Russell’s Book Cover

 

Shown on the left is a picture of the title page from the 1824 Abel Brown edition of the book (Gardner 260). The language that Russell employs throughout this cover page is inclusive of both men and women. For example, she introduces the book as something that “every person” can use to find out information about important life events. From a publishing standpoint, this inclusive language makes sense to sell the most books, but looking from a deeper point of analysis, is encouraging both sexes to enjoy life’s most important events.

Another key aspect of this page is the fact that Russell has marriage instructions for not just women, but also men. While it may seem insignificant that both sexes are being offered tips on how to get married, it is a win for women and the role they played in society. To elaborate, in this time period, women were expected to get married, provide a nice home life for their husband, and have children. If a woman was not married, she was seen as less than and a different class in society. Russell’s decision to also include directions for men on getting married lessens the burden on women of  traditional societal roles. The “Directions for Young Ladies” text appears larger and on top of the “and for Young Gentlemen” text (Gardner 260). This can be analyzed in various ways, but under a feminist lens, it can be argued that Russell was paying homage to her fellow women. Since “Young Ladies” appears in bigger text and before “Young Gentleman,” Russell is placing more emphasis on women and their rights to choose their own husband.

The last thing to highlight from this page is how Russell signs her name. She specifically chooses to identify herself as “A Woman of Colour” (Gardner 260). This is crucial to the reading of the text because it ties into the introduction she gives of herself prior to the fortune-telling part of the book. In the introduction, she informs the reader of her life experiences, and when she realized she was a fortune teller. This introduction reads similar to a slave narrative, and empowers Russell’s identity. She is taking claim over her identity as a “poor unfortunate Female African” and making them her own words (Gardner 269). Russell is taking the typical experience of a slave and claiming ownership over it, with no shame.

Feminist Diction

There are two words featured in the “Directions to young ladies how to obtain husbands they most desire” portion of the book that stand out the most: “obtain” and “if” (Gardner 275). It can be argued that these words work to promote equality between the two sexes. More specifically, the word “obtain” is used to describe getting married to a man; this same language is seen in the equivalent section for men. What’s so interesting about this word choice is that it is objectifying both men and women. By saying someone will “obtain” another person, it implies that ownership is being taken over that person. For a woman to be taking ownership in obtaining a husband places the woman in charge of the man. This language is again seen when talking about men obtaining a wife, which becomes more problematic. Russell’s choice to mirror this language when discussing men finding wives can be seen as setting back the progress she has made in this text being a feminist one. However, it can also be argued that it is truly feminist, for Russell is objectifying both sexes, placing them on an even playing field. In a sense, she is giving the men a taste of their own medicine.

The word “if” holds a lot of value because it heavily implies choice. To clarify by writing “If a young lady fancies,” Russell is asserting an opinion that women have the choice to get married or not, and to whoever they most fancy (Gardner 275). During this time period, it was often that women were married off by their families without too much say in it. Russell’s display of choice in this section of her book shows that women have some level of authority when it comes to their marital status.

On the contrary, Russell is not advocating much for the rights of domestic servants or widows. This heavily plays into the concept of Intersectional Feminism. It appears that she is arguing for the young ladies’ and wives’ equality, but not necessarily every type of woman. Although much of the attention is on the women-to-be-wed, maids and widows are considered in her sections “What kind of a husband a widow or maid shall have” and “Whether a maid shall have him she loves” (Gardner 287). The problem with these two sections is that they can be seen as insisting that maids and widows ought to be married since there is no version of these sections offered for men. However, one can argue the stronger case that these sections work towards a more inclusive type of feminist text by Russell, but are not entirely there yet. Perhaps Russell was trying to give hope to maids and widows who wished to be married or remarried. This argument is viable because no one is being forced to read this book and digest its material, so Russell may have just been trying to give hope to women who wanted to be married. Based on the stronger argument and rest of the book, Russell is still meeting the definition of feminism offered above by nineteenth century standards.

Amelia Shad’s Boarding House Advertisement

 

From 1830-1835, the Colored Conventions took place in boarding houses in Philadelphia (de Vera). While these conventions were not in Massachusetts working alongside Russell, they too served as a vehicle to promote racial justice and Feminism. Boarding houses were not exclusive to Philadelphia and were often led by women who were entirely in charge of the house, and therefore became the breadwinners. However, the women who ran the boarding houses did not always have a husband by their side. In Los Angeles in 1900, older Black women who were often widowed or divorced ran boarding houses; they rented out their extra rooms to boarders, usually “new Black migrants to the city” (Campbell 381). Comparatively, these boarding houses helped to support women who were barely making ends meet as domestic workers. Since boarding houses were much more affordable, they became necessary to the survival of many Black women and men (de Vera).

The image on the left features an advertisement made by Amelia Shad, sole owner of a boarding house (de Vera). A key aspect of this advertisement is that Amelia Shad is running this boarding house herself as a widowed woman. While in present day widows are not seen as a lesser class in society, they were in the nineteenth century, especially female widowers. Finding work as a Black female was hard enough, but not having your spouse around to support you anymore is extremely challenging. For Amelia to own a boarding house is a major accomplishment itself, but she is also providing Black widows with affordable housing, looking past their gender and marital status.

