This essay outlines Sojourner Truth’s and Harriet Tubman’s articulations of an intersectional black feminist agenda for old-age justice. The two most famous formerly enslaved women in the nineteenth-century United States, Truth and Tubman in their speeches, activism, and published Narratives revealed the mechanisms of domination through which enslavers and employers of domestic servants extracted productive and reproductive labor from black women, who in turn faced premature debility and immiseration at the end of life. Truth and Tubman linked what is now called necropolitics—“subjugation of life to the power of death,” in Achille Mbembe’s phrase—to the coercive organization of care work, what Evelyn Nakano Glenn refers to as being “forced to care.” They point to the importance of gendered and racialized labor to the history of old age in America.
In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to center black women’s experiences of “compounded” subordination at the nexus of race and sex discrimination.1 In the thirty years since, intersectionality has become a primary framework in women’s studies and a key methodology through which historians seek to account for the development of gendered racial capitalism.2 During that time, Crenshaw’s own analysis has shifted to better account for the significance of chronological age and life stage. Announced as an urgent call to focus on the experiences of black girls, Crenshaw’s new research clarifies that age cannot be added to a familiar list of identity categories such as gender, race, sexuality, and class but must be understood as the vector that moves individuals through these intersecting structures of domination during their lives.3 An intersectional approach to age and life stage thus necessitates a refinement of intersectionality itself from a heuristic grounded in spatial metaphors of standpoints and hierarchies to a temporal framework that clarifies the compounding of advantage and disadvantage over time. To date, intersectional scholars have paid much more attention to youth than to old age, building a vibrant interdisciplinary field of black girlhood studies that makes visible how black girls define and value themselves, how their experiences differ from those of white girls or black boys, and how they challenge institutions and political frameworks that construe them as problems when they know full well that racism, sexism, and classism are the issues that must be addressed.4 But what of old black womanhood? How might attention to the category “old black woman” transform the ways that we understand large-scale structures such as colonialism, slavery, and capitalism? How do black women draw on their embodied experiences of later life to articulate justice claims distinct from those promoted by younger black women and black girls?
Scholars have begun to answer these questions by focusing on the ideas and experiences of old black women in the United States, looking both at enslaved women in the antebellum South and free black women in the North. Stephanie Evans, for example, analyzes the historical wellness strategies expressed in the memoirs of black women centenarians.5 The importance of old women to enslaved families and communities emerges from Stephanie Shaw’s research on “grandmothers, granny women, and old aunts” in the antebellum South.6 Daina Ramey Berry clarifies that enslaved people defined their self-worth in terms of “soul values” that placed a premium on later life, honoring the oldest old for their survival skills and spiritual insight, even as enslavers discounted monetary values based on diminished fertility and work capacity, often classifying as “superannuated” those over forty years old.7 Leslie J. Pollard and Frederick Knight argue that traditions of mutual care rooted in West African respect and kinship patterns, sustained through slavery, shaped distinct strategies for supporting old people after emancipation, inspiring African American club women to create support networks for old people rooted in community integrity rather than charity.8
This scholarship suggests that the category of old black woman functioned differently from that of old person or old white woman, as black women’s longevity carried distinct political and spiritual significance for enslaved communities. In contrast, white male heads of household generally understood a comfortable old age as the reward for individual success in a competitive market economy and expected their aged wives, mothers, and aunts to recede quietly into the background, privately devoting themselves to serving family needs.9 Before the institutionalization of retirement as an age-based stage of life, when public support for the elderly relied on punitive regimes of county poor relief and older people feared being sent to the almshouse, old people who owned property used private contracts to secure care from adult children or other relatives in exchange for a promised inheritance.10 Enslaved black people were often the property used to secure the intergenerational security of slave-owning white families through estate auctions that destroyed black families. Black women understood full well that most white women would gladly sustain their own comfort at the expense of black futures and that white men’s claims to individual success relied on the exploitation of others.11 The timing of “old age” also diverged along racial lines. While European Americans sustained a long tradition that defined the start of old age around sixty years of life, they classified enslaved people as superannuated in their forties.12 The prematurity of old black womanhood in some ways echoed what fugitive Harriet Jacobs defined as “prematurely knowing” black girlhood, though the mechanisms for casting women out of their prime relied on desexualization and disposability, while the means for pushing girls into early adulthood were sexual assault and extractive labor demands.13 But we know much more about the history of black girlhood than we do about old womanhood. More research is needed to fully understand how old black women, and those who cared about them, developed knowledge and strategies to both understand and resist the ways in which pathways through later life functioned to sustain the dominance of white people, men, and property owners, and how these strategies changed during enslavement, emancipation, and Jim Crow segregation.
