Editors’ Choice: Sentiment and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

I’ve been working on an update to the small amount of work I did on the black woman suffrage database to present at Women’s History in the Digital World at the end of this month.

Working with twice as many files (now 904 items) as I had for the first project (more details on corpus), I realized that the embodied references I had noted as distinctive in the writings of black suffragists as opposed to the almost 100% white History of Woman Suffrage came in large part from the writings of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. I therefore decided to separate her writing out into fiction and non-fiction and compare them to the remaining files which I sorted into fiction and not-fiction. [54 items for Harper v 850 items in Black Woman Suffrage Database BWSD, by word count 280K v 2.1M)

In the original project I wondered if the embodied references were part of a genre convention, particularly of sentimental fiction so strongly associated with women’s writing in the 19th century. The function of sentimental fiction is to reduce the gap between subject and reader through empathy, bringing the reader to see where justice lies by foregrounding “moral purpose.”  A key marker of sentimental fiction is emphasis on suffering according to Frances Smith Foster, while Barbara Christian argues that it is “an excessive display of emotion.” 

Harper worked within the confines of a genre reliant on heavily gendered tropes to illustrate the ways black women should be included in, but are excluded from, ideals of true womanhood. In a sense, this sentimental discourse is the literary expression of what she so succinctly noted at the infamous 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association “the white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position.” [I’m working largely from C.C. O’Brien brilliant “The White Women All Go for Sex”:  Frances Harper on Suffrage, Citizenship, and the Reconstruction South.

As Hazel Carby notes Harper crafted a discourse that “address[ed] exclusion from the ideology of true womanhood” and “rescue[d] their bodies from a persistent association with illicit sexuality.”  That she did this by relying in part on embodied references drawn from sentimental conventions makes perfect sense.  I wondered how Harper compared to other women writers of her era, both black and white, beyond the limited corpus I had on the History of Women Suffrage which included very little fiction.  Were her embodied references similar to other sentimental women’s writing?  Did the sentimental seep into her nonfiction as well as her fiction?

Read the Full Post Here.

This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Schneider based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Elyse Graham, Anu Paul, Brian Croxall, Chris Loughnane, Myriam Mertens, Sheng-Lun Cheng, Nickoal Eichmann, Ayla Stein, Andrew Piper, and Crystal Chan