for a new, rather self-congratulatory paradigm, but the purpose, informing ethical and thus political decision-making, can guide many different theories, from Marxism to globalization. As noted, prior purposes of history were political: forming strong leaders, creating a national narrative, challenging a national narrative. A new political purpose would be standard practice. One might argue moving away from political purposes is a positive step, but it must be noted that the field seems to move away from purpose altogether when it does so. Is purpose inherently political? This future text would make the case that it is. A purpose cannot be posited without a self-evident perceived good. Strong leaders are good, for instance — and therefore should be part of the social and political landscape.

In conclusion, Hunt’s implicit dismissal of older theories and her incomplete purpose for history deserve correction, and doing so pushes the field forward in significant ways. For example, using the full spectrum of paradigms helps us work on (never solve) history’s causes-of-causes ad infinitum problem. Changing modes of production may have caused change x, but what caused the changing modes of production? What causes globalization in the first place? Paradigms can interrelate, helping answer the thorny questions of other paradigms (perhaps modernization or globalization theory could help explain changing modes of production, before requiring their own explanations). How giving history a full purpose advances the field is obvious: it sparks new interest, new ways of thinking, new conversations, new utilizations, new theories, while, like the sciences, offering the potential — but not the guarantee — of improving the human condition.

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[1] Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 1.

[2] Ibid, 26, 35-43.

[3] Ibid, 59. See also 60-71.

[4] Ibid, 70.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 77.

[7] Ibid, 14-17.

[8] Ibid, 18.

[9] Ibid, 18-27.

[10] Ibid, 27, 77.

[11] Ibid, chapters 3 and 4.

[12] Ibid, 135-141.

[13] Ibid, 101-118.

[14] Sarah Maza, Thinking About History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[15] Maza, Thinking, 236.

[16] Hunt, Writing History, chapter 1.

[17] Ibid, 8-9, 18, 26-27, chapter 1.

[18] Maza, Thinking, 236.

[19] Hunt, Writing History, 18.

[20] Ibid, 10.

[21] Ibid, 1.

[22] Ibid, 1-7.

[23] Ibid, 8.

[24] Ibid, 40.

[25] Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680, vol. 1, The Lands Below the Winds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

[26] Hunt, Writing History, 121, 135-140.

[27] Maza, Thinking, 237.

[28] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 137.

[29] J.R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 314.

[30] E.P. Thompson, The Essential E.P. Thompson (New York: The New Press, 2001), 17. 

Comparative Power

The practice of reconstructing the past, with all its difficulties and incompleteness, is aided by comparative study. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other researchers can learn a great deal about their favored society and culture by looking at others. This paper makes that basic point, but, more significantly, makes a distinction between the effectiveness of drawing meaning from cultural similarity/difference and doing the same from one’s own constructed cultural analogy, while acknowledging both are valuable methods. In other words, it is argued here that the historian who documents similarities and differences between societies stands on firmer methodological ground for drawing conclusions about human cultures than does the historian who is forced to fill in gaps in a given historical record by studying other societies in close geographic and temporal proximity. Also at a disadvantage is the historian working comparatively with gaps in early documentation that are filled in later documentation. This paper is a comparison of comparative methods — an important exercise, because such methods are often wielded due to a dearth of evidence in the archives. The historian should understand the strengths and limitations of various approaches (here reciprocal comparison, historical analogy, and historiographic comparison) to this problem.

To begin, a look at reciprocal comparison and the meaning derived from such an effort, derived specifically from likenesses or distinctions. Historian Robert Darnton found meaning in differences in The Great Cat Massacre: and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. What knowledge, Darnton wondered in his opening chapter, could we gain of eighteenth century French culture by looking at peasant folk tales and contrasting them to versions found in other places in Europe? Whereas similarities might point to shared cultural traits or norms, differences would isolate the particular mentalités of French peasants, how they viewed the world and what occupied their thoughts, in the historical tradition of the Annales School.[1] So while the English version of Tom Thumb was rather “genial,” with helpful fairies, attention to costume, and a titular character engaging in pranks, in the French version the Tom Thumb character, Poucet, was forced to survive in a “harsh, peasant world” against “bandits, wolves, and the village priest by using his wits.”[2] In a tale of a doctor cheating Death, the German version saw Death immediately kill the doctor; with a French twist, the doctor got away with his treachery for some time, becoming prosperous and living to old age — cheating paid off.[3] Indeed, French tales focused heavily on survival in a bleak and brutal world, and on this world’s particularities. Characters with magical wishes asked for food and full bellies, they got rid of children who did not work, put up with cruel step-mothers, and encountered many beggars on the road.[4] Most folk tales mix fictional elements like ogres and magic with socio-economic realities from the place and time they are told, and therefore the above themes reflect the ordinary lives of French peasants: hunger, poverty, the early deaths of biological mothers, begging, and so on.[5] In comparing French versions with those of the Italians, English, and Germans, Darnton noticed unique fixations in French peasant tales and then contrasted these obsessions with the findings of social historians on the material conditions of peasant life, bringing these things together to find meaning, to create a compelling case for what members of the eighteenth century French lower class thought about day to day and their attitudes towards society.

