The Two Offers (American History Through Literature)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's (1825911) "The Two Offers" is believed to be the first short story published by an African American author. This accomplishment would be one of many firsts in the extraordinary career of the nineteenth century's most well-known black writer. By the time she published "The Two Offers" in 1859 Harper had already established herself as a popular and well-respected poet, lecturer, and activist. The story is especially unique in Harper's oeuvre for a number of reasons. During this period most of her published works centered around her abolitionist efforts. As such, she wrote as a black woman about the plight of black people. Although one of the protagonists of "The Two Offers" shares Harper's abolitionist sensibilities, neither are identified as black women, nor is the abolition of slavery the central concern of the text. Instead, the story is a meditation on marriage and education for women. As such, it actually foreshadows some of her more feminist writings of the postwar period when she specifically turned her attention to suffrage, temperance, and helping to organize the black women's club movement. Consequently, "The Two Offers" provides an early glimpse of Harper's feminist sensibilities that while evident in her own career had been less of a concern in her writing before and immediately following its publication. Finally, it is not insignificant that Harper would first broach gender issues in a form that she had not previously used. Both her speeches and her poetry were part of an effort to build and strengthen a social movement; in fact, she often recited her poetry in her public lectures. The short story is meant to be read rather than heard, and it offers the author the opportunity for an extended meditation on the topic at hand.
HARPER'S POLITICAL EDUCATION
The 1850s proved to be an exciting and turbulent decade for Watkins as well as the nation. The struggle over slavery took center stage and Watkins found herself in the middle of all of the major debates of her day. At the same time, the struggle for women's rights gained momentum as well. Watkins was greatly influenced by each of these separate but related social movements. The decade opened with the Compromise of 1850. The major issue facing the nation was over the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired Western territories. On 29 January 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed a compromise that the Congress debated for the better part of the year. Under the Compromise of 1850 the inhabitants of the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah would be allowed to decide if these areas were slave or free when they applied for statehood. The slave trade was to be abolished in Washington, D.C., although slavery would continue to be legal there. California was to be admitted to the union as a free state. In order to appease senators from the slave states, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Under this act, to be enforced by federal officials, citizens were required by law to assist in recovering fugitive slaves. This act immediately mobilized the abolitionist movement and it would also help to radicalize Harper.
Three years later, in 1853, Maryland passed a law forbidding free blacks from entering the state under the threat of slavery, thus making Harper an exile from the state of her birth. Shortly afterward a free black man entered the state and was immediately enslaved and sent to Georgia. He died while trying to escape. About his death, Harper wrote, "Upon this grave I pledged myself to the antislavery cause" (Still, p. 186).
In 1854 Harper moved to Philadelphia, which was by then a hotbed of abolitionist activity; she was soon part of a circle of activists and intellectuals committed to bringing an end to the dreaded institution. She lived in an Underground Railroad station and there she listened to stories of fugitives as they came to the city on the way to Canada. She also worked with a
Although a number of her poems during this period centered on the plight of slave women, for the most part Harper's writings and speeches did not address issues of gender specifically. Only once did she even broach the subject of marriage; in a poem titled "Advice to Girls" Watkins writes:
Nay, do not blush! I only heard
You had a mind to marry;
I thought I'd speak a friendly word,
So just one moment tarry.
Wed not a man whose merit lies
In things of outward show,
In raven hair or flashing eyes,
That please your fancy so.
But marry one who's good and kind,
And free from all pretence;
Who, if without a gifted mind,
At least has common sense.
(Foster, A Brighter Coming Day, p. 68)
The poem is not so much a critique of marriage as it is a humorous admonition to women not to marry for superficial reasons. None of her other poetry of the period touches upon the issue of choice in marriage. However, of Harper's life as a single woman in the public sphere, Harper scholar Frances Smith Foster notes, "Her marital status was [a] barrier to be taken seriously. Being a single woman undermined her authority" (p. 12). Even though a number of black and white women had taken to the lectern prior to Harper, in mid-century a single woman in public life was deemed to be of questionable repute. Furthermore, her status as a single woman made it difficult to support herself as well. So it is not surprising that Harper might have been greatly concerned about the limitations marriage placed on women's development as well as the limitations that society placed on unmarried women.
