Oppression and Gender Roles in Pre-War African American Society

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African American history leading up to the Civil War, and beyond, is most commonly identified by its reaction to oppression from the nation’s white majority. This relationship caused gender roles in African American society to be formed in a similarly reactionary way; the way African American men and women acted in every part of society was a direct response to the way they were treated in society. Therefore, white oppression of both enslaved and free African Americans formed the gender roles in African American society because racism set free African American women apart from the women’s rights movement, gender identities in enslaved societies were intentionally confused by the masters for both African American men and women, and white perceptions of African American men and women became intentionally offensive in order to justify further oppression..

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During the pre-war period, many abolitionist groups were beginning with the purpose of opposing slavery; many were formed by white women, but African American women were excluded from those groups. The most popular example of female abolitionists during this time tends to be the famed Grimke sisters, seen as pioneers of abolition and often credited as the first American women to lecture in public; though this is not true, as Maria Stewart, a free African American woman who wrote for the Liberator, lectured before them, in fact, according to Jone John Lewis, we know of no other American-born [female] public lecturer before Maria Stewart. Maria Stewart’s existence and persistence as a lecturer proves that African American women were a part of the liberation movement, and the credit given to white women indicates that African American women aren’t commonly acknowledged as having a role in abolition. This assertion is also supported by the works of Sojourner Truth, such as in her speech Ain’t I a Woman? which pointed out the disparity between white and African American women in terms of treatment and acceptance, and proclaimed If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! Such biblical arguments were common for the time, and became the basis for moral arguments against racism. This position in society in which African American women found themselves was very different from their position in the family unit; in free African American society, men and women were equal in the household, meaning marriage was much more of a partnership than in white society.

This relationship stemmed from both African American men and women facing injustice and oppression, and with both the husband and the wife needing to work to provide for their family it made sense for such a partnership to exist, which contrasted with many white families where women either couldn’t or didn’t need to work.

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