Reconstructing Womanhood, by Hazel V. Carby
(Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987): 223 pages
Reviewed by Sarah Whitney
When I first read Carby's title, my mind flashed immediately to speaker Sojourner Truth's famous line at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention: "Ain't I a woman?" Truth sought recognition of her womanhood not based on any biological question of her sex, but because as a black woman in nineteenth-century America, she was locked out of the ideologies that shaped the category "woman." Hazel Carby's book Reconstructing Womanhood envelops Truth's observations about the construction of gendered and racialized womanhood in its larger project, which rethinks the canonical line about the development of African-American women writers.
Carby's tightly packed introduction outlines her four main claims. She states her intention to dissect the domestic ideology of nineteenth-century womanhood and its effect upon white and black females. She takes a stance against the existence of widespread interracial "sisterhood," arguing that although individual white women may have aided black women to edit or publish texts, the larger ideology of womanhood placed constraints of race before those of gender, aligning white women with a "racist patriarchal order" that excluded black females (6). In order to conquer this divide, Carby asserts that black women authors wrote explicitly political texts that tried to sensitize their audiences to their exclusion from the traditional womanhood, and that they used the privileged position of "women" to advocate for social change. Lastly, Carby hopes to show that these black women writers, often neglected, are part of a historically resonant "black woman's renaissance" (a term she feels has only gained credence in the 1970's - present recognition of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and other contemporaries).
Carby opens with a discussion of womanhood modeled upon the so-called "cult of true womanhood," a cultural institution created and reinforced in the nineteenth century by guidebooks, education, and social practices. The virtues of purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity were key to the construction of the white female; Carby argues that the white woman's image was strengthened by having a defined opposite in the construction of black female sexuality. Where white women were figured as soft, delicate, sexless and glorified in their motherhood, black women were harnessed to an image of brute strength, vulgarity, relentless lust, and a conception as "breeders" who possessed no ties to their children. "Womanhood" constructed an angel in the house and a dark double, which dampened feelings of sisterhood between black and white women.
Carby uses the trope of institutionalized rape as a representative nexus of ideologies confronting black women's attempt to utilize "womanhood." Slave rape perpetrated by white males often led to children, which figured the slave woman as "breeder" and not as glorified mother. The act's sexual aggression was socially transferred onto the lustful slave woman, pitting her against the cult of true womanhood's ideal of purity and also creating a fissure between the slave woman and the white mistress, who could transfer her humiliation and anger onto the black woman. And rape also policed the black community, both by emasculating the black father and husband, and by becoming a political weapon for the lynching of black men.
Surviving rape at all, of course, goes against the sentimental grain of true womanhood, in which death was preferable to dishonor. Yet black female writers underwent assault - physical and mental - and lived to pass on the experience in their writings. Carby begins her study with Harriet Jacobs's Narrative of the Life of a Slave Girl, in which the ex-slave maintains that the standards of womanhood demanded of white females do not apply to the daily lives of their black counterparts. Jacobs articulates the idea that beauty, the crowning glory of white womanhood, degrades the black slave by placing her in a sexually vulnerable position. She assumes the speaking position of "mother," a cornerstone of white women's ideology, though she should be locked out from that position as a "breeder" with no parental claims, and as an unmarried woman claiming a mother's sphere. Jacobs also critiques interracial sisterhood, employing the trope of blood sisters to explore the different - and often antagonistic - lives that black and white girls raised together went on to lead. Jacobs' text provides a solid introduction to the discourse of black womanhood and its standing in a slave society