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In his extensive writings--editorials, speeches, autobiographies--Frederick Douglass revealed little about the private side of his life. His famous autobiographies were very much in the service of presenting and advocating for himself. But Douglass had a very complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, wives and lovers, mistresses-owners, and sisters and daughters. And this great man deeply needed them all at various turns in a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.
In this book, Leigh Fought aims to reveal more about the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave--his mother, whom he barely knew; his grandmother, who raised him; and his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read. She shows how his relationships with white women seemed to fill more of a maternal role for Douglass than his relationships with his black kin. Readers will learn about Douglass's two wives--Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and become a famous speaker herself, and later Helen Pitts, a white woman who was politically engaged and played the public role of the wife of a celebrity. Also central to Douglass's story were women involved in the abolitionist and other reform movements, including two white women, Julia Griffiths and Ottilia Assing, whom he invited to live in his household and whose presence there made him vulnerable to sexual slander and alienated his wife. These women were critical to the success of his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and to promoting his work, including his Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom nationally and internationally. At the same time, white female abolitionists would be among Douglass's chief critics when he supported the 15th amendment that denied the vote to women, and black women, such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, would become some of his new political collaborators. Fought also looks at the next generation, specifically through Douglass's daughter Rosetta, who was the focus of her father's campaign to desegregate Rochester's schools and who literally acted as a go-between for her parents, since her mother, Anna Murray, had limited literacy.
This biography of the circle of women around Frederick Douglass promises to show the connections between his public and private life, as well as reveal connections among enslaved women, free black women, abolitionist circles, and nineteenth-century politics and culture in the North and South before and after the Civil War.
Leigh Fought is Assistant Professor of History at LeMoyne College. She is the author of Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa S. McCord and an editor of Frederick Douglass's Correspondence.