Book Reviews

FOUGHT: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (2017)

Posted 9/20/2017 Reviewed By Jonathan Lande

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought. Oxford University Press, 2017. Cloth, ISBN: 9780199782376. $29.95.
 

In 1838, Anna Murray helped her future-husband escape slavery. Although circumscribed by gender and racism as a black woman, Murray lived as a free person in Baltimore, Maryland, and could have travelled north on her own. However, she met Frederick Bailey, decided to join her life with his, and took a risk assisting him to freedom. After Murray and Bailey reached New York City, they married and soon became Anna and Frederick Douglass. Together, the Douglasses raised a family and fought injustice. The enslaved man who would become the legendary orator and most-effective abolitionist was profoundly attached to Anna. As Leigh Fought demonstrates in Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, women, including Anna, continually influenced and supported Frederick Douglass in crucial ways that have gone overlooked.

Instead of squarely reassessing Douglass’s works, politics, or ideology, Fought’s Women in the World of Frederick Douglass surveys the women who surrounded Douglass. Fought’s work contributes to the excavation of Douglass’s career while also offering an important contribution to the social and political history of abolitionism. Locating Douglass among the women who helped sustain his spirit and influenced his ideas, Fought contends that the women in Douglass’s life shaped him, and Fought uncovers the many ways they did.

Fought argues that these women remain largely obscured because the dominant belief during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries held that women’s work should remain invisible. As social historians began to look at Douglass’s personal life and historians in the mid-twentieth century began writing the history of women, women joined Douglass’s story. However, coupled with limited sources, historians’ longstanding undervaluation of women barred women from their rightful place in history. As Catherine Clinton affirms in The Stepdaughters of History (2017), women have been and continue to be underappreciated in Civil War scholarship. Likewise, Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom (2004) and Sylviane Diouf’s Slavery’s Exiles (2014) expose enslaved women’s distinct political participation in delivering enslaved peoples from bondage. Renewing attention to women and reexamining their political agency, as historians have done with increasing erudition, Fought supplies a close look at how black and white women shaped Douglass. She demonstrates that Douglass’s political skills cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the women.

Fought chronicles Douglass’s life and women key to his social relationships, his ideas, and his politics. However, Fought does not construct a biography of Douglass that includes women. Rather, she reveals how women affected and worked with Douglass throughout his life. Fought contributes to the history of Douglass while simultaneously providing a useful example of how social history serves as a means of exposing the connections between politics and the quotidian experience.

Fought illustrates how women informed Douglass’s politics and how Douglass, along with his female collaborators, engaged in political activism to combat slavery and anti-black racism. For example, identifying the political role Anna served as a private black women in an era when black women were especially vulnerable to violation, Fought renders a vivid picture of the Douglasses’ collaborative activism. The Douglasses combatted anti-black racism, which denied black couples could forge working families, and asserted a freedom stolen from enslaved men and women by establishing privacy. Fought further argues that while Douglass and white colleagues, including Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing, labored to overthrow slavery, they also confronted prejudice; interacting together in public, they defied the racial belief that black men posed a physical and sexual danger to white women. They exhibited black men and white women engaging in plutonic relationships. Detailing the political implications of Douglass’s exchanges with women, Fought’s history is an engaging example of the overlapping relationship of social history and political history.

By focusing on the women in Douglass’s world, Fought contributes to the project of understanding Douglass and provides a history of women’s political acumen. Her work is essential reading for those seeking to better know Douglass. Fought enriches our knowledge of Douglass’s political genius, detailing how Douglass’s relationships with women framed his ideology and resistance to oppressions. Fought reveals that Douglass never worked alone. Anna and women Douglass met throughout his life fought and lived alongside him.

 

Jonathan Lande is a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, where he is completing his dissertation on wartime emancipation and African American desertion and mutiny. As the 2017 Brown-Tougaloo Teaching Fellow, he also teaches courses on African American leaders and soldering throughout the African Diaspora at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.

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