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Fall 2004/Winter 2005

Volume 34
Numbers 1-2

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The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition

Humanities

The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition, by Gerda Lerner (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

The recently revised and expanded edition of Gerda Lerner's landmark book, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition, offers as much to those for whom the book is an old friend as to those for whom it is a new discovery. Originally published in 1967, Lerner's history is a carefully researched and engagingly written narrative of the lives of Angelina and Sarah Grimké, the only Southern women to become antislavery activists in the North and staunch advocates for women's rights. The Grimké Sisters situates Sarah's and Angelina's activism in the contexts of their personal and family lives and in the cultural and political climates in which they lived and worked. As native Southerners, the sisters spoke about the horrors of slavery from first-hand experiences. As women, they challenged the male-dominated antislavery societies and advocated for women's rights to political participation. In a new introduction, Lerner re-evaluates her original assessment of the importance of the sisters' work. She writes that she now sees both women as not just social reformers and activists but as pioneering thinkers, Sarah in particular. Indeed, since the first publication of The Grimké Sisters, Lerner has come to see Sarah Grimké "not only as the first woman to write a coherent feminist argument in the United States, but as a major feminist thinker." Sarah's work foreshadows much of contemporary feminist theory: in her work and writings, she distinguished between sex and gender, incorporated differences of race and class, and identified men as the beneficiaries of the subordination of women. Although Angelina's remarkable work and writing is often the primary focus of The Grimké Sisters, Lerner expanded the volume to include two manuscripts of Sarah's writings, along with her comments on those texts, as a way to correct a shortcoming of the original edition. Lerner's revision of her groundbreaking history brings fresh attention to the remarkable and inspiring legacies of pioneering feminists--Angelina and Sarah Grimké as well as Lerner herself. $24.95 paper (University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-2288; www.uncpress.unc.edu).
Reviewed by Karen Rowan


Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women's Political Identity


Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women's Political Identity, Susan Zaeske (University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

Susan Zaeske's Signatures of Citizenship is but one example of Gerda Lerner's legacy: it was in Lerner's women's history course that Zaeske learned of the Grimké sisters and their use of petitions in the abolition movement. Thus, Zaeske's scholarship grows out of and extends Lerner's work. Whereas Lerner focuses on the Grimké sisters' lives and work, including their circulations of antislavery petitions, Zaeske takes a broader view, drawing on both archival research on the petitions women sent to Congress and careful rhetorical analyses of the petitions themselves and public and Congressional reactions to them. In order to place women's antislavery petitions in context, Zaeske begins by examining how individuals and groups outside the institutions of power have long exploited the "subversive potential" of the right to petition, from its origins in the Magna Carta in the Middle Ages to Jacksonian America. Zaeske then chronicles the women's petitioning movement, examining the processes women used to distribute petitions, the public reaction to women's political activities, and the changing rhetorical stances women took in the petitions themselves and in their defense of their right to petition. Throughout Signatures of Citizenship, Zaeske attends to two central themes. First, she documents the impact that women's petitions had on the national discourse about slavery. The flood of petitions to Congress, particularly from 1835 to 1839, for instance, helped to provoke a debate about slavery, a feat men's petitions had not been able to accomplish. Second, Zaeske charts the role that petitions played in developing a radically new vision of women's political rights and women's citizenship. In fully developing both of these themes, Zaeske thus offers a comprehensive study of the role petitioning played in both the antislavery movement and in the early U.S. women's movement. $19.95 paper (University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-2288; www.uncpress.unc.edu).
Reviewed by Karen Rowan


Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison


Law

Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison, by Paula C. Johnson (New York University Press, 2003)

In recent years, literature demonstrating the failures of the criminal justice system has proliferated. Inner Lives, by Syracuse law professor Paula C. Johnson, is the most recent installment. Using Black feminist methodology to analyze the experiences of incarcerated African American women, Johnson introduces the reader to "the most invisible members of American society." Part I substantially details the historical legal treatment of African American women before discussing modern trends, which include constitutionally questionable strip searches and the effects of mandatory drug sentences enacted in the 1980s. Part II provides twenty-three gripping narratives from current inmates, former inmates, criminal justice officials, and support network workers. Indeed, Johnson devotes the majority of Inner Lives to these women's narratives, drawing on life history methodology, which relies on oral narrative to understand participants' lives and viewpoints. Each narrative is accompanied by a photograph of the participant, included not as a mere afterthought but as a way to challenge visual stereotypes of African American women in prison. Although the recommendations Johnson makes in Part III do not offer radically new perspectives on or critiques of the criminal justice system, the data on which she grounds her analysis serve to reinforce calls for reform. Indeed, Johnson presents enough compelling documentation that even the most jaded reader should concede that African American women in the criminal justice system face disproportionate obstacles. Though discomforting at times, this book forces us to see those we would rather ignore. $19.00 paper (New York University Press, Washington Square, New York, NY 10003; www.nyupress.nyu.edu)
Reviewed by Jeanne Bayer Contardo


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