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Lyrical StrainsLiberalism and Women's Poetry in Nineteenth-Century America$
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Elissa Zellinger

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781469659817

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: January 2022

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469659817.001.0001

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Two-Body Problem

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Two-Body Problem

Chapter:
(p.98) Chapter Three Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Two-Body Problem
Source:
Lyrical Strains
Author(s):

Elissa Zellinger

Publisher:
University of North Carolina Press
DOI:10.5149/northcarolina/9781469659817.003.0004

This chapter examines how Frances Ellen Watkins Harper deployed motherhood—in which the mother's body becomes "two" via her child—to advocate for African American women's equality. It concentrates on two complications in Watkins Harper's poetry which speak to how violent forces dismantle or differently assemble the individual: first, slaves were private possessions, not people; and, second, encumbered or extended by their children's bodies, mothers were forbidden the self-circumscription that constituted liberal selfhood. By reflecting how mothers' bodies and the children attached to those bodies were broken down into publicly saleable parts, Watkins Harper's poetry contravenes liberalism's notions of singular self-possession. Rather than focusing on the institution of slavery and its denial of such self-possession to African American women, this chapter dwells with Watkins Harper on how the connection between disembodiment and motherhood results in multi-bodied mothers who exceed the boundaries of a singular subject. By expanding the terms of liberalism's singular self-possession, Watkins Harper symbolically gathers up the maternal body and all the other bodies it supports into a sovereign whole through the "body" of the poem.

Keywords:   Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Motherhood, Slavery, Self-possession, Self-circumscription, African American women, Maternal, Body, Poetry

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