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Additional Background Material for Anna Leonowens

From Women in European History

Additional Background Information IN THIS SECTION, RATHER THAN HAVE IT LABLED ON THE MAIN PAGE SEPARATELY, INTEGRATE IT INTO THE TEXT (OR DO BOTH) Abolitionist Sentiment and its Broader Impact

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, during which proponents and opponents of slavery waged one of the bloodiest wars in American history over the issue of slavery. Many prominent literary figures and philosophers in America and Britain, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Stuart Mill helped brew up anti-slavery sentiments in the years leading up to the civil war. Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, made a deep impact on American attitude toward slavery and African American and influenced many contemporaries. The extent of her influence on the abolition of slavery is apparent in Abraham Lincoln's remark to Stowe upon meeting her for the first time: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"[1]

Anna herself was not immune to the fervor of abolitionism that took its course in her lifetime. In fact, Stowe had a lasting influence on Anna's personal conviction against slavery, something she brought to Siam where she "positions herself as an abolitionist in the Siamese court."[2] In Romance of the Harem, one of the characters experiences a revelation of the abomination of slavery after reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and releases her slaves from bondage. While Stowe's abolitionist text teems with a religious overtone, Anna extracts the anti-slavery sentiment from the novel but writes in a feminist language. The abolitionist sentiment was very relevant to Anna's daily life in the harem because she viewed the Siamese harem as an institution of sexual slavery, slavery of women. In both The English Governess and the Romance, Anna "draws on the rhetoric of U.S. abolitionism in general and Stowe's novel in particular to articulate her position in Siam [which] suggests a parallel between her investment and theirs."[3] The adoption of anti-slavery sentiment into the feminist movement was prevalent because they benefited from its rhetoric and from their association with slavery. Being aware that Africans were lower on the social hierarchy in Europe, feminists like Emmeline Pankhurst used the abolition of slavery to advance their political agenda in favor of the women's suffrage movement.

The end of the American Civil War and the victory of the abolitionist North marked the end of slavery and the beginning of the Reconstruction Era. Although the institution of slavery became an illegal practice, the abolitionist sentiment had yet to diffuse into everyday life and particularly the South, where slavery was entrenched from its founding. In 1867, Anna Leonowens arrived to live in the United States two years after the Civil War and when the victorious Union began to "reconstruct" the Confederate States and weave the eleven stars back into the American flag. Once again, Anna seems to have managed to choose her residence in the midst of historical times (see Life After Siam).

Reference List

  1. http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/places/sw18/index.shtml
  2. Brown, 603.
  3. Ibid, 603-604.

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