She certainly would not have been the only prominent woman of her time to contemplate these issues. While the abolitionist movement dominated the activities of progressive social activists, male and female, black and white, white women were also beginning to organize for their own rights as well. The first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The convention produced the Declaration of Sentiments (drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton), an articulation of grievances and an agenda for the nascent women's rights movement. A number of the grievances address the issue of marriage and education:
He has made her morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her masterhe law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer chastisement.
After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.
He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
The convention adopted twelve resolutions insisting upon the equal treatment of men and women and calling for voting rights for women. In 1850 the first National Woman's Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. The conventions would be held on an annual basis until 1860. At the convention of 1851, Sojourner Truth (c. 1797883) is believed to have delivered her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. Truth's speech challenged the equation of "women" with white women only by offering her own experiences as a black slave woman as an alternative.
With the publication of "The Two Offers" in 1859, Harper would enter into the debate about the role of marriage and education in women's lives. The story appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine, a black publication founded by Thomas Hamilton in 1859. The publication featured works by black authors, "designed to educate and to encourage, to speak for and to black Americans" (Foster, p. 105). Harper published a number of poems in the new journal and eventually she served on its editorial board. During the period that saw the publication of "The Two Offers," the magazine also serialized Martin Robinson Delany's militant novel, Blake; or, The Huts of America. (Also, 1859 was the year in which John Brown launched his failed raid on Harpers Ferry.)
It is not insignificant that during this time of heightened activism and awareness around the issue of slavery Harper chose to publish a story that focused neither on slavery nor race. Instead, "The Two Offers" centers on a critique of marriage and an argument for the full development of women's intellectual and spiritual capacities. Furthermore, the story does not advocate for women's education as future mothers but instead as intellectuals and political and social activists. Harper never names the race of her characters. That she was writing for a black audience, whom she might have assumed shared her abolitionist politics, might have freed her to write about gender. Perhaps she leaves the racial identity of her characters purposefully ambiguous so that she could write about gender issues in a way that would have been more difficult in a more racially specific context. In this way, she established a pattern that would be followed by twentieth-century writers, such as Paule Marshall, who first wrote stories that challenged conventional heterosexual marriage by focusing on white characters.
The story presents us with two protagonists, the beautiful young cousins Laura and Janette. Laura marries while Janette pursues a career as a writer and activist. While the title seems to refer to the heroines' two offers of marriage with which the story opens, it may also be about the two distinct choices made by each woman. Laura makes a bad marriage to an emotionally abusive, inattentive man who is also a drinker and gambler. She puts everything into mothering her only child, who dies prematurely. Lacking the love and affection of her husband, suffering the loss of her baby, and having failed to foster her own intellect and talent, Laura dies of a broken heart. Janette, who suffers heartbreak before marrying, instead chooses to devote herself to the pursuit of her craft and to working on behalf of the enslaved and the poor. The story closes with Janette as an elderly, fulfilled woman whose life has been an offering to humanity.
As with much of Harper's fiction "The Two Offers" has a pedagogical function as well as serving as entertainment, and much of it is written in direct address to the reader about the necessity of training women for callings other than marriage and motherhood. Janette is an accomplished writer and a respected activist because she is an "old maid." Because of the generosity with which she lives her life, she is not lonely and isolated in her old age nor does she look back at her earlier choices with regret. This is clearly a shift from fiction that insists that by story's end the heroine be either married or dead.
A year after the publication of "The Two Offers," Frances Ellen Watkins married Fenton Harper, a widower and father of three. The Harpers lived on a farm in Ohio and Frances eventually gave birth to a daughter, Mary. Upon Fenton Harper's death in 1864, Harper returned to the lectern and the written page. Following the Civil War she traveled south to lecture to and teach the freedmen and there she became even more convinced of the necessity of granting women access to education. She also became more fully associated with the women's rights movement. Consequently, "The Two Offers" provides evidence of her feminist sensibilities years before she would become publicly associated with the suffrage and temperance movements.
See also Female Authorship; Feminism; Marriage; Seneca Falls Convention; Short Story; Underground Railroad
Declaration of Sentiments. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/Senecafalls.html.
Foster, Frances Smith, ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.
Still, William. Underground Railroad. 1872. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
Carby, Hazel, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. "Minnie's Sacrifice: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Narrative of Citizenship." In The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth Century American Women's Writing, edited by Dale M. Bauer and Philip Gould, pp. 30819. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Peterson, Carla L. "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830880). New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Farah Jasmine Griffin