Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement

Article excerpt

Carol Faulkner, Women's Radical Reconstruction: The Freedmen's Aid Movement. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Carol Faulkner has placed women in the center of Reconstruction in this well-crafted book. She demonstrates the origins of women's political culture in debates over freedmen's relief and suggests how militant white and black female reformers clashed with male advocates of free labor ideology. Abolitionist feminists, suggests Faulkner, placed the immediate needs of destitute freedpeople over the Republican Party's ideological concerns. Working closely with recently freed slaves, white and black women were continually frustrated by the lack of support for relief, land reform, and reparations that they viewed as just. This militant stance was stymied by a male political culture that debased female reform and sought to prevent black "dependence" on the federal government Women's vision of freedom, it seems, differed from men's and we are indebted to Faulkner for illuminating this dynamic.

By examining the activism of middle-class African-American reformers, Faulkner also demonstrates the crucial role black women played in Reconstruction. In many ways these activist women had more in common with their white counterparts than the freedwomen whose suffering they sought to alleviate. During the Civil War, for example, abolitionist and former slave Harriet Jacobs worked closely with Julia Wilbur, a white reformer from Rochester, to urge the government to materially aid slave refugees. Their efforts met considerable resistance from the military who feared the dependency of freedpeople. Even abolitionist men, who had long supported women's rights, sought to marginalize female reformers such as Jacobs and Wilbur. Faulkner suggests these Republican men saw an opportunity to gain a new respectability and did so by asserting "manhood rights" and denigrating feminine styles of reform.

To foster independence among freedpeople freedmen's aid societies advocated education among former slaves. Although this was a departure from the direct relief and land reform many female reformers viewed as crucial to the survival of freedpeople, they also viewed education as an opportunity to support themselves and become central players in Reconstruction. Faulkner thoroughly dispels the myth of the "Yankee schoolmarm" by describing the work northern teachers, black and white, carried out in the South. Indeed it was women who kept the freedmen's schools going as white northern support waned after 1870 and southern legislatures failed to support public education for African Americans. Faulkner's focus on the work of African-American women in education during this early period is particularly welcome as it helps explain the roots of the powerful black women's club movement of the late nineteenth century. Teachers such as Charlotte Forten, from a prominent free black family in Philadelphia, served as mediators between freedpeople and northern reformers. Yet they also experienced the cultural and educational gap between themselves and their students. These were "race women" who sought to both uplift the race and establish their own middle-class identities.

Although Faulkner downplays the conflict between white and black abolitionist-feminists over the fifteenth amendment, which gave freedmen the vote, it is clear that Reconstruction politics created a separate African-American political movement. …