Now, compare Darnton’s work to ethno-historian Helen Rountree’s “Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw.” Rountree uses ethnographic analogy, among other tools, to reconstruct the daily lives of Powhatan women in the first years of the seventeenth century. Given that interested English colonizers had limited access to Powhatan women and a “cloudy lens” of patriarchal eurocentrism through which they observed native societies, and given that the Powhatans left few records themselves, Rountree uses the evidence of daily life in nearby Eastern Woodland tribes to describe the likely experiences of Powhatan women.[6] For example: “Powhatan women, like other Woodland Indian women, probably nurse their babies for well over a year after birth, so it would make sense to keep baby and food source together” by bringing infants into the fields with them as the women work.[7] Elsewhere “probably” is dropped for more confident takes: “Powhatan men and women, like those in other Eastern Woodland tribes, would have valued each other as economic partners…”[8] A lack of direct archival knowledge of Powhatan society and sentiments is shored up through archival knowledge of other native peoples living in roughly the same time and region. The meaning Rountree derives from ethnographic analogy, alongside other techniques and evidence, is that the English were wrong, looking through their cloudy lens, to believe Powhatan women suffered drudgery and domination under Powhatan men. Rather, women experienced a great deal of autonomy, as well as fellowship and variety, in their work, and were considered co-equal partners with men in the economic functioning of the village.[9]  

Both Darnton and Rountree admit their methods have challenges where evidence is concerned. Darnton writes that his examination of folktales is “distressingly imprecise in its deployment of evidence,” the evidence is “vague,” because the tales were written down much later — exactly how they were orally transmitted at the relevant time cannot be known.[10] In other words, what if the aspect of a story one marks as characteristic of the French peasant mentalité was not actually in the verbal telling of the tale? It is a threat to the legitimacy of the project. Rountree is careful to use “probably” and “likely” with most of her analogies; the “technique is a valid basis for making inferences if used carefully” (emphasis added), and one must watch out for the imperfections in the records of other tribes.[11] For what if historical understanding of another Eastern Woodland tribe is incorrect, and the falsity is copied over to the narrative of the Powhatan people? Rountree and Darnton acknowledge the limitations of their methods even while firmly believing they are valuable for reconstructing the past. This paper does not dispute that — however, it would be odd if all comparative methods were created equal.

Despite its challenges, reciprocal comparison rests on safer methodological ground, for it at least boasts two actually existing elements to contrast. For instance, Darnton has in his possession folktales from France and from Germany, dug up in the archives, and with them he can notice differences and thus derive meaning about how French peasants viewed the world. Such meaning may be incorrect, but is less likely to be so with support from research on the material conditions of those who might be telling the tales, as mentioned. Rountree, on the other hand, wields a tool that works with but one existing element. Historical, cultural, or ethnographic analogy takes what is known about other peoples and applies it to a specific group suffering from a gap in the historical record. This gap, a lack of direct evidence, is filled with an assumption — which may simply be wrong, without support from other research, like Darnton enjoys, to help out (to have such research would make analogy unnecessary). Obviously, an incorrect assumption threatens to derail derived meaning. If the work of Powhatan women differed in a significant way from other Eastern Woodland tribes, unseen and undiscovered and even silenced by analogy, the case of Powhatan economic equality could weaken. Again, this is not to deny the method’s value, only to note the danger that it carries compared to reciprocal comparison. Paradoxically, the inference that Powhatan society resembled other tribes nearby seems as probable and reasonable as it is bold, risky.