This article uses the tools of intellectual history to map a historical genealogy of black feminist claims to old-age justice. Following Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman as guides, I uncover the importance of old age as a critical framework through which these women approached what we would now call intersectionality. The two most prominent women to liberate themselves from enslavement by white settlers in the nineteenth-century United States, Truth and Tubman each paid substantial attention to old age as a category of analysis, clarifying how later life functioned to move people through intersecting structures of domination formed along lines of gender, race, and class, advantaging some and disadvantaging others in a relational process that unfolded over time. In their writings and political activism, both Truth and Tubman first focused on the structural salience of old age out of concern for their own enslaved parents and then generalized their analysis to demand economic justice for all old freed people after the Civil War. They were born roughly a generation apart: Truth around 1797 and Tubman about 1822. Their paths crossed, but they never became close allies, Truth reaching the peak of her influence in the 1870s and Tubman publicly campaigning for old-age support in the 1890s, notably when each was over seventy years old.14 What they shared was a sustained determination to center the needs of old, formerly enslaved black women in movements for social justice. Growing old in the public eye, they innovated embodied performances of black female longevity that connected personal experience to political agendas and challenged the distorting stereotypes and marginalization targeted at old freedwomen by white supremacists as well as black leaders invested more in youth than old age.15
By recognizing these women as black feminist age theorists and activists promoting old-age justice, we can begin to grasp how attention to later life reveals new dynamics in black women’s history. Where historians of black women and girls focus on the nexus of race and reproduction forged through the legal doctrine that enslaved children would follow the condition of the mother, and subsequent formulations of black motherhood as social pathology, Truth and Tubman raised questions about how racial inequality persisted in the organization of care work long after women’s fertility ended in midlife.16 Most significantly, they critiqued propertied white women’s celebration of a comfortable old age as the reward of virtuous life by pointing out the ways in which these women coerced care from enslaved women and domestic servants without providing any care in return. Truth and Tubman argued that this organization of care underwrote the longevity of some women at the expense of others who faced immiseration and premature death. Old black women who spent their youth working for white families deserved respect and security in later life, Truth and Tubman insisted. Both women linked what we now think of as necropolitics—“subjugation of life to the power of death,” in Achille Mbembe’s phrase—to the coercive organization of care work, or what Evelyn Nakano Glenn refers to as being “forced to care.”17 By recognizing Truth and Tubman as advocates of old-age justice, we can recover the foundational importance of later life to the history of intersectional black feminism while also identifying how slavery and domestic work structured the history of old age and, more generally, the mechanisms of biopolitical power in industrializing America.18
As this issue of the Radical History Review prompts new efforts to understand the history of old age, especially in relation to power and social justice, Truth and Tubman can serve as guides to the life-course dimensions of intersectional oppression that made the neglect of old black women central to racialized capitalism. This oppression and neglect worked not just through state policy but also within the intimate relations of household labor, and even within radical movements for social justice that positioned youth as the vital vanguard of the future and old women as worn-out representatives of the past. In her study of mass incarceration as a solution to the problems of surplus labor, capital, land, and state capacity generated by late twentieth-century deindustrialization, Ruth Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”19 Gabriel Winant adds that the long-term-care industry emerged as a parallel structure for institutionalizing superannuated workers as medical patients and absorbing women, especially women of color, as low-wage health care workers.20 Looking back from these postindustrial formations to the nineteenth-century dynamics of racialized capitalism necessitates greater attention to households as sites for managing capital, labor, and care, a social formation that turned white women with access to property into supervisors with the power to command other women’s work and, in the process, determine who might thrive and who would suffer neglect or premature death. As Stephanie Jones-Rogers points out in her study of slave-owning white women in the antebellum South, it was enslaved people themselves who best understood these dynamics, testifying that the cultural ideal of dependent white womanhood was a pernicious myth that concealed white women’s active investment in the violent, sometimes deadly technologies of racial domination.21 Truth and Tubman chose to reveal these truths by highlighting the debts that white people in general, and white women in particular, owed to enslaved women who spent their youth caring for others and in turn required care themselves, a claim to justice rooted in a theory of aging as a relational process that can lead either to mutual care or to intensified exploitation.
