Frederick Douglas and Human Rights Violations against Women
“When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly a woman’s cause” (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass pg no reg).
This famous quote by Frederick Douglass is a strong testimony to the plight of women who were held in slavery from 1776 through to 1865. The atrocities committed against enslaved women were horrendous. Forced into manual labour, raped and forced to bear children to white slave owners to further their stock of slaves, the history of slavery is indeed very much a women’s human rights concern. The Declaration of Human Rights article one states “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” while article three states “[e[veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (United Nations). Even though the actual Declaration of Human Rights did not arrive until 1948, the world did not need this during slavery to fully understand that gross human rights violations were committed against female slaves.
Frederick Douglas was a slave, fugitive slave, editor, public speaker, author, abolitionist and Civil Servant. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1817/18 into slavery in America’s South. He was mixed race; his mother was an enslaved black women, father white, and rumoured to be one of his masters. After a failed attempt in 1837, he escaped in 1838 to the North, New York. During his time as a slave he witnessed first-hand the dreadful abuse of women. After his escape, he would write three autobiographies detailing his life. The first, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845 gives a harrowing account of his time in slavery. He then published My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, then Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881 and again in 1892. While the first focused on his life as a slave, his identity as a former slave and the family he created with his first wife Anna Murray when he gained freedom, the latter two autobiographies give a more open, articulate and in depth account. This includes his life experiences and the things he witnessed in slavery. Maybe he was unable to go into more graphic detail in the first, as a fugitive slave he and his family were still in danger. Also, The Narrative had to appeal to a wide audience; as an autobiography of the time, Douglass had to be very clever in his writing. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass he recounts more about his life as a civil servant while married to Helen Pitts, his second white wife.
Chapter one of my thesis will discuss this part of his life and the human rights violations against women that he describes in his autobiographies. It will also detail just what is meant by human rights and how it relates to my thesis.
Chapter two will discuss how, after his escape from slavery, he would become a campaigner, public speaker, abolitionist and author who strongly supported women’s rights. The organizations he joined, the talks he gave, his further writings and his work as a civil servant will be debated in relation to his perspective on women’s rights. Human rights that were campaigned for will be debated. Only with, the correct laws could change come. Slavery had pushed human beings into dreadful situations, where they had to do what they could to survive. Locke pointed out that laws are required for the cohesion of society, but he also maintained that when a person is in extreme necessity, they may take the property of others to sustain life (Swanson). I will demonstrate that both female slaves, and free women campaigning for women’s rights, had to do what was necessary to maintain their own lives. Female slaves were forced into fighting for their own survival and to do things they would not otherwise have done. It was only with such laws as the abolition act that gave any protection to slaves. As Bentham argued “a substantive right, is the child of law; from real laws come real rights” (69).
Chapter three will give an account of the women in his life. This will include his two wives, Anna Murray Douglass, married for 44 years, and his second wife, his former secretary, Helen Pitts, who was an educated white woman. The influence of his grandmother and the lack of a relationship with his mother will be highlighted. I will also detail his relationships with other women including Ruth Cox, Julia Grittiths and Ottilie Assing along with his encounters with Harriot Tubman and Martha Coffin Wright. All of these women played important, albeit very different, roles in his life. They were all vital in his attitudes and perspective towards women. This chapter is relevant in order to appreciate how he viewed different women personally and how they both influenced and conribuated to his role as abolitionist. It will also enable the reader to understand his wider beliefs about women’s human rights.
Chapter four will deal with accounts written by former black female slaves including Sojourner Truth and Harriot Jacobs. This feminist perspective is important to compare and contrast with Frederick Douglass’s own accounts. Both Sojourner Truth and Harriot Jacobs were former slaves; their accounts are harrowing, and a very different perspective on their own trauma.
Statement of Problem
Although he favoured equal rights for all, including women, in his three autobiographies he actually paid little attention to gender per se (Smith xiv). I would question why he was not more vocal about this. Although much literature exists about Frederick Douglass, there appears to be little about the link between his own accounts and how he actually viewed human rights violations against women. There is also some thought among black women that some of his writing is voyeuristic in nature. This needs to be further explored. The discrepancies in his own accounts of the abuse he witnessed against women, and the account of former female slaves also varies greatly. This is an avenue worth exploring further. The perspective of female former slaves is very much a personal, and terrifying, concept. There are situations only relevant to women, not least rape and forced childbirth of children; perhaps no male writer could capture this horror as a female author could.
Methodology This research thesis will be conducted using qualitative research methods. This will include the analysis of Frederick Douglass’s own three biographies; The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. I will also utilize Frederick Douglas. Prophet of Freedom by David Blight. Further academic literary sources relating to Frederick Douglass will be included; these will be discussed in my literature review. I will also debate the autobiographies of Sojourner Truth and Harriot Jacobs.
Bentham, Jeremy. “Anarchical Fallacies; being an examination of the Declaration of Rights issues during the French Revolution”. In Jeremy Waldron (Ed) Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man. Methuen, 1987, p.69).
Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Edited and Introduced by John David Smith. Penguin Books.2003.
Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Feedbooks. 1845.
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Start Publishing. 1881.
Swanson, Scott. “The Medieval Foundations of John Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights: Rights of Subsistence and the Principle of Extreme Necessity”. History of Political Thought. Pg 399-459.
United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Accessed 31 March 2023