Thursday, June 4, 2015

Some Days I Have No Idea What He's Talking About

At the 1858 National Woman's Rights Convention in New York City, Douglass made this uncharacteristically short speech:
Loud calls were made for “Douglass,” when Fred. Douglass took the stand, and delivered a speech in behalf of woman’s rights. Having experienced slavery in his own person, it was impossible that he could be indifferent to any call for freedom. He based the rights of woman to freedom and to equality with man upon the same grounds on which he advocated the right of the slave to freedom and equality with the white race. The only difficulty that, in his opinion, existed anywhere in relation to this question was on that arose less out of the idea of rights than out of the idea of duties, or the idea of the possibilities of woman. What could woman do? Had been asked and answered generally, but he was inclined to think that woman herself was uneducated in a fuller notion of what she could do. He believed a woman could do anything a man could do, and by so doing could assimilate herself to man. If she handled the grubbing hoe instead of the needle her hands would become large and horny just as men’s hands do. There was no inherent principle of beauty in woman more than in man, for if they were to change places man would assume all that delicate texture of skin and beauty which woman has in her present position. He advocated the carrying out of the woman’s rights idea among the poorer classes, and instanced the fact of a man now building a house who was assisted by his wife in laying the bricks, splitting the wood, &c., and in such cases he saw the same hard features, hands, &c., both in man and woman.  On the plantation a woman was expected to hoe as many rows in a day as a man, and in consequence acquired physical strength and health; therefore a woman need not be afraid to go out West, for nature would furnish her with gloves of steel as well as the man. Let women go out there and do as in England, where the finest women, in his estimation, were working in the field.
The New York Times printed this variation:
Mr. Fred Douglass said he had never had the slightest difficulty with this question of woman's rights. On all the principles upon which he asserted the right of Slavery to freedom, he found that woman's rights could be based and would be based. The only difficulty in his opinion, existed anywhere in relation to this question was one that arose less out of the idea of rights than out of the idea of duties, or the idea of the possibilities of woman. What could woman do? had been asked and answered generally, but he was inclined to think that woman herself was uneducated in a fuller notion of what she could do. He believed that she could do anything that man could do, and by doing everything that man can do she would assimilate herself to man. if women could do as  men did they would look just about like what men did, and be able to do what men did. 
I suspect that he did not plan to make this speech or to speak at all at this convention. He had not appeared at a woman's rights convention since 1853, just before he and William Lloyd Garrison had a spectacular falling out (a longer story for another time -- or, as I call it, Chapters 4 and 5). Most of the women and men who attended the national and state conventions fell in line with Garrison, including Garrison himself. So, women's rights conventions were not something Douglass went out of his way to attend.

This one, however, took place for the first time during "Anniversary Week" in New York City, when and where Douglass was participating in two other meetings. My theory is that, as long as he was in town, he would slip into this one. Someone spotted him, hence "loud calls were made for Douglass," so he was obliged to say something.

But what on earth is he trying to say? This appears to be the outline of his speech:
1) I'm for women's rights.
2) The basis for women's rights and the emancipation of slaves is the same.
3) What can women do? That is the question.
4) Women can do anything a man can do, like physical labor, they just don't know it, yet.
5) In doing so, women assimilate to men. (Like the Borg? Is resistance futile?)

He seems to be intentionally uncontroversial here, but then he seldom said controversial things at women's rights conventions, as far as I can tell. At the American Equal Rights Association in the late 1860s, yes, but not at these antebellum conventions or at later woman suffrage conventions. His emphasis on physical labor is unusual, since he tended to focus on intellectual work. I'd like to think that this, as well as his mention of enslaved women, was his way of needling the largely white and middle class women's rights activists, who struggled to incorporate those groups into their national conventions.

I'd partly like to chalk this up to his being unprepared to speak, but he had always spoken extemporaneously.  Indeed, in later years, some of his old fans complained that they preferred his improvised speeches over his prepared ones. Of course, they may have been speaking more from nostalgia than from evidence. By 1858, he was making more prepared speeches, such as his "What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July?" So, he could have been rusty. Another possibility is that the transcription was rubbish.

The assimilation piece (joking aside) appears to be the key to fitting this speech in with his larger philosophy, once I figure it all out. Then, again, I'm not sure if he ever figured it all out. That actually makes me feel like he and I are puzzling through his ideas about women together. If only I could just turn to him and ask "really: what the heck do you mean here?"  Alas! A Ouija board is not a scholarly source, and he would never stop laughing disdainfully at the idea.

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