Similarly, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, also found meaning with absence when examining whether Henri Christophe, monarch of Haiti after its successful revolution against the French from 1791 to 1804, was influenced by Frederick the Great of Prussia when Christophe named his new Milot palace “San Souci.” Was the palace named after Frederick’s own in Potsdam, or after Colonel San Souci, a revolutionary rival Christophe killed? Trouillot studied the historical record and found that opportunities for early observers to mention a Potsdam-Milot connection were suspiciously ignored.[12] For example, Austro-German geographer Karl Ritter, a contemporary of Christophe, repeatedly described his palace as “European” but failed to mention it was inspired by Frederick’s.[13] British consul Charles Mackenzie, “who visited and described San Souci less than ten years after Christophe’s death, does not connect the two palaces.”[14] Why was a fact that was such a given for later writers not mentioned early on if it was true?[15] These archival gaps of course co-exist with Trouillot’s positive evidence (“Christophe built San Souci, the palace, a few yards away from — if not exactly — where he killed San Souci, the man”[16]), but are used to build a case that Christophe had Colonel San Souci in mind when naming his palace, a detail that evidences an overall erasure of the colonel from history.[17] By contrasting the early historical record with the later one, Trouillot finds truth and silencing.

This historiographic comparison is different from Rountree’s historical analogy. Rountree fills in epistemological gaps about Powhatan women with the traits of nearby, similar cultures; Trouillot judges the gaps in early reports about Haiti’s San Souci palace to suggest later writers were in error and participating in historical silencing (he, like Darnton, is working with two existing elements and weighs the differences). Like Rountree’s, Trouillot’s method is useful and important: the historian should always seek the earliest writings from relevant sources to develop an argument, and if surprising absences exist there is cause to be suspicious that later works created falsities. However, this method too flirts with assumption. It assumes the unwritten is also the unthought, which is not always the case. It may be odd or unlikely that Mackenzie or Ritter would leave Potsdam unmentioned if they believed in its influence, but not impossible or unthinkable. It further assumes a representative sample size — Trouillot is working with very few early documents. Would the discovery of more affect his thesis? As we see with Trouillot and Rountree, and as one might expect, a dearth in the archives forces assumptions.

While Trouillot’s conclusion is probable, he is nevertheless at greater risk of refutation than Darnton or, say, historian Kenneth Pomeranz, who also engaged in reciprocal comparison when he put China beside Europe during the centuries before 1800. Unlike the opening chapter of The Great Cat Massacre, The Great Divergence finds meaning in similarities as well as differences. Pomeranz seeks to understand why Europe experienced an Industrial Revolution instead of China, and must sort through many posited causal factors. For instance, did legal and institutional structures more favorable to capitalist development give Europe an edge, contributing to greater productivity and efficiency?[18] Finding similar regulatory mechanisms like interest rates and property rights, and a larger “world of surprising resemblances” before 1750, Pomeranz argued for other differences: Europe’s access to New World resources and trade, as well as to coal.[19] This indicates that Europe’s industrialization occurred not due to the superior intentions, wisdom, or industriousness of Europeans but rather due to unforeseen, fortunate happenings, or “conjunctures” that “often worked to Western Europe’s advantage, but not necessarily because Europeans created or imposed them.”[20] Reciprocal comparison can thus break down eurocentric perspectives by looking at a broader range of historical evidence. No assumptions need be made (rather, assumptions, such as those about superior industriousness, can be excised). As obvious as it is to write, a wealth of archival evidence, rather than a lack, makes for safer methodological footing, as does working with two existing evidentiary elements, no risky suppositions necessary.

A future paper might muse further on the relationship between analogy and silencing, alluded to earlier — if Trouillot is correct and a fact-based narrative is built on silences, how much more problematic is the narrative based partly on analogy?[21] As for this work, in sum, the historian must use some caution with historical analogy, historiographic comparison, and other tools that have an empty space on one side of the equation. These methods are hugely important and often present theses of high probability. But they are by nature put at risk by archival gaps; reciprocal comparison has more power in its derived meanings and claims about other cultures of the past — by its own archival nature.

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[1] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, eds., The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 111.

[2] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 42.

[3] Ibid, 47-48.

[4] Ibid, 29-38.

[5] Ibid, 23-29.

