Harriet, or Hattie as she was known to her friends, is now considered to be the first African America woman to publish a novel in North America. Her novel, The Nig or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published (anonymously) in September 1859 by a publishing firm in Boston, Massachusetts. Harriet was smart, copyrighting her novel and then depositing a copy in the Office of the Clerk (Mass.) But unfortunately her novel remained wildly unknown and sat, mostly undiscovered and unread, for over a hundred years.

            But as luck would have it, a scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discovered her work in 1982 in the copyright archives. Immediately, academic arguments ensued claiming that Hattie’s book was more autobiographical than fiction, ruling it out as a true novel. These naysayers believed that a book by Julia Collins, The Curse of the Caste/Slave Bride, published in 1865, was the first authentic novel because it was not rooted in truth as Harriet’s book had been. However, counter arguments claimed that most novels at the time, specifically first novels, were autobiographical in nature (see Little Women).

            Harriet was born of mixed heritage; with Irish and Black roots and lived with her parents until orphaned. At that time, she became an indentured servant (as was often the case with free Blacks and Irish immigrants) where she was likely physically and mentally abused. Yet Harriet persevered and found a way into the public lecture circuit where she was paid to talk about her experiences. She only wrote one book, but that was enough to elevate her to literary fame.

            The life-sized bronze statue of Harriet, erected in 2006, can be found on the New Hampshire Women’s Heritage Trail. Harriet is also considered to be one of the “27  Influential Women in New Hampshire.”

            As a writer, I’m glad to report that Harriet finally got her due as an author. I’m sorry she didn’t live to see it. I know how hard it is to get published, and I can’t imagine how difficult it was for Harriet to overcome an industry that was not only rooted in sexism but racism as well. Kudos to this ass-kicking woman who not only smashed the glass ceiling but plowed through the racism hurdle. On another note, my son is planning on moving to New Hampshire in the near future. When he does, my second stop will be to visit Harriet’s statue. I can’t wait to grab a selfie with another one of our wonderful monuments of the matriarchy.

            Readers, please continue to be on the lookout for other women that have been memorialized in stone, bronze, silver, wood, or glass. Together we can dot the landscape with amazing women who rock.

 

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Voices From the Garden

            Seven statues of women who’ve shaped the Commonwealth of Virginia have been unveiled in October 2109 in Capital Square, Richmond, VA. There are also names of 230 other women of influence etched along the walls of the exhibit. Five more statues are in the works.

            This has been an on-going project that focused on collectively recognizing the voices of women who’ve not been given their due in mainstream America. These women, from the past 400 years, have been for the most part, overlooked. While many have been given a line or two in a few history books, it’s not enough. We need to amplify their voice. From all walks of life these are extraordinary women who’ve risen above stereotypes, prejudices, injustice, poverty, race and sexual discrimination, adversity and apathy to break barriers and smash glass ceilings. Their accomplishments are numerous, vast and impressive.

        The women exhibited haven’t been placed on a pedestal, riding a horse, or carrying a weapon; this way visitors can look them in the eye. Take a good look. These are the women whose shoulders we’ve been standing on for four hundred years. Listen to their narratives. It’s time to bring real women to the table. And what an amazing table it is.

            The Seven:

  1. Ann Burras Laydon (1595-?). Jamestown colonist. Records indicate she left England as an unmarried woman and arrived in Jamestown in 1608. She soon married and bore four daughters. Her oldest daughter was the first recoded child to be born of English parents. Ann was a homesteader and early member of what is now considered to be the first American settlement. She survived an Indian attack, when survival rates were low.
  2. Cockacoeske (1656-1686): Pamunkey Chieftain. Cocoacoeske was a Native American woman who was called “Queen” by the settlers when her husband died. She’s best known for signing the Articles of Peace, also referred to as the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677. She maintained a diplomatic relationship with other tribes, a feat which was difficult for most other tribal leaders to accomplish.
  3. Mary Draper Ingles (1732-1815): Frontierswoman. Mary was another early settler, who after surviving a capture by the Shawnee, escaped, and then found safe passage 600 miles home She went on to create Ingles Ferry with her husband. Mary was the subject of books, plays and movies (see the “Long Way Home” and “The Captives: Follow the River”).
  4. Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907): Seamstress. Elizabeth was born a free black woman to parents who had once been enslaved. She was a seamstress as well as an author. In 1868 she wrote, “Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave” also known as “From Slavery to the White House.” You see, Elizabeth became Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant. Her memoir was considered scandalous at that time.  
  5. Laura Copenhaver (1868-1949). Textile entrepreneur. The daughter of a minister and the wife of a school administrator, Laura found her niche in writing, civic work and cooperative marketing. She started a business in her house where woman made hand-made blankets. Soon the demand for her product was so high she had to move into a factory. Rosemont, a textile industry, was then born, which is still in operation today (mainly bed linens).
  6. Virginia Randolph (1874-1958): Educator. Virginia was an African American woman who was born to previously enslaved parents in Richmond, VA. She was considered to be a pioneer in the area of industrial arts. Virginia believed that students learned better by doing. She taught classes like woodworking, sewing, gardening, and home design. She was the recipient of an award that allowed black rural schools to include the manual arts in their curriculum.
  7. Adele Clark (1882-1983): Suffragette. Adele was a founding member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia as well as an artist and art advocate. She fought to have the Nineteenth Amendment ratified, which didn’t happen in Virginia until 1957. Nonetheless, she worked tirelessly for women’s rights until the day she died. As an artist, her work has graced showrooms and private residences. Her lovely painting, “Sledding” reminds me of the lithographs found in the Currie & Ives printmakers book, one of childhood favorites.

 

Collectively, these women rock. I applaud the state of Virginia for stepping up to the plate and creating such a visual display of the accomplishments of women. Day by day, year in and year out, across decades, and centuries, these women worked to make their community a better place to live, often without notice or reward.  In doing so, they made the state fuller and richer. The country benefited too. They are true monuments of the matriarchy. But these woman are no different than most of us reading this site. Just like the statues, we come from all walks of life and bring a different set of skill sets. But if we put our collective heads together, we can build a better world. One statue at a time.