The first point that Truth and Tubman raised about age in nineteenth-century America was a fundamental one: chronological age—the record of time since birth—was not a neutral fact but a racialized category imbricated with gradual emancipation in the North and the interstate slave trade in the South.22 Before government-issued birth certificates became widespread in the twentieth century, chronological age was a site of struggle and a field of power. Those with property, literacy, and intact kin networks kept private records in family Bibles or commercially printed family registers. Others had age assigned to them by enslavers or government officials.23 Truth found herself in the latter category. She was born on the cusp of New York’s 1799 gradual emancipation law. This legislation used birth dates to bind the children of enslaved women to white families for a fixed period of years and also empowered enslavers to generate birth records by registering with the town clerk “the name, age, and sex of every child so born.”24 Truth recalled how her enslavers denied her the numeracy required to calculate age, alienated her from her parents, and then assigned ages to her for their own profit.25 As she grew old, Truth made increasingly fantastic claims to her own longevity, daring critics to come up with documentation that she knew did not exist.26
Tubman was born on a plantation in Maryland and grew up under a legal regime that discouraged manumission and facilitated the sale of enslaved people, especially adolescents and young adults, to provide labor for enslavers expanding cotton cultivation in the Southwest.27 In 1845 Tubman hired a lawyer and documented the existence of a will freeing her mother at age forty-five along with her children, a directive that the white beneficiaries of the estate concealed, denying the age-based freedom to which her mother was entitled.28 Tubman joined other fugitives from southern slavery in excoriating enslavers who manipulated chronological age for profit, falsifying records and manufacturing age claims, and like Harriet Jacobs after her, she focused particular attention on the age-based vulnerabilities of enslaved women and girls.29 Historians have spent a great deal of effort trying to determine when Truth and Tubman were really born, but both women paid more attention to clarifying how enslavers manipulated age as a tool of racial domination.
Though concerned with the exploitation of enslaved girls, Truth and Tubman both focused on later life by emphasizing the plight of their enslaved parents. In her 1850 Narrative Truth recounted how her mother’s enslavers wore down her body through the constant demands of cooking and cleaning, sold her children, and then freed her in middle age to care for Truth’s ailing father, whose body was broken “more from exposure and hardship than from old age.” Care work thus emerged in Truth’s Narrative as a resource that enslavers extracted from her mother both during her enslavement and as a condition of emancipation when both parents became disposable to the white family who had long exploited them. Despite years of “faithful” service, Truth’s father “was no longer considered of value . . . now that he had commenced his descent into the dark vale of decrepitude and suffering.”30 Truth’s mother died in middle age and her father died a few years later, old and alone, unable to access the care he needed. Slavery ended in New York in 1827, but white families’ ability to extract care work from black women did not. Truth’s Narrative advanced a wide-ranging critique of the ways in which white women pushed the dirtiest and most demanding household tasks—including elder care—onto black women who never received the money or respect necessary to avoid precarity in later life.31 Tubman, for her part, worked to guide fugitives to freedom through the Underground Railroad, returning multiple times to Maryland to bring family and community members north. After liberating her parents in the late 1850s, she cast off her covert identity to appeal publicly for money to support them. She reminded abolitionists that emancipation in old age amounted to neglect unless housing, food, and care could be provided.32
Truth and Tubman both contributed to a national debate over whether slavery or free labor better provided for the needs of “superannuated” laborers. The fugitives from southern slavery who became abolitionist leaders before the Civil War, almost without exception, consistently pointed to the neglect of elderly enslaved people, grandmothers in particular, as proof that slavery was both immoral and inefficient. Proslavery apologists, meanwhile, argued that it was northern employers of free labor who wore out and then discarded workers.33 In the midst of the Civil War, Confederate defender John Bell Robinson painted Tubman’s liberation of her mother and father as a shocking “act of wickedness and cruelty in a child to her parents . . . two old slaves, over seventy years of age . . . abducted from good homes in a southern climate, and brought to and turned loose in the frigid zones of the north, to freeze to death or starve.”34 Tubman testified to slaveholders’ abuse of her parents but also held abolitionists accountable for ensuring that they, and elderly freed people generally, did not freeze or starve in the North. As northern abolitionists celebrated Tubman for leading the Combahee River Raid, she pointedly reminded northern allies not to let her parents “suffer” while she took risks for the cause.35 After the war she devoted her efforts to establishing mutual aid networks to support freed people, always emphasizing the particular needs of the elderly.36
Truth, meanwhile, drew up a petition in 1870 calling on the federal government to set aside a “portion of the public land in the West” for the resettlement of ex-slaves and to “erect buildings thereon for the aged and infirm.” As she explained in the 1878 version of her Narrative, enslaved people “have been a source of wealth to this republic. . . . Our unpaid labor has been a steppingstone to its financial success. Some of its dividends must surely be ours.” By Truth’s calculus, this was an intergenerational and interracial debt owed by all Americans to people who spent their youth enslaved.37 Truth never adequately acknowledged that this western land belonged to indigenous people, but her political priorities did draw attention to reparations for slavery as a component of old-age security.
