February 21, 2010

Thoughts On John Brown And Women

"After my father had selected his place, he found out, like men usually do, whenever they attempt to do anything, that he would be obliged to have some woman to help him..."

Anne Brown, remembering the preparations for the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid.

Yes, the 150th anniversary of Harpers Ferry is behind us, but I am pleased to see that it has stirred up a growing interest in Old Osawatomie. (Anyone who expected Fire on the Mountain to lessen coverage of Brown's contributions to the struggle simply hasn't been paying attention here).

I recently went with John Kaye to a Brown exhibit at the New-York Historical Society featuring a feast of contemporary material, mainly documents, on Brown. Those in the environs or visiting NYC before March 25 are urged to check it out.

Two documents in particular got me thinking about Brown and women. John Brown is, in legend and appearance, so much the Old Testament patriarch that it is easy to think of him as your standard-issue, unenlightened, pre-women's-movement radical.

I was struck therefore by the document Brown prepared in 1858 at Frederick Douglass's Rochester home and later had printed, The Provisional Constitution And Ordinances For The People Of The United States. This document, which was to serve for the territories liberated from slavery by the planned uprising, starts its very first article, "Qualifications For Membership," with the words "All persons of mature age..." NOT, you will note, "All men...." And the same language is used to describe the qualifications for holding elected office.

This was 10 years before the Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote and a full 61 years before the US managed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

John Brown's advanced stand was clear at a policy level. Another facet appears in the quote cited at the beginning of the article. Brown's daughter Anne, 15 at the time and known as Annie, went with Oliver Brown's wife Martha, 16, in response to a request from John Brown to join the band at the Kennedy Farm in Maryland where the raid was being staged.

The women were not needed to cook and clean, as the cynical might think. The sentence in Anne's moving letter of reminiscence, written in 1887, reads in full:
After my father had selected his place, he found out, like men usually do, whenever they attempt to do anything, that he would be obliged to have some woman to help him, to stand between him and the curiosity of outsiders, a sort of "outside guard" to conceal his movements, and ward off suspicion.
Still, the start of Anne's statement shows that she was aware that her father shared the tendency of his male contemporaries (and our own) to give short shrift to the role and contributions of women. Just as his advanced thinking for the time should be recognized, so too should his shortcomings remind us that the work we have to do in the long struggle to end oppression and exploitation will go better if we keep trying to root out some of that old bullshit in our thinking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning me, but don't I get partial authorship credit, since you borrowed my pen to write down those quotes?

The exhibit is well worth checking out, I enjoyed it, as I did my entire NYC/CT visit last month.