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Friday, February 29, 2008Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
In Chapter Four of her new book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich describes Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s awakening as a young civil rights activist and gives context to her struggle. Stanton, who was one of the most outspoken advocates for women’s rights in the 19th century, identified strongly with those trapped by the institution of slavery.
From Chapter Four: Slaves in the Attic
On a bright autumn day in 1839, Elizabeth Cady and her sisters were singing in the parlor of the large country house owned by their cousin, the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Suddenly, Smith walked in and with a mysterious air summoned them to the top of the house. Pledging them to secrecy, he opened the door to a little-used room. There sat a beautiful young woman—a runaway slave.
“Harriet,” Smith said, “I have brought all my young cousins to see you. I want you to make good abolitionists of them by telling them the history of your life—what you have seen and suffered in slavery.” For the next two hours the girls listened, weeping, as Harriet told of being sold for her beauty in a New Orleans market. The details were too horrible to repeat, except in whispers.
The tension deepened when at twilight they saw her slip out of the house into a waiting carriage wearing a Quaker bonnet. A few days later, they were relieved to hear that she had made her way safely to Canada.
Writing about this event half a century later, Stanton did not use Harriet Powell’s full name. Perhaps she had forgotten it. Perhaps she deliberately left it out. Whatever the reason, her omission adds to the mythical power of the story. Without a full name, one runaway can stand in for every slave who ever fled a master. Powell’s story can evoke other Harriets, other attics: Harriet Jacobs, for example, who in 1861, under the pseudonym “Linda Brent,” wrote about hiding in a cramped space above her grandmother’s shed for seven long years rather than submit to the sexual propositions of her master.
Or Harriet Tubman, the brave “general” of the Underground Railroad, who helped dozens of other slaves escape. Or Harriet Beecher Stowe, the white writer who filled Uncle Tom’s Cabin with beautiful quadroons and dramatic escapes, and who in the grim last section of the novel told a dark tale about a mysterious female slave hiding in the attic on a plantation owned by the evil Simon Legree.
All these Harriets made history, though not in Stanton’s memoir. In her telling, the encounter in the attic had less to do with the history of slavery than with her own evolution from naïve schoolgirl to public advocate for women’s rights. That was the autumn she fell in love with Henry Stanton, who as an agent for the radical American Anti-Slavery Society was a frequent visitor to Smith’s house. On a walk through the woods, Henry had “made one of those charming revelations of human feeling which brave knights have always found eloquent words to utter, and to which fair ladies have always listened with mingled emotions of pleasure and astonishment.” Although Elizabeth was smitten, she feared her father would never consent to her marrying an abolitionist. “So I lingered at Peterboro to prolong the dream of happiness and postpone the conflict I feared to meet.” For her, as for Harriet, Smith’s house became an oasis.
Harriet’s escape foreshadowed Elizabeth’s own. Seven months later, pressed into action by Henry’s imminent departure for London as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention, she braved her father’s displeasure and “without the slightest preparation for a wedding or a voyage,” married him. The runaway in the attic had introduced her to the horrors of slavery. The female abolitionists she met in London introduced her to feminism. When convention leaders refused to admit women as delegates, they collected in the gallery, pondering the insincerity of men “who, while eloquently defending the natural rights of slaves, denied freedom of speech to one-half the people of their own race.”
For Stanton, slavery became a metaphor for the female condition. Years later, in a speech at Waterloo, New York, she accused men in all parts of the world of enslaving women, “from the Mahometan who forbids pigs, dogs, women and other impure animals to enter a mosque, and does not allow a fool, madman or woman to proclaim the hour of prayer,—from the German who complacently smokes his meerschaum while his wife, yoked with the ox, draws the plough through its furrow,—from the delectable gentleman who thinks an inferior style of conversation adapted to women—to the legislator who considers her incapable of saying what laws shall govern her.” Women everywhere were subject to men. “I am a slave, a favoured slave,” she exclaimed, quoting a line given to a harem girl in Lord Byron’s poem “The Corsair.”
“I am a slave, a favoured slave...”
At one level, the rhetoric was nonsensical. Stanton was not a slave. Nor, whatever his deficiencies as a husband, was Henry a sultan. But the language was well chosen. For a white woman to declare herself a slave was the ultimate misbehavior. It was one thing to reach out to a poor suffering creature like Harriet. It was another to identify with her degradation. In Stanton’s lifetime, nearly everyone assumed that middle-class white women were among the most privileged and pampered creatures on earth. They were the mothers, the muses, and the lovers of men, the caregivers of children, and the hope of the weary. Stanton cut through that sentimental view. To be a perpetual dependent was to be a slave, regardless of how comfortable one ’s position. At Seneca Falls in 1848, she and her collaborators gave up the deference due to them as fair ladies and demanded “all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”
For Stanton, the antislavery movement was a way station on the road to something bigger. That is the way it has been treated in many histories of the women’s suffrage movement. Recent accounts do better. They help explain how Harriet Powell ended up in Smith’s attic and where she went when she left there, and they show the complex interplay between sentimental literature, evangelical religion, abolitionism, and women’s rights. Stanton’s story looks different when placed alongside the lives of Harriet Powell and her namesakes. The biographies of the four Harriets—Powell, Jacobs, Stowe, and Tubman—take slaves out of the attic.