[6] Helen C. Rountree, “Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw,” Ethnohistory 45, no. 1 (winter 1998): 1-2.

[7] Ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 21.

[9] Ibid, 22.

[10] Darnton, Cat Massacre, 261.

[11] Rountree, “Powhatan,” 2.

[12] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 61-65.

[13] Ibid, 63-64.

[14] Ibid, 62.

[15] Ibid, 64.

[16] Ibid, 65.

[17] Ibid, chapters 1 and 2.

[18] Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), chapters 3 and 4.

[19] Ibid, 29, 279-283.

[20] Ibid, 4.

[21] Trouillot, Silencing, 26-27.

When The Beatles Sang About Killing Women

Move over, Johnny Cash and “Cocaine Blues.” Sure, “Early one mornin’ while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down… Shot her down because she made me slow / I thought I was her daddy but she had five more” are often the first lyrics one thinks of when considering the violent end of the toxic masculinity spectrum in white people music. (Is this not something you ponder? Confront more white folk who somehow only see these things in black music, you’ll get there.) But The Beatles took things to just as dark a place.

Enter “Run For Your Life” from their 1965 album Rubber Soul, a song as catchy as it is chilling: “You better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man / That’s the end.” Jesus. It’s jarring, the cuddly “All You Need Is Love” boy band singing “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and “Let this be a sermon / I mean everything I’ve said / Baby, I’m determined / And I’d rather see you dead.” But jealous male violence in fact showed up in other Beatles songs as well, and in the real world, with the self-admitted abusive acts and attitudes of John Lennon, later regretted but no less horrific for it.

This awfulness ensured The Beatles would be viewed by many of posterity as a contradictory element, with proto-feminist themes and ideas of the 1960s taking root in their music alongside possessive, murderous sexism. That is, if these things are noticed at all.

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Hegemony and History

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing in the early 1930s while imprisoned by the Mussolini government, theorized that ruling classes grew entrenched through a process called cultural hegemony, the successful propagation of values and norms, which when accepted by the lower classes produced passivity and thus the continuation of domination and exploitation from above. An ideology became hegemonic when it found support from historical blocs, alliances of social groups (classes, religions, families, and so on) — meaning broad, diverse acceptance of ideas that served the interests of the bourgeoisie in a capitalist society and freed the ruling class from some of the burden of using outright force. This paper argues that Gramsci’s theory is useful for historians because its conception of “divided consciousness” offers a framework for understanding why individuals failed to act in ways that aligned with their own material interests or acted for the benefit of oppressive forces. Note this offering characterizes cultural hegemony as a whole, but it is divided consciousness that permits hegemony to function. Rather than a terminus a quo, however, divided consciousness can be seen as created, at least partially, by hegemony andas responsible for ultimate hegemonic success — a mutually reinforcing system. The individual mind and what occurs within it is the necessary starting point for understanding how domineering culture spreads and why members of social groups act in ways that puzzle later historians.

Divided (or contradictory) consciousness, according to Gramsci, was a phenomenon in which individuals believed both hegemonic ideology and contrary ideas based on their own lived experiences. Cultural hegemony pushed such ideas out of the bounds of rational discussion concerning what a decent society should look like. Historian T.J. Jackson Lears, summarizing sociologist Michael Mann, wrote that hegemony ensured “values rooted in the workers’ everyday experience lacked legitimacy… [W]orking class people tend to embrace dominant values as abstract propositions but often grow skeptical as the values are applied to their everyday lives. They endorse the idea that everyone has an equal chance of success in America but deny it when asked to compare themselves with the lawyer or businessman down the street.”[1] In other words, what individuals knew to be true from simply functioning in society was not readily applied to the nature of the overall society; some barrier, created at least in part by the process of hegemony, existed. Lears further noted the evidence from sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb, whose subaltern interviewees “could not escape the effect of dominant values” despite also holding contradictory ones, as “they deemed their class inferiority a sign of personal failure, even as many realized they had been constrained by class origins that they could not control.”[2] A garbage collector knew the fact that he was not taught to read properly was not his fault, yet blamed himself for his position in society.[3] The result of this contradiction, Gramsci observed, was often passivity, consent to oppressive systems.[4] If one could not translate and contrast personal truths to the operation of social systems, political action was less likely.

