Institutional Scholarship

Standing Out of Place and Speaking Out of Turn: Gender and Class Hierarchies in the Trial of Margaret Douglass

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dc.contributor.advisor Gliserman, Nicholas Robiolio, Amanda 2017-09-01T13:42:30Z 2017-09-01T13:42:30Z 2017
dc.description.abstract On the morning of May 9, 1853, Norfolk City constables arrested Margaret Douglass in Norfolk, Virginia for teaching free black children from the city to read and write. Claiming ignorance of the Virginia law prohibiting black literacy education, Douglass stood trial for her crime, and received a sentence of one month in jail. The arrest and jailing of a middle class white woman drew considerable media attention from across the country. Months after her release in 1854, Douglass moved to Philadelphia, where she published Educational Laws of Virginia: The Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglass, an autobiographical account of her legal battle. At trial, Douglass challenged southern antebellum gender and social class hierarchies. While she continued this challenging in her book, Douglass also recognized her opportunity to reach a large readership. With the book, Douglass framed a narrative in which she emerged as a benevolent southern woman, wronged by her own region of birth. I use Douglass’ autobiographical text, as well as city directories, circuit court records, census data, tax records, insurance policies, and church documents to analyze Douglass’ challenging of frameworks of male dominance and hierarchical class status during her trial and in her writing. I argue that her story evidences the rigidity of antebellum racial, gender, and social class boundaries. Accused of a serious crime, confronted with societal condemnation, and ultimately thrown in prison, Margaret Douglass did not demure to the overtly male court system, nor to the elite ladies of Norfolk. Instead, she chose to represent herself at trial, mounted a rigorous defense of her actions, and later published a memoir reclaiming the notorious events of her case. In addition, she co-opted the elite language of benevolence to aid in explaining her actions, and boldly confronted explicit individuals within Norfolk. My examination of Douglass’ story offers a view into how women and non-elites, pushed back at antebellum society’s inflexible hierarchies of identity.
dc.description.sponsorship Haverford College. Department of History
dc.language.iso en_US en
dc.title Standing Out of Place and Speaking Out of Turn: Gender and Class Hierarchies in the Trial of Margaret Douglass
dc.type Thesis en
dc.rights.access Dark Archive

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