Remember Harriet Jacobs?

How history erased this woman of color from the suffrage movement

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Harriet Jacobs in 1894" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1895 - 1925. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/bc2baa4e-cf9e-3ad3-e040-e00a180624a4

Mainstream activism has a tendency of shutting out minorities.

Last year Bernie Sanders, the most progressive candidate for president, was criticized for not taking the Black Lives Matter movement seriously. Historically, the achievements of some minority groups have come at the expense of others, leaving us to lose track of the marginalized figures who help shape our nation.

Writer Sady Doyle took a moment to remind her followers of the troubling phenomenon, and to honor one woman history books forgot.

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When I asked Doyle what prompted her short story, she said it began (as so many things do) with a spat. “Because there’s an election and because there’s a lot of discussion about what role gender plays in that election, I have been talking about how recently women got the right to vote,” she told me in a phone interview, explaining that “Mic News posted something—and this is one of those really weird Twitter circle jerk things—Mic News posted something that noted that actually in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed… wasn’t when women got the right to vote—women of color often had to wait much later.”

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Doyle retweeted Mic’s tweet. “In response to that, a lot of white women [were] telling me, ‘Well but the white suffragettes were just doing what they thought was best. They knew if they included minorities then no women would get the right to vote. It was politically convenient to really push for the right to vote or white women only.’

“That seemed kind of inexcusable to me,” Doyle continued. “We don’t benefit by ignoring our history. We don’t have a place for an ethical or intelligent discussion of what women’s participation in public life is if we’re going to ignore the places where women’s participation in public life has rested on suppressing or ignoring or erasing other women.”

The exchanges made her remember Harriet Jacobs’ story.

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Doyle first learned about Jacobs while doing research for her forthcoming book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear, and Why. Doyle explained that prominent historians debated Jacobs’ existence until Jean Fagan Yellin, who authored the book Harriet Jacobs: A Life, uncovered her roots.

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Jacobs had published a memoir under the name Linda Brent, and Doyle explains that it was clear to her contemporaries that Jacobs was Brent. Later on, however, the connection between the pseudonym and the woman behind it was lost. It wasn’t until Yellin combed through documents to prove that Brent was Jacobs that scholars stopped questioning whether or not Jacobs was real.

For Doyle, Jacobs’ tale exemplifies why questions of intersectionality are so important.

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If Yellin hadn’t reintroduced Jacobs’ name to to the history of abolition, we wouldn’t know she had ever existed.

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Doyle hopes that our modern ability to leave digital marks via social media will help ensure that intersectional voices of today don’t get lost in the future. “I do think it’s true that we’re all leaving paper trails now. And that’s good, that is a very good thing.” But it might not be enough to keep history from repeating itself.

“I’m not really in a position to give stern lectures,” Doyle, a cisgendered, straight white woman, told me. “But I really do think that it is just about recognizing the toll that having your experience erased or minimized or attacked can have on people…. I have seen again and again people just get to the point where they feel like it’s just too much. Where they feel like they can’t do it anymore, they feel like there’s no point, and no one is hearing them, and that’s when people start to disappear.”

Ultimately, when marginalized voices are snuffed out, we all lose. “It’s not only harming them,” said Doyle, “it’s harming our ability to have a fuller picture of the world.” Luckily, there’s a pretty straightforward way to allow diverse perspectives to see daylight, Doyle concludes.

“Don’t make life hell for each other.”

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