To understand how divided consciousness, for Gramsci, was achieved, it is necessary to consider the breadth of the instruments that propagated dominant culture. Historian Robert Gray, studying how the bourgeoisie achieved hegemony in Victorian Britain, wrote that hegemonic culture could spread not only through the state — hegemonic groups were not necessarily governing groups, though there was often overlap[5] — but through any human institutions and interactions: “the political and ideological are present in all social relations.”[6] Everything in Karl Marx’s “superstructure” could imbue individuals and historical blocs with domineering ideas: art, media, politics, religion, education, and so on. Gray wrote that British workers in the era of industrialization of course had to be pushed into “habituation” of the new and brutal wage-labor system by the workplace itself, but also through “poor law reform, the beginnings of elementary education, religious evangelism, propaganda against dangerous ‘economic heresies,’ the fostering of more acceptable expressions of working-class self help (friendly societies, co-ops, etc.), and of safe forms of ‘rational recreation.’”[7] The bourgeoisie, then, used many social avenues to manufacture consent, including legal reform that could placate workers. Some activities were acceptable under the new system (joining friendly societies or trade unions) to keep more radical activities out of bounds.[8] It was also valuable to create an abstract enemy, a “social danger” for the masses to fear.[9] So without an embrace of the dominant values and norms of industrial capitalism, there would be economic disaster, scarcity, loosening morals, the ruination of family, and more.[10] The consciousness was therefore under assault by the dominant culture from all directions, heavy competition for values derived from lived experience, despite the latter’s tangibility. In macro, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, to quote historian David Arnold, “held that popular ideas had as much historical weight or energy as purely material forces” or even “greater prominence.”[11] In micro, it can be derived, things work the same in the individual mind, with popular ideas as powerful as personal experience, and thus the presence of divided consciousness.

The concept of contradictory consciousness helps historians answer compelling questions and solve problems. Arnold notes Gramsci’s questions: “What historically had kept the peasants [of Italy] in subordination to the dominant classes? Why had they failed to overthrow their rulers and to establish a hegemony of their own?”[12] Contextually, why wasn’t the peasantry more like the industrial proletariat — the more rebellious, presumed leader of the revolution against capitalism?[13] The passivity wrought from divided consciousness provided an answer. While there were “glimmers” of class consciousness — that is, the application of lived experience to what social systems should be, and the growth of class-centered ideas aimed at ending exploitation — the Italian peasants “largely participated in their own subordination by subscribing to hegemonic values, by accepting, admiring, and even seeking to emulate many of the attributes of the superordinate classes.”[14] Their desires, having “little internal consistency or cohesion,” even allowed the ruling class to make soldiers of peasants,[15] meaning active participation in maintaining oppressive power structures. Likewise, Lears commented on the work of political theorist Lawrence Goodwyn and the question of why the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century United States largely failed. While not claiming hegemony as the only cause, Lears argued that the democratic movement was most successful in parts of the nation with democratic traditions, where such norms were already within the bounds of acceptable discussion.[16] Where they were not, where elites had more decision-making control, the “received culture” was more popular, with domination seeming more natural and inevitable.[17] Similarly, Arnold’s historiographical review of the Indian peasantry found that greater autonomy (self-organization to pursue vital interests) of subaltern groups meant hegemony was much harder to establish, with “Gandhi [coming] closest to securing the ‘consent’ of the peasantry for middle-class ideological and political leadership,” but the bourgeoisie failing to do the same.[18] Traditions and cultural realities could limit hegemonic possibilities; it’s just as important to historians to understand why something does not work out as it is to comprehend why something does. As a final example, historian Eugene Genovese found that American slaves demonstrated both resistance to and appropriation of the culture of masters, both in the interest of survival, with appropriation inadvertently reinforcing hegemony and the dominant views and norms.[19] This can help answer questions regarding why slave rebellions took place in some contexts but not others, or even why more did not occur — though, again, acceptance of Gramscian theory does not require ruling out all causal explanations beyond cultural hegemony and divided consciousness. After all, Gramsci himself favored nuance, with coexisting consent and coercion, consciousness of class or lived experience mixing with beliefs of oppressors coming from above, and so on.

