In the midst of the Great Depression, an Associated Press article appeared on one of the back pages of the Washington Star entitled, "Bizarre Lincoln Story is Traced, `Sob Sister' Revealed as Writer of Tragic Tale of Widow." According to the story, David Rankin Barbee, identified as "a close student" of the Civil War period, was making the claim that a book published in 1868 entitled Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by "Elizabeth Keckley, Formerly a Slave, But More Recently Modiste, and Friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln" was, in fact, written by Jane Grey Swisshelm, a well-known white, nineteenth-century abolitionist newspaper editor and woman's rights advocate from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth Keckley, Barbee proclaimed, was a figment of Swisshelm's imagination. (1)
Barbee offered two explanations for his allegations concerning Behind the Scenes. First, he claimed that a Washington newspaper correspondent named George Alfred Townsend had referred to Swisshelm as "the author of the Mme. Keckley book." This reference, combined with Jane's writing style, her commitment to antislavery, her experience as a dressmaker, her presence in Washington during the Civil War, and her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, convinced Barbee that Swisshelm was the author of the Keckley book. (2)
Barbee's speculations about the authorship of Keckley's book were reminiscent of charges made by whites a century before when Northern critics questioned the authenticity of pre-Civil War slave narratives. In both cases, questions about the integrity of black women's literary voices followed a period of impressive black literary production. In the 1850s, slave narratives, such as the one Harriet Jacobs wrote, received a cool reception from whites because they considered blacks to be limited in intellectual ability, they knew that most slaves were illiterate, and they suspected that abolitionists, who often sponsored the writing of slave narratives, collaborated in the writing and editing process. Barbee's 1935 charges followed the same pattern, coming as they did on the heels of another wave of black literary production. Referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, this period saw the emergence of such authors as Zora Neale Hurston, whose contributions to the black literary heritage confirmed the eloquence of black female voices and the richness of black women's cultural experiences. Barbee's allegations illustrate the degree to which racist assumptions continued to serve as a lens through which black women's literary efforts were likely to be viewed by whites. (3)
Barbee's allegations of fraud in connection with Behind the Scenes brought two immediate responses from the members of the black community in Washington, D.C. In a letter to the editor of the Washington Star, John E. Washington, a longtime resident of the capitol city, testified that many in Washington had known Keckley and considered her to have been "a very intelligent and cultured woman." (4) A second response from Dr. Francis J. Grimke appeared in the Journal of Negro History in January 1936. Grimke was pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., from 1878 to 1885 and again from 1889 to 1928. (5) He wrote that he had known Keckley for over thirty years, visited her during her last illness, and conducted her funeral service after her death on 26 May 1907. (6) Whatever Barbee might have thought and whatever his motives might have been, Elizabeth Keckley was not a fictional character of Jane Grey Swisshelm's invention.
The controversy that Barbee attempted to provoke over sixty years ago provides an opportunity to explore a number of issues related to race and gender in American women's history. The first concerns the ways in which the ideologies of race, gender, and class and their practical applications informed the way Elizabeth Keckley, a freed, mulatto slave from Virginia, and Jane Grey Swisshelm, a white, feminist-abolitionist from Pennsylvania, understood, contextualized, and described their lives. The second concerns the degree to which the social and economic conditions of such women as Keckley and Swisshelm rendered their race and gender consciousness interdependent. The final point concerns the significance of these issues for feminists engaged in writing and teaching women's history in the United States.
Within the past thirty years, feminist historians have searched for evidence that has allowed them to document women's participation in all aspects of American life. They have placed women's activities in their cultural context and have interpreted the significance of those activities. But as feminist scholar Denise Riley has pointed out, disagreements over the meaning of "woman" as a category of inquiry and over the relationship of that category to such categories of analysis as race, class, or ethnicity have complicated their efforts. (7) The problem of defining women stems from the fact that, in their early attempts to place the female experience in the historical record, women's historians tended to view women as a homogenous mass and approached their sources from a perspective that was typically white, heterosexual, and middle class.
