As I have suggested in prior posts (here, here, here, and here), ideas of freedom and citizenship developed in the black public sphere in ways somewhat different than in the dominant white sphere of the mid-nineteenth century. Of course a parallel alternative discourse was occurring in the women’s movement. Prior to the war there was some overlap and coordination in these two spheres, although the fissure between the two was already present before the war and famously became a chasm afterwards. Nevertheless, ideas of equality and freedom in each sphere influenced the other. And for black women such as Mary Ann Shadd Carey and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, it was critical to negotiate this post-war split in order to press for more progressive positions in each area.
The work of someone like Frances Harper was even more critical given the hazards of the newly emerging citizenship, forged in battle and relying heavily on a martial and exclusively male framing of full citizenship. One of the most common synonyms for citizenship and its rights and privileges in the black public sphere was “manhood.” In such a context Harper’s May 1866 speech at a national women’s rights convention is one of the most important statements of the intersections of race, gender, and class of the nineteenth century.
She then stated her theme (and what would become the frequently used title of the speech) that “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.” She stressed the interdependence of all people and how the evil of slavery also deprived whites of rights: “When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press” and poor southern whites were deprived of education (the results of which she saw in the disaster that was Andrew Johnson).
Consistent with ideas from the black public sphere she described the war as a “grand and glorious revolution.” But then she transformed the ideas of justice to include gender, stating that the revolution was incomplete until it had “no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can obtain.” Notice that she at once adopted the then common manhood trope and transformed it by linking it to womanhood and describing both as necessary components of the “privilege” of an equal and classless country. She also here was reinterpreting the very idea of “privilege” from a marker of exclusion to a symbol of egalitarianism—a point (and word) white republicans in congress were constantly stumbling over in their effort to be simultaneously egalitarian and exclusionary.
She continued then to transform ideas within the feminist public sphere, challenging her audience by rejecting the notion that women’s suffrage would “cure all the ills of life” because women were likely to use the ballot as well and as poorly as men. She then said:
"You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars—I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia--and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride."
She also highlighted what was to become an important symbols of gender-race-class injuries of the Jim Crow post-war era, that she had been required to ride in the smoking car on the railroad, a point well calculated to show the audience of white women—by the gender injustice of having her womanhood denied because she was black—how racism was intimately connected with gender. Thus she tied one of the central components of the black public sphere—equal rights in public accommodations—to the concerns of gender.
Ultimately Harper stressed how the concerns about suffrage that were causing the chasm between white suffragists and the movement for black male rights were inextricably linked to basic civil rights for all, not just for whites. Not only were people “bound up together”, so were their rights, wrongs, and privileges. She concluded by addressing the responsibility of white women for rectifying the wrongs done to black women and men, with an endorsement of the ballot for women that was more critique than advocacy: “While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”
There is a lot going on in even this short speech about basic rights to security, political power, access to public facilities, and basic recognition and about how this played out differently but in overlapping ways across race and gender. For those interested Harper and other black women in this period, I very much recommend Martha Jones’s All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900, which brilliantly weaves together a study of institutions, ideology, personal biography, all within a frame of public culture.