Historian Roediger (American Studies and History/Kansas Univ.; How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon, 2008, etc.) examines the self-emancipation of slaves during the Civil War as the galvanizing force behind the movements for women’s suffrage and labor improvement.
The author works from the premise that while President Abraham Lincoln vacillated over the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves were already emancipating themselves in a massive display of biblical “Jubilee.” Fleeing to the woods, depriving the Southern plantations of their labor, and joining and aiding Union lines all created what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “general strike of the slaves.” Roediger shows how this massive self-emancipation from below set in motion “radiating impulses toward freedom,” promoting literacy for freedmen, a pursuit of family ties and a new sense of social motion. For black women, this meant a “control over time,” in the ability to choose their own work, while the idea of women’s suffrage could finally overcome its sense of sheer impossibility. Eventually, such leaders as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott formed important bonds with abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass. Moreover, women during the Civil War did much of the work caring for the sick and wounded, keeping the households running, raising children amid chaos and doing mostly unpaid civic duty: “Women’s suffrage consciously appealed to this heroism in arguing that voting rights were owed women.” The labor movement’s drive for an eight-hour-day gained momentum, and Irish nationalism helped open new space for ethnic solidarity. In a particularly fascinating chapter, Roediger looks at how the period of Reconstruction also offered an “emancipation from whiteness.” Wounded soldiers returning from war were perceived as “disabled,” just as blacks and women had once been regarded as “unfit” for freedom. By 1869, however, the revolutionary coalitions began to break apart, Reconstruction was betrayed, and terror swept the South.
Slenderly packed scholarship conveying provocative ideas.