The challenge of hegemonic theory and contradictory consciousness relates to parsing out aforementioned causes. Gray almost summed it up when he wrote, “[N]or should behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology be read at face value as a direct product of ruling class influence.”[20] Here he was arguing that dominant culture was often imparted in indirect ways, not through intentionality of the ruling class or programs of social control.[21] But one could argue: “Behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology cannot be read at face value as a product of divided consciousness and hegemony.” It is a problem of interpretation, and it can be difficult for historians to parse out divided consciousness or cultural hegemony from other historical causes and show which has more explanatory value. When commenting on the failure of the Populist movement, Lears mentioned “stolen elections, race-baiting demagogues,” and other events and actors with causal value.[22] How much weight should be given to dominant ideology and how much to stolen elections? This interpretive nature can appear to weaken the usefulness of Gramsci’s model. Historians have developed potential solutions. For instance, as Lears wrote, “[O]ne way to falsify the hypothesis of hegemony is to demonstrate the existence of genuinely pluralistic debate; one way to substantiate it is to discover what was left out of public debate and to account historically for those silences.”[23] If there was public discussion of a wide range of ideas, many running counter to the interests of dominant groups, the case for hegemony is weaker; if public discussion centered around a narrow slate of ideas that served obvious interests, the case is stronger. A stolen election may be assigned less casual value, and cultural hegemony more, if there existed restricted public debate. However, the best evidence for hegemony may remain the psychoanalysis of individuals, as seen above, that demonstrate some level of divided consciousness. Even in demonstrability, contradictory consciousness is key to Gramsci’s overall theory. A stolen election may earn less casual value if such insightful individual interviews can be submitted as evidence.  

In sum, for Gramscian thinkers divided consciousness is a demonstrable phenomenon that powers (and is powered by) hegemony and the acceptance of ruling class norms and beliefs. While likely not the only cause of passivity to subjugation, it offers historians an explanation as to why individuals do not act in their own best interests that can be explored, given causal weight, falsified, or verified (to degrees) in various contexts. Indeed, Gramsci’s theory is powerful in that it has much utility for historians whether true or misguided.

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[1] T.J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (June 1985): 577.

[2] Ibid, 577-578.

[3] Ibid, 578.

[4] Ibid, 569.

[5] Robert Gray, “Bourgeois Hegemony in Victorian Britain,” in Tony Bennet, ed., Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader (London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1981), 240.

[6] Ibid, 244.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 246.

[9] Ibid, 245.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Arnold, “Gramsci and the Peasant Subalternity in India,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 11, no. 4 (1984):158.

[12] Ibid, 157.

[13] Ibid, 157.

[14] Ibid, 159.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lears, “Hegemony,” 576-577.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Arnold, “India,” 172.

[19] Lears, “Hegemony,” 574.

[20] Gray, “Britain,” 246.

[21] Ibid, 245-246.

[22] Ibid, 276.

[23] Lears, “Hegemony,” 586.

How Should History Be Taught?

Debate currently rages over how to teach history in American public schools. Should the abyss of racism receive full attention? Should we teach our children that the United States is benevolent in its wars and use of military power — did we not bring down Nazi Germany? Is the nation fundamentally good based on its history, worthy of flying the flag, or is it responsible for so many horrors that an ethical person would keep the flag in the closet or burn it in the streets? Left and Right and everyone in between have different, contradictory perspectives, but to ban and censor is not ideal. Examining the full spectrum of views will help students understand the world they inhabit and the field of history itself.

While there was once an imagining of objectivity, historians now typically understand the true nature of their work. “Through the end of the twentieth century,” Sarah Maza writes in Thinking About History, “the ideal of historical objectivity was undermined from within the historical community… The more different perspectives on history accumulated, the harder it became to believe that any historian, however honest and well-intentioned, could tell the story of the past from a position of Olympian detachment, untainted by class, gender, racial, national, and other biases.” Selecting and rejecting sources involves interpretation and subconsciously bent decisions. Historians looking at the same sources will have different interpretations of meaning, which leads to fierce debates in scholarly journals. Teachers are not value-neutral either. All this is taken for granted. “It is impossible to imagine,” Maza writes, “going back to a time when historians imagined that their task involved bowing down before ‘the sovereignty of sources.'” They understand it’s more complex than that: “The history of the American Great Plains in the nineteenth century has been told as a tale of progress, tragedy, or triumph over adversity,” depending on the sources one is looking at and how meaning is derived from them.