This all ties back into Russell because these conventions and boarding houses occurred around the same time that Russell’s book was circulating around Massachusetts. The feminist ties between the book and these conventions show that while Russell was not the original feminist, she was asserting these ideas in text while others were asserting them in-person. However, advertisements such as these are more considerate of all types of women, while Russell is mainly considering women to be wed. So, while Russell’s text is still feminist on certain levels, it is not necessarily intersectional and considering all women. But, depending on how the two sections on maids and widows by Russell were read, she may be on the way towards considering all women.

A Woman’s Role in Society

Above you can see two contrasting images: a 1897 newspaper about high divorce rates, and a wedding dress designed in 1824. These pictures are very reminiscent of the time period as there is a shift in how women take part in society. The wedding dress is a rare one for the time period, as brides wore colored dresses until the late nineteenth century (“Dress, Wedding”). This dress is symbolic because it illustrates what is expected of a woman: marriage and children. It is contrasted by the newspaper article discussing the various causes for divorce as of late. The article states that divorce comes “when a woman has endured till she can endure no longer” (“Marriage, DiVorce and Men”). This is not only relevant of this time period, but also present day; society has made marriage the most important event in a woman’s life. Women are given the unfair expectation of having a family as if it is their only purpose.

Russell’s text is attempting to begin to break this societal barrier depicted above that a woman’s sole purpose in life is to serve a husband and have children. Her text is not outright knocking down the barrier, but suggesting it in the other sections of the book that do not have to do with marriage. This may seem like a small aspect to make note of, but this dream book is discussing numerous aspects of life for both men and women, not just how women can get married.

A non-feminist dream book would more directly address women and be fair more stereotypical. In addition, Russell’s focus on marriage may have just been reflective of what was selling in the time period. Just because she authored a book that discussed how to get the spouse you dream of, doesn’t mean that she thinks that everyone must be married.

It can be further noted that throughout the fortune telling parts of the book, Russell uses the pronoun “you” to address the reader directly as a person and not as their gender. This means that Russell is not solely discussing marriage in terms of solely women, but men too; she is suggesting that a marriage is made of two equally valued partners, not one man leading it.

Rise of Women

The feminist reading of Russell’s text goes much farther than the text, and extends across the country. Russell’s text is existing in the same century as the start of various feminist movements across the country. These histories may be taking place across the country from Russell’s home in Massachusetts, but they are all linked. Arguably, one of the most important aspects of Feminism to look at is how these individual actions, no matter how small or large-scale, speak to the greater cause of equal rights. Feminism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not occur overnight, and does not begin nor end with Russell’s text.

In fact, from the 1890s to the 1950s, Black women historians rose in their field, facing various obstacles blocking their path to success (Dagbovie 241). This is a niche field to be discussing, but accurately reflects both the world that Russell lived in and present day. No one should have to fight day and night to pursue something they are deeply passionate about, especially not because of their gender and race. Black women, like Chloe Russell, are significantly disadvantaged compared to their white counterparts. The pathway for Black women has always been more difficult than that of white women, but also than that of Black men. Often, when Black history is taught, men are the faces of many struggles, movements, etc. It’s crucial that Black women are given that same platform to speak their truths, as they have contributed greatly to calling for action against racism.

This all relates back to Russell because her text is attempting to give women more of a voice, and demonstrate that women do, in fact, have free will. Russell also states on the cover of her book that she is a woman of color; it may have been that white men and women were purchasing her book, but it can be argued that Russell is speaking as a Black author to a Black audience. This is supported by Russell’s introduction that reads as a slave narrative.

On the spectrum of Feminism, Russell’s text could use more intersectionality between race, class, etc. but overall the text is feminist for the time period. It is clear that Russell is attempting to empower women through discussing marriage in terms of free will to choose whichever suitor, and in trying to include maids and widows. Whether or not Russell’s text is genuinely inclusive of all types of women is up for debate, but does not impact the fact that the text satisfies the simple definition offered for what qualifies as a feminist text.

Works Cited

Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. “Black Women Historians from the Late 19th Century to the Dawning of the Civil Rights Movement.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 89, no. 3, 2004, pp. 241–261. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4134077. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

de Vera, Samantha. “Cover.” Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Sarah Patterson, Black Women’s Economic Power: Visualizing Domestic Spaces in the 1830s, The Colored Conventions Project, 19 Dec. 2019, coloredconventions.org/women-economic-power/.

Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259–288. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30045526. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

Marne L. Campbell. “AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN, WEALTH ACCUMULATION, AND SOCIAL WELFARE ACTIVISM IN 19TH-CENTURY LOS ANGELES.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 97, no. 4, 2012, pp. 376–400. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.97.4.0376. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

“Marriage, DiVorce and Men and Women as seen through the Eyes of the Law and Society.: Causes of the Many Divorce Suits Reported from Atlanta Courts Last Week and Diverse Views Given. Why Marriage does Not Succeed. Story of a Man Who Seeks to Legalize His Marriage with His Daughterin-Law–the Week in Woman’s World–Topics for Women and Society.” The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), Oct 24 1897, p. 14. ProQuest. Web. 9 Dec. 2020, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.neu.edu/cv_676894/docview/495412242/fulltextPDF/97ABF544AA4144C3PQ/8?accountid=12826.

Unknown, (Maker),. Dress, Wedding. 1824, Image: 2008. Artstor, library-artstor-org.ezproxy.neu.edu/asset/ABROOKLYNIG_10312350247