The antislavery campaign in the United States resulted in the emergence of the middle-class feminist movement. However, the latter did not include African-American women or white women of lower economic classes. The objectives of middle-class feminists were suffrage and social recognition for upper-class white women. Black women, on the other hand, first sought to be recognized as women. Already equal to African-American men socially within the slave community and in terms of the oppression they both suffered, African-American women challenged the institution of slavery and resisted sexual assaults of white men (Scott, n. pag. ). The lives of black female slaves proved to be harder than those of their male counterparts.
Black female slaves were exploited for both their reproductive and productive capacities. Apart from performing strenuous manual labor and enduring abject living conditions, they were expected to replenish the slave population through pregnancy and childbirth. Furthermore, black female slaves experienced sexism and sexual abuse from their masters (Mankiller, 543). But the worst form of mistreatment that female African-American slaves received from their owners was probably the stereotype of the promiscuous black woman.
In slavery-era America, white women were regarded as the models of self-control, self-respect, sexual purity and modesty. Black women, meanwhile, were often dismissed as innately licentious and desired sexual relations with white men. This misconception was used as a justification for the rape of female African-American slaves by their owners (Mankiller, 543). The labeling of black women as immoral has partial historical basis. Slaves were sold naked in order to show that they were healthy, capable of reproduction and docile (as seen through their whipping scars).
Slaves likewise worked wearing scant clothing – black female slaves often worked with their dresses lifted up around their hips to prevent the hems from being stained with the water, dirt and mud in which they worked. In sharp contrast, whites, especially white women, were dressed in layers of clothing (Mankiller, 543). As a result, black women were initially excluded from the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement. Feminists during this era believed that black women should not be considered as women because they did not conform to the prevailing images of feminine virtue.
Most black abolitionist women interpreted this philosophy as a means for feminists to have more time to pursue their cause. A feminist, after all, will no longer have the time to rail about gender inequality if she has to cook, clean her house or tend to her family’s farm – chores that are traditionally assigned to female African-American slaves (Dixon, 50). Sojourner Truth, an illiterate former slave, was one of those who insisted that black women have rights as well.
An abolitionist and a champion of women’s rights in the nineteenth century, she opposed the nineteenth-century’s assumptions about womanhood. For Truth, women’s rights must apply to all women regardless of race. In her speech Aren’t I a Woman (1851), she used her body to further elaborate on these points. By detailing the difficult tasks that she performed unassisted as a slave, as well as the grief that she encountered when all of her 13 children were sold off to slavery, she argued that black women are also women.
They are also oppressed like white women, but only on a worse level (Ritchie and Ronald, 144). Truth also challenged the traditional but overly-simplistic feminist analogies between marriage and slavery and between white wife and black slave. Truth argued that black and white women must use motherhood as a unifying factor in their struggle for gender equality. They will produce another generation of marginalized and exploited women if they allow race to prevent them from joining forces in order to attain their common goal (Accomando, 67). Black women are also women.
The only reason they were not considered as such was because of the institution of slavery, which considered them as culturally stunted and morally loose. Thus, black women are entitled to the same rights that white women enjoy. Both of them suffered immensely in a patriarchal society. In fact, black women suffered more. Works Cited Accomando, Christina. “Demanding a Voice among the Pettifoggers: Sojourner Truth as Legal Actor. ” MELUS 2003: 28. JSTOR. University of Arizona Library. 20 September 2008 <http://www. jstor. org/stable/3595246>. Dixon, Chris.
Perfecting the Family: Antislavery Marriages in Nineteenth-Century America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Mankiller, Wilma Pearl. ed. The Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books, 1999. Ritchie, Joy S. and Kate Ronald. Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. Scott, Eryn. “Differences and Intersections between Feminism in Africa and Feminism in the United States. ” 18 November 1997. Columbia University. 20 September 2008 <http://www. columbia. edu/cu/sister/Differences. html>.
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