Women of color were particularly articulate in pointing out the bias inherent in this approach and called on their colleagues to pay more attention to the diversity of women's lives. (8) As feminist historians responded by looking for difference rather than similarity, it became virtually impossible to talk about women collectively. Women's history fragmented along class, race, and ethnic lines and was further complicated by such matters as considerations of sexual preference and geographic location. As historian Joan Wallach Scott put it, just as "feminist historians ... made the identity of `woman' coherent and singular ... they ... provided empirical evidence for irreducible differences among women." (9)
I do not mean here to denigrate or disparage emphases on difference and efforts to distinguish among various kinds of women, their conditions, their experiences, or their perspectives on those experiences. Such considerations have immeasurably enriched our understanding of the past, the notion of what it means to be a woman, and the complexity of women's role in American history. But I argue that focusing on diversity and difference has tended to obscure the ways in which women's lives are linked to each other and the way that understandings of their lives are interdependent. I further suggest that when women's historians focus primarily on how difference separates women, they inadvertently fail to acknowledge the agency of women to exploit in similar ways the differences among themselves and others. They turn a blind eye to the ways in which women use difference to contextualize the way they understand their own experiences, to anticipate the ways that those experiences might be understood by others, and to create their own public personas to suit their own purposes. (10)
The influence of race and race consciousness on the lives of white and black women in the United States is a case in point. In a culture where such things matter, the color of one's skin and the racial ideology that results from it have profound consequences. It is one of the things that made the life experiences of Elizabeth Keckley and Jane Grey Swisshelm fundamentally different. The reality of race and consciousness of that reality influenced how they viewed themselves as women, their position in American society, and how their gendered identities were viewed by others. It also established the context in which they sought freedom in the form of personal autonomy and economic independence.
It is true that the experience of slavery and racial difference separated them. But it is also true that consciousness of this difference provided both of them with a framework for contextualizing their lives for themselves and for their audiences. It was on a terrain informed by race consciousness that their two lives converged. Beyond whatever might have been the similar circumstances of their lives at one point or another, consciousness of race is what made them most alike because neither could define themselves or describe their experiences without an awareness and appreciation of its influence over them. In the narratives they wrote about their respective lives, Elizabeth Keckley and Jane Grey Swisshelm exploited their audiences' understanding of and concern about race as the context for creating their autobiographical selves and as a way of soliciting their readers' validation of those creations. (11) Using evidence from the personal narratives of these two women to explore the ways in which race can both connect and separate women, I argue that the ideology of race gave both Keckley and Swisshelm a useful way of thinking about themselves as women, describing their struggle for personal autonomy and economic independence, and creating their autobiographical identities.
The context in which they did so was similar. During the 1860s and 1870s, ideas about race, gender, and freedom were widely debated in the nation as a whole. These debates had particular resonance in the black community. When Keckley wrote her autobiography, the status and roles of newly freed black women were in a state of flux. As a result, black women were in an exceptionally strong position to define what it meant to be black, female, and free.
Swisshelm found herself in a similar position. She spent most of her adult life testing the limits of white gender conventions and challenging the racist attitudes of her white contemporaries. When she wrote her memoir in the late 1870s, the issue of race had not been resolved, but the gender boundaries that she had so flagrantly transgressed earlier in the century were proving more flexible than might have been expected. In the 1880s, large numbers of white women self-consciously expanded the definitions of what it meant to be white and female, a process that would take on new immediacy in the 1890s with the rise of the so-called New Woman.
Swisshelm and Keckley both used race as a discursive tool that fed into the race consciousness of their readers as the context within which they could effectively present their struggles and accomplishments. (12) For them, the possession of a particular skin color and the race consciousness that resulted from it made a difference, but it was a difference that both exploited in order to create their autobiographical selves.
Despite the fact that one was born white and free and the other was born mulatto and enslaved, the life experiences of these two women were remarkably similar. Each was born shortly after the War of 1812. Both spent some of their childhoods without the presence of their fathers. Both began to work at an early age, married men who misrepresented themselves, and bore a single child. Because their marriages were unhappy, both deserted their husbands and spent the rest of their …