© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
CREATING CITIZENSHIP THROUGH MOTHERHOOD, MINSTRELSY, AND PASSING IN HARRIET BEECHER STOWE’S UNCLE TOM’S CABIN
I explore Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal work and how through it she creates space for women in the American citizenry. 1850 finds Harriet Beecher Stowe in a new home, in a new state, and with a newborn child. Yet at this height of her maternal and domestic responsibilities, she undertakes the roles of feminist and abolitionist when she responds to the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published serially beginning in 1850 and as a novel in 1852, Stowe crosses into the decidedly male venue of writing to engage in political discourse. And in so doing, Stowe births herself as a new type of female citizen, creates and solidifies a space for women in the American literary canon, and fosters renewed interest and vigor in the abolitionist movement. By writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe’s motherhood moves from the domestic into the public sphere. In 1850 Stowe gives birth to her seventh child, but she also gives birth to new ways of understanding and using American literature. I argue that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe uses racial passing and blackface minstrelsy as feminist means for the slave mother Eliza to attain the boons of American citizenship.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe interweaves the life stories of a number of slaves of various complexions, but all legally black, and in so doing demonstrates how race influences perception and how race can be used to one’s best advantage. In her novel, a strident abolitionist call, she depicts nearly all of her black characters as slaves who are racial passers (or potential racial passers) or minstrels. Stowe’s character Eliza, a slave mother whose white skin belies her servitude, becomes both racial passer and minstrel in her efforts to procure freedom and the privileges of citizenship for herself and her son. Stowe undertakes the idea of black women and their citizenship in her novel. And she does this though the aegis of motherhood. Even though Stowe never knew her mother, she creates a world in which a mother knows and saves her child.
Stowe’s Search for Mother
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s mother died when Stowe was almost four years old. Although Stowe had few memories of her mother, her mother’s legend colored her upbringing. Described as saintly by many, Roxana Beecher stood as the ideal Nineteenth Century woman and mother. Roxana Beecher submitted to male authority and cared for her household, all with patience, dignity, and grace. Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up underneath the specter of her mother. Although she had a grandmother, an aunt, her older sister Catherine, and stepmothers who cared for her, none could replace her mother. Roxana Beecher left an “indelible impression” upon Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life (Fields 15), and her “‘memory and example had more influence’” in molding the Beecher family “‘than the living presence’” of Stowe’s several stepmothers (Fields 12). It seems that Stowe spent a large part of her life (perhaps unconsciously) trying to live up to her mother’s standards and to get out of her shadow. Yet, she simultaneously longed for a nurturing mother-daughter relationship.
Losing her mother, however, did expose Stowe to several styles of femininity.
Characterized as yielding to Lyman Beecher on all matters, Roxana Beecher surely would have taught her daughter the same principles, although Stowe, much to her father’s consternation, could never submit completely to him (Rourke 69). Motherless, Stowe relied on other women to teach her how to be an American woman. In other words, Stowe spent her early upbringing looking for and sitting at the feet of surrogate mothers. By having several mother figures, Stowe received a glimpse at various, and sometimes contrary, models of womanhood. Not belittling the tragedy of losing her mother, Stowe’s encounters with various types of mothers rounded out her personality more than just living with Roxana Beecher would have. These mothers helped stretch Stowe past the expected traditional roles of American womanhood and closer to a feminist ideal of womanhood. They helped push Stowe toward freedom from the oppression of traditional American ideals. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe was a relatively unknown persona in the company of the well-known Beecher clan, these stirrings of independence helped her adhere to and promote (however tacitly) a new feminist model of American womanhood.
Stowe never called herself a feminist, preferring to eschew any feminist label (Rourke 107). Harriet Beecher Stowe, however, lived a feminist lifestyle. Neither her personal nor public politics entirely adhered to popular feminism, but her life depicted not only feminism, but also the balance between domesticity and public involvement that many feminists of her era sought to achieve.
In the 1840s Lucretia Mott urged women “to exercise their highest powers of mind in order to lead useful lives and exert a beneficent influence on their families and society” (Hersh 45). This statement seems in accordance with traditional views of Nineteenth Century womanhood, but it departs from the norm in significant ways, which makes it an early definition of feminism. Mott urges women to use the highest powers of their minds, which likely ensues from education in things other than the domestic arts. She also calls on women to exert influence not just in the home, but also in the public realm. This could be considered a call to push female education past that which is necessary for domesticity and domestic reform into something more political in nature. Stowe, a well-educated woman, uses her mind and literary ability to impact the nation’s politics and social structures. That of itself defines Stowe as a feminist.
Regarding marital equality, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s marriage to Calvin Stowe demonstrated divisions of labor uncharacteristic of the times. And Calvin Stowe encouraged his wife to pursue personal and career goals. He did more than encourage his wife; Calvin Stowe once took on domestic duty while Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled. Stowe wrote to her friend Georgiana May that her husband had developed “wonderfully” as a “house-father and nurse” (Wilson 221). The feminist concept of marriage that emphasizes “equality and sharing rather than submissiveness” characterizes the relationship between Calvin and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Hersh 50).
Harriet Beecher Stowe even maintained her name. After the birth of her daughter Georgiana May (named for her dear friend) in 1843, Stowe began signing her name “‘fully and euphoniously, Harriet Beecher Stowe’” (Johnston 166). Part of feminist ideology is the “emphasis given to the need for a married woman to retain her own name” and thus her own identity (Hersh 199). Like many feminists, Harriet Beecher Stowe not only maintained her maiden name but also used it professionally as a writer. Stowe’s writing provided financial solvency for the Stowe family, who could never make ends meet on Calvin Stowe’s meager salary. Feminists insisted on equality with men regarding financial empowerment. Stowe used her writing to gain this equality. Whenever the family needed money, Stowe would say, “‘I’ll write a piece, and then we’ll be out of the scrape’” (Rourke 84). In addition to serving as the breadwinner of the Stowe family, Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s writing introduced her into the public realm and further secured her place in the history of feminism.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell espoused a feminist life plan:
each young woman should educate herself for a profession, marry late (between twenty-five and thirty), and choose a husband carefully; twenty years would be spent dividing her time between her domestic life and her work, leaving twenty more in which she could devote her mature powers to her ‘noble life purpose. (Hersh 214)
Harriet Beecher Stowe, whether or not intentionally, structured her life and writing career on this model. She wed Calvin Stowe in 1836 at the age of 25. She tended to her family and wrote to supplement household finances from 1836 to 1850. Then from 1850, when she began to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, until her death in 1896, Stowe spent her time writing and traveling, leaving her husband with the household duties, while she promoted the abolitionist cause and the plight of women. Stowe’s life followed a feminist life plan, which enabled her to write and impact society.