Thoughts on John Brown and Women

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

“After my father had selected his place, he found out, like men usually do, whenever they attempt to do anything, that he would be obliged to have some woman to help him…”

Anne Brown, remembering the preparations for the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid.

Yes, the 150th anniversary of Harpers Ferry is behind us, but I am pleased to see that it has stirred up a growing interest in Old Osawatomie. (Anyone who expected Fire on the Mountain, my home blog where this is crossposted, to lessen coverage of Brown’s contributions to the struggle post-2009 simply hasn’t been paying attention there).

I recently went with John Kaye to a Brown exhibit at the New-York Historical Society featuring a feast of contemporary material, mainly documents, on Brown. Those in the environs or visiting NYC before March 25 are urged to check it out.

Two documents in particular got me thinking about Brown and women. John Brown is, in legend and appearance, so much the Old Testament patriarch that it is easy to think of him as your standard-issue, unenlightened, pre-women’s-movement radical.

I was struck therefore by the document Brown prepared in 1858 at Frederick Douglass’s Rochester home and later had printed, The Provisional Constitution And Ordinances For The People Of The United States. This document, which was to serve for the territories liberated from slavery by the planned uprising, starts its very first article, “Qualifications For Membership,” with the words “All persons of mature age…” NOT, you will note, “All men….” And the same language is used to describe the qualifications for holding elected office.

This was 10 years before the Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote and a full 61 years before the US managed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

John Brown’s advanced stand was clear at a policy level. Another facet appears in the quote cited at the beginning of the article. Brown’s daughter Anne, 15 at the time and known as Annie, went with Oliver Brown’s wife Martha, 16, in response to a request from John Brown to join the band at the Kennedy Farm in Maryland where the raid was being staged.

The women were not needed to cook and clean, as the cynical might think. The sentence in Anne’s moving letter of reminiscence, written in 1887, reads in full:

After my father had selected his place, he found out, like men usually do, whenever they attempt to do anything, that he would be obliged to have some woman to help him, to stand between him and the curiosity of outsiders, a sort of “outside guard” to conceal his movements, and ward off suspicion.

Still, the start of Anne’s statement shows that she was aware that her father shared the tendency of his male contemporaries (and our own) to give short shrift to the role and contributions of women. Just as his advanced thinking for the time should be recognized, so too should his shortcomings remind us that the work we have to do in the long struggle to end oppression and exploitation will go better if we keep trying to root out some of that old bullshit in our thinking.


    • dennis on February 21, 2010 at 20:37

    courtesy veteran folkies Magpie:

  1. You made note of John Brown’s appearance. I still feel the power of his convictions when I look at his portrait. It’s the same with Lincoln and Whitman. They hide nothing, because they suffered and wanted America to live up to its ideals. They understood the unique historical and spiritual challenges facing America.

  2. the match that lit the fuse of the Civil War?  Quite possibly.

    Although some might disagree with John Brown’s tactics, few could credibly question his courage, as a man who lived and died by his convictions.  His actions were undoubtedly unsettling for our 15th president, James Buchanan, as he struggled mightily, and successfully so, to delay the horrors of the Civil War until after the conclusion of his term in office.

    Should you ever visit the greater Baltimore area, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a great option for a day trip.  In addition to its historical significance, it is, in this writer’s estimation, one of the most scenic locations in the entire country, nestled in a deep valley at two important confluences:  1) the merging of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and 2) the borders of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.  

    Thomas Jefferson was similarly impressed, as described in the following paragraph, part of a wikipedia article describing Harpers Ferry…

    On October 25, 1783, Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry. He viewed “the passage of the Potomac though the Blue Ridge” from a rock which is now named for him. Jefferson was actually on his way to Philadelphia and passed through Harpers Ferry with his daughter Patsy. Jefferson called the site “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”

    Also, if you visit the area, the historic town of Frederick, Maryland and two major Civil War battlefields, Antietam and Gettysburg, are within reach.

    Here is a photo of what became known as John Brown’s Fort, built in 1848, which was originally constructed for use as a guard and fire engine house for the federal Harpers Ferry Armory in Harper’s Ferry, then a part of Virginia. John Brown and his men took refuge there for a few days prior to their capture.  A large contingent was assigned to take them into custody, led by Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, who would later become much better known. Harpers Ferry would become a critical strategic location during the Civil War.

    Harpers Ferry Pictures, Images and Photos

    Here is a present day photo of Jefferson Rock, about which Jefferson wrote, “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

    Jefferson's Rock Pictures, Images and Photos

    And here are two views looking west from Jefferson Rock, toward the location where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet…

    Harpers Ferry From Jefferson Rock Pictures, Images and Photos

    Harpers Ferry Pictures, Images and Photos

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