DAADS Seminar Series | A Grand Sisterhood

Dr. Sara VanderHaagen, Professor at UW-Milwaukee’s Department of Communication, will present her research, “A Grand Sisterhood: Black American Women’s Rhetorics of Commemoration and Agency at the World’s Congress of Representative Women, 1893.”

September 27th, 2019
1:00 – 2:00 pm
Mitchell Hall 206


Between May 15 and May 22, 1893, women from all over the globe convened in Chicago in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition. Participants in the World’s Congress of Representative Women (“WCRW”) sought to present to the world “the wonderful progress of women in all civilized lands in the great departments of intellectual activity.” This Congress featured 600 delegates from 27 countries and was attended by 150,000 people. These participants looked to the future by reflecting on the past—specifically by marking the “progress” of women in the four centuries since Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Running in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, the WCRW sought to portray women’s advances while simultaneously commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Despite strenuous efforts on their own behalf, Black women were never included among the “Board of Lady Managers” who organized the Congress, and only six Black women ultimately were recorded as speakers: Hallie Q. Brown, Anna J. Cooper, Fannie J. Coppin, Sarah J.W. Early, Frances E. W. Harper, and Fannie B. Williams. Williams, Cooper and Coppin addressed the subject of “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation,” Brown and Early discussed “The Organized Efforts of the Colored Women of the South to Improve Their Condition,” and Harper described “Woman’s Political Future.” These women were invited to report on the progress of women of their race and to chart potential paths into the future. While the speeches performed those assigned tasks, they also advanced intellectual goals specific to the Black women who had crafted them. In this presentation, I argue that Williams, Coppin, Cooper, Early, Brown and Harper used their speeches at the Congress to elaborate theories of time grounded in Black memories of enslavement and emancipation and driven by the engine of Black women’s agency. These theories presaged Black feminist ideas developed in the twentieth century. I find that the women developed these theories through three rhetorical moves: first, they reframed the commemorative situation by establishing emancipation rather than Columbus’s landing as the point of origin; second, they insisted that Black women’s progress must be understood within a temporality that accounts for enslavement and emancipation; third, they persistently centered self-determined Black women as the agents of change in their own progress. By reading these speeches as a group, this project contributes to a more substantive, complex understanding of Black women’s rhetorical strategies and intellectual traditions at a time that Hazel Carby (1987) described as a critical moment of “intense activity and productivity” (96) during which Black women increasingly organized themselves to improve their own lives, resist oppression and uplift Black communities.