But this is a positive thing. It gives us a fuller picture of the past, understanding the experiences of all actors. “History is always someone’s story, layered over and likely at odds with someone else’s: to recognize this does not make our chronicles of the past less reliable, but more varied, deeper, and more truthful.” It also makes us think critically — what interpretation makes the most sense to us, given the evidence offered? Why is the evidence reliable?

If historians understand this, why shouldn’t students? Young people should be taught that while historical truth exists, any presentation of historical truth — a history book, say — was affected by human action and sentiment. This is a reality that those on the Left and Right should be able to acknowledge. Given this fact, and that both sides are after the same goal, to teach students the truth, the only sensible path forward is to offer students multiple interpretations. Read A Patriot’s History of the United States (Schweikart, Allen) and A People’s History of the United States (Zinn). There are equivalent versions of these types of texts for elementary and middle schoolers. Read about why World War II was “The Good War” in your typical textbook, alongside Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War. Have students read history by conservatives in awe of a greatest country in the whole wide world, as well as by liberals fiercely critical of the nation and many of its people for keeping liberty and democracy exclusively for some for far longer than many other countries. They can study top-down history (great rulers, generals, and leaders drive change) and bottom-up social history (ordinary people coming together drives change). Or compare primary sources from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth demanding or opposing women’s rights. Read the perspectives of both Native Americans and American settlers in the plains. Why not? This gives students a broader view of the past, shows them why arguments and debates over history exist, and helps them understand modern political ideologies.

Most importantly, as noted, it helps students think critically. Many a teacher has said, “I don’t want to teach students what to think, but rather how to think.” Apart from exploring the logical fallacies, which is also important, this doesn’t seem possible without exploring varying perspectives and asking which one a young person finds most convincing and why. One can’t truly practice the art of thinking without one’s views being challenged, being forced to justify the maintenance of a perspective or a deviation based on newly acquired knowledge. Further, older students can go beyond different analyses of history and play around with source theories: what standard should there be to determine if a primary source is trustworthy? Can you take your standard, apply it to the sources of these two views, and determine which is more solid by your metric? There is much critical thinking to be done, and it makes for a more interesting time for young people.

Not only does teaching history in this way reflect the professional discipline, and greatly expand student knowledge and thought, it aligns with the nature of public schools, or with what the general philosophy of public schools should be. The bent of a history classroom, or the history segment of the day in the youngest grades, is determined by the teacher, but also by the books, curricula, and standards approved or required by the district, the regulations of the state, and so forth. So liberal teachers, districts, and states go their way and conservative teachers, districts, and states go theirs. But who is the public school classroom for, exactly? It’s for everyone — which necessitates some kind of openness to a broad range of perspectives (public universities are the same way, as I’ve written elsewhere).

This may be upsetting and sensible at the same time. On the one hand, “I don’t want my kid, or other kids, hearing false, dangerous ideas from the other side.” On the other, “It would be great for my kid, and other kids, to be exposed to this perspective when it so often is excluded from the classroom.” Everyone is happy, no one is happy. Likely more the latter. First, how can anyone favor bringing materials full of falsities into a history class? Again, anyone who favors critical thinking. Make that part of the study — look at the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report together, and explore why either side finds the other in error. Second, how far do you go? What extreme views will be dignified with attention? Is one to bring in Holocaust deniers and square their arguments up against the evidence for the genocide? Personally, this writer would support that: what an incredible exercise in evaluating and comparing the quantity and quality of evidence (and “evidence”). Perhaps others will disagree. But none of this means there can’t be reasonable limits to presented views. If an interpretation or idea is too fringe, it may be a waste of time to explore it. There is finite time in a class period and in a school year. The teacher, district, and so on will have to make the (subjective) choice (no one said this was a perfect system) to leave some things out and focus on bigger divides. If Holocaust denial is still relatively rare, controversy over whether the Civil War occurred due to slavery is not.

Who, exactly, is afraid of pitting their lens of history against that of another? Probably he who is afraid his sacred interpretation will be severely undermined, she who knows her position is not strong. If you’re confident your interpretation is truthful, backed by solid evidence, you welcome all challengers. Even if another viewpoint makes students think in new ways, even pulling them away from your lens, you know the latter imparted important knowledge and made an impression. As the author of a book on racism used in high schools and colleges, what do I have to fear when some conservative writes a book about how things really weren’t so bad for black Kansas Citians over the past two centuries? By all means, read both books, think for yourself, decide which thesis makes the most sense to you based on the sources — or create a synthesis of your own. The imaginary conservative author should likewise have no qualms about such an arrangement.

