After Slavery: Educator Resources

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8. Clashing Ideas about Gender and Political Rights

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Given that gender—the term we use to denote the various ideas we hold about what it means to be a woman and a man—takes its shape within specific historical circumstances, it stands to reason that the northerners who went south during or immediately after the war were frequently surprised and sometimes dismayed by the kinds of gendered ideas held by the former slaves. In the following excerpt, Laura M. Townes, a native of Pennsylvania who spent thirty-eight years working among the freedpeople of lowcountry South Carolina, reports on a series of exchanges that took place shortly after the national congress extended the franchise to southern black men.

Clashing Ideas about Gender and Political Rights

[Port Royal, S.C.,] June 1, 1867
The people are just now in a state of great excitement over their right to vote, and are busy forming a Republican Party on the island. At their first meeting they had an informal time; at the second there was some business done. Our school was invited to sing at this one, and it seemed the main attraction. But two or three [Northern] white men - one of them Mr. [Gideon] Wells - got up and said women and children ought to stay home on such occasions. He afterwards sent us an apology, saying he had no idea of including us or our school, but only outsiders who were making some noise. Nevertheless, the idea took.

To-day in church Mr. [John] Hunn announced another meeting next Saturday. "The females must stay at home?" asked Demas [a black man] from the pulpit. "The females can come or not as they choose," said Mr. Hunn, "but the meeting is for men voters." Demas immediately announced that "the womens will stay at home and cut grass," that is, hoe the corn and cotton fields - clear them of grass! It is too funny to see how much more jealous the men are of one kind of liberty they have achieved than of the other. Political freedom they are rather shy of, and ignorant of; but domestic freedom - the right, just found, to have their own way in their families and rule their wives - that is an inestimable privilege! In slavery the woman was far more important, and in every way held higher than the man. It was the woman's house, the children were entirely hers, etc., etc. Several speakers have been here who have advised the people to get the women into their proper place - never to tell them anything of their concerns etc., etc.; and the notion of being bigger than woman generally, is just now inflating the conceit of the males to an amazing degree. When women get the vote, too, no people will be more indignant than these, I suppose.

Source: Rupert Sargent Holland, ed., The Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884, pp. 184-185.


Questions to Consider

  1. Who was the first person to ban women from the political meetings? What does this tell us about middle-class northerners' ideas about gender and the appropriate roles for women and men?

  2. Were those ideas about gender necessarily shared among all northerners who lived and labored at Port Royal? What does Laura Townes's response to the proposed ban tell us about the kind of civil and political role she admired and aspired to as a woman? Were her expectations in line with those expressed by Gideon Welles and John Hunn?

  3. How did the "advice" offered by northerners to former slaves affect the latter group's understanding of appropriate gender roles? Why do you think the freedmen listened? What historical events might have induced them to change their minds?

  4. What is it that the black women appeared to want and expect? What do we learn about their gendered understandings from this excerpt? How do you suppose they responded to the ban proposed by the men?

  5. People choose what to write, and for a person as busy as Laura Townes, writing was by necessity a selective process. That said, why might she have devoted an entire journal entry to the question about women's presence at political meetings when she could have written about countless other things, or not written at all?

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