Three Runaways and a Novelist
In Stanton’s memoir, Harriet Powell appears from nowhere. In reality, her escape was managed by a powerful network that linked wealthy patrons like Gerrit Smith with free blacks who risked social ostracism, violence, and even death to help others gain their liberty. Powell had come to upstate New York from Mississippi as a nursemaid in the family of John Davenport, who had booked them into the best hotel in Syracuse. Powell was terrified that she might be sold when they returned to Mississippi. Somehow she communicated her anxieties to a black waiter who, with the help of antislavery allies, arranged for her escape. On October 7, while her master and mistress were attending a party, she left their child asleep in its room and slipped out of the hotel into a carriage, where two respectable white citizens were waiting with her disguise—a man’s cloak and hat. They delivered her to a farmer in a neighboring town, changing carriages along the way to avoid detection. Eventually she reached Smith’s house in Peterboro.
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Outraged to discover his slave missing, Davenport offered a $200 reward for information leading to her recovery. He described her as a young woman “of a full and well proportioned form” and “so fair that she would generally be taken for white,” adding that a discerning person would recognize certain African traits, such as “a prominent mouth with depressed nostrils, and receding forehead.” She had worn a black print dress, small rings in her ears, and three gold rings on her fingers. She had left her bonnet behind.
The local abolitionist newspaper, The Friend of Man, hooted at the spectacle of a supposed gentleman advertising as property a woman who might have passed for white. “Some of the anti-abolition gentry at Syracuse, begin to think it rather too bad to enslave handsome white ladies, with gold rings on their fingers,” the editor wrote. In December, the paper reprinted a piece from the Toronto Free Press dated Jubilee 12, 1839” which parodied Davenport’s advertisement. “Found on the Canadian shore, a young woman who says her name is Harriet Powell,” it began, adding, “When found, her head dress consisted of a Freedom Bonnet, and a Liberty Cap.”
All the abolitionist accounts of Harriet’s rescue emphasized her physical attractiveness and her fear of being sold. One paper said that in Mississippi “a man of bad character” had tried to purchase her. A Toronto writer was more explicit: “From her admissions and style of dress, I suppose she came from the seraglio of some ‘Patriarch.’” There was some foundation for such stereotypes. In slave markets, color defined a person’s capacity for work. Dark-skinned slaves, female as well as male, were deemed healthier, stronger, and more likely to perform well in the fields. Light-skinned women, often described as “delicate,” supposedly made better seamstresses, house servants—or concubines. In the New Orleans market especially, there was no ambiguity about the “fancy trade.” Men openly bid for light-skinned women, often paying three times the median price for young women who fulfilled their fantasies. Flirting with propriety, they listed their purchases as seamstresses or cooks, then unabashedly flaunted them as mistresses. Not they, but those who questioned their behavior, were guilty of indiscretion.
But there was also a literary quality to the stories abolitionists told. Rescued from slavery, Powell became the captive instead of a centuries-old story that originated in lurid “tales from the harem.” To be worthy of rescue, escaped slaves needed to be well-behaved. That is why all the stories about her emphasized her refinement. Although she was ignorant of religion (an indictment of her master), her manners were graceful, her voice soft. Even better, she was duly grateful for the help she received: “the trickling tear told that her heart felt far more than her tongue could utter.”
In April, The Friend of Man printed a letter that Powell purportedly dictated to the Canadian woman in whose home she was then living.
Dear Sir—I am sure you will be happy to learn that I am
well and quite contented in my present situation. I am still in
Kingston, and living with Mr. and Mrs. Hale, where I have an
opportunity of attending the Methodist Chapel every
Sunday. I am very much obliged to all my kind friends who
assisted me in gaining my liberty; and I think, not all the
money in the United States could induce me to return to
slavery. I am most anxious to hear something of my dear
mother and sister; Mrs. Hale wrote to Mr. Gerrit Smith for
me, some time ago, but we have not received any answer. I
should be most thankful to receive any intelligence. Please
give my love to all my friends, and accept the same yourself from,
There is no reason to doubt Harriet’s concern for her mother and sister. Davenport, like other slave owners, counted on family bonds to keep slaves, especially female slaves, from fleeing.
How Harriet felt about life in Ontario we do not know, though The Friend of Man soon reported that she had married Mr. Henry Kelly, “a respectable colored man, in good pecuniary circumstances.”Canadian records show that in the next fifteen years, she gave birth to eight children, three of whom died in infancy. Little else is known about her life except that she died in Kingston, Ontario, in 1861. Crossing the border into liberty, she moved out of history.
Excerpted from Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Copyright ©2007 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard and the author of A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785–1812 for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in History.