I have thus far remained fairly even-handed, because Leftists and right-wingers can become equally outraged over very different things. But here I will wonder whether the Right would have more anxiety over a multiple-interpretation study specifically. Once a student has learned of the darkness of American history, it is often more difficult to be a full-throated, flag-worshiping patriot. This risk will drive some conservatives berserk. Is the Leftist parent equally concerned that a positive, patriotic perspective on our past alongside a Zinnian version will turn her child into someone less critical, more favorable to the State, even downplaying the darkness? I’m not sure if the Leftist is as worried about that. My intuition, having personally been on both sides of the aisle, is that the risk would be more disturbing for conservatives — the horrors still horrify despite unrelated positive happenings, but the view of the U.S. as the unequivocal good guy is quickly eroded forever. Hopefully I am wrong and that is the mere bias of a current mindset talking. Either way, this pedagogy, the great compromise, is the right thing to do, for the reasons outlined above.

In conclusion, we must teach students the truth — and Americans will never fully agree on what that is, but the closest one could hope for is that this nation and its people have done horrific things as well as positive things. Teaching both is honest and important, and that’s what students will see when they examine different authors and documents. In my recent review of a history text, I wrote that the Left “shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging, for instance, that the U.S. Constitution was a strong step forward for representative democracy, secular government, and personal rights, despite the obvious exclusivity, compared to Europe’s systems.” Nor should one deny the genuine American interest in rescuing Europe and Asia from totalitarianism during World War II. And then there’s inventions, art, scientific discoveries, music, and many other things. The truth rests in nuance, as one might expect. James Baldwin said that American history is “more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” (What nation does not have both horrors and wonderful things in its history? Where would philosophy be without the German greats?) I’ve at times envisioned writing a history of the U.S. through a “hypocrisy” interpretation, but it works the same under a “mixed bag” framing: religious dissenters coming to the New World for more freedom and immediately crushing religious dissenters, the men who spoke of liberty and equality who owned slaves, fighting the Nazi master race with a segregated army, supporting democracy in some cases but destroying it in others, and so on. All countries have done good and bad things.

That is a concept the youngest children — and the oldest adults — can understand.

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Famous Bands That Sang About Kansas City

One’s city pride quickly swells upon perusing Spotify for songs about Kansas City. There’s much to hear, from the gems of local talent (“Get Out – The KC Streetcar Song,” Kemet the Phantom) to the fantastic artists from afar (“Train From Kansas City,” Neko Case) to the biggest names in music history:

The Beatles sang of Kansas City beginning in 1961 with “Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” which they took from Little Richard’s work of the late 1950s, itself a version of the 1952 classic “Kansas City” by Leiber and Stoller (“I’m going to Kansas City / Kansas City here I come…”). Other famous musicians to record Leiber and Stoller’s song include Willie Nelson, James Brown, and Sammie Davis Jr.

Frank Zappa performed the “Kansas City Shuffle.” Van Morrison had “The Eternal Kansas City”: “Dig your Charlie Parker / Basie and Young.” Yusuf (Cat Stevens) sang “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare).” Clearly, and sadly, he did not have a pleasant stay.

Jefferson Airplane was “gonna move to Kansas City”; for Rogers and Hammerstein, in their 1943 musical Oklahoma!, everything was “up to date in Kansas City.” More recently, The New Basement Tapes, The Mowgli’s, and of course Tech N9ne have joined in.

I have created a public playlist on Spotify of four hours of songs about KC. It has a bit of everything, from the jazz and blues of yesteryear to the folk and Americana and hip hop of today. It includes famous artists and the obscure, and everyone in between, with some repeats so one can hear different artists tackle the same song. “Kansas City Hornpipe” by Fred Morrison and “Kansas City, Missouri” by Humbird are particularly enjoyable. Some songs, naturally, are better than others, but the most subpar or campy of Spotify’s selection have been excluded (many local artists go nowhere for a reason). Finally, and unfortunately, one of the best hip hop songs about the city, Center of Attention’s “Straight Outta Kauffman,” is not available on Spotify, so it must be listened to elsewhere.

Find some of that “Kansas City wine” (Leiber and Stoller) and enjoy.

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