Tubman, after her mother’s death in 1880, turned her concern for old age into a broader effort to raise funds for a home for aged African Americans on her land in Auburn, New York. She returned to the lecture circuit to publicize this effort, seeking contributions from African Methodist Episcopal Zion ministers, members of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, white women’s rights activists, and other “old abolitionists.”38 Victoria Earle Matthews deftly used Tubman’s presence at the inaugural meeting of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896 to rally divergent factions around her heroic legacy, and Pauline Hopkins included her, along with Truth, as “Famous Women of the Negro Race” in the Colored American.39 This elevation of Tubman as a respected elder provided a platform through which she could continue to speak in public and drum up contributions for her old-age home, but it often elided her expansive argument for old-age justice by focusing on her past achievements on the Underground Railroad more than her ongoing prioritization of elder care.
Truth and Tubman both defined aging as a relational process through which some people gained security by exploiting others, pointing to white women who commanded black women’s labor both during and after slavery. At the same time, both showed a remarkable ability to form alliances with white women whose support for moral reform, antislavery, temperance, women’s rights, or communitarianism opened up opportunities for understanding how old age disadvantaged women across race and class. When these white women pushed for reconfiguring life stages in ways that might improve the survival of black people, Truth and Tubman seized on this common ground. During the nineteenth century leading white women’s rights activists in the United States, Britain, and France elaborated the argument that white men maintained their power in part by sexualizing young girls and then degrading old women. Truth and Tubman supported this critique of how old age marginalized women under patriarchy, but they also pushed their white allies to acknowledge that white, propertied women often built their own security by exploiting women without property, especially women of color. Other black women, most notably Harriet Jacobs and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, also entered into debates over the functions of age as a vector of power, articulating how enslaved and free black women experienced distinct forms of sexualization in youth and precarity in old age.40
On her lecture tours, Truth met many of the white women who promoted new attitudes toward older women, including suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Susan B. Anthony, as well as the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, whose Looking toward Sunset (1864) was a best-selling compendium of advice for the aged.41 Truth took inspiration from these white women who also aged in public, though many trafficked in racist stereotypes, and even the most radical among them never fully acknowledged how much they depended on the labor of domestic workers to sustain their own careers.42 Truth formed a particularly strong collaboration with Lucretia Mott, a Quaker preacher and abolitionist born in 1793, who drew attention to the prejudice against older white women in public life.43 Mott, more than most white women, shared Truth’s commitment to a broad-based program for old-age justice, arguing not only for the rights of propertied wives to control and inherit wealth but also for better-paid work for working-class women, both black and white, in the hopes that they would face a less precarious old age.44 After the Civil War, Mott joined an interracial effort to establish Philadelphia’s Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, arguing that voluntary “efforts such as this are but a small return for the wrongs done the colored people.”45 As Mott entered her seventies, she came to symbolize the longevity of women’s political leadership for white women much as Truth did for black women; the two continued to meet, even comparing their physical signs of old age.46
Tubman also seized opportunities to form strategic alliances with white women. Mott’s sister Martha Coffin Wright, who lived near Tubman in Auburn, New York, helped raise funds for her community care networks and connected her to other white suffragists. Yet Wright also complained throughout her life about the unreliability of the women she hired as domestic servants, on one occasion in the 1840s comparing a black woman to an “ape” and a “baboon.” This tension between Wright’s ability to dehumanize white and black servants in her household while also promoting interracial movements for social justice provides some indication of the tense crosscurrents Tubman had to navigate in her alliances with white women.47 In her sixties and seventies, Tubman found white women eager to celebrate her antislavery past, as when Ednah Dow Cheney organized a Boston reception for Tubman through the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association.48 At the same time, white suffragists, even those who praised Tubman, increasingly promoted white supremacy as a tool for progressive reform, while those concerned with social welfare built racial segregation into programs for old-age support.49
Organized black women stepped in to support old black people in their communities, many founding and managing homes for African American elders.50 Most significantly, at the turn of the twentieth century, another ex-slave woman, Callie House, a Nashville washerwoman, led a mass movement for “ex-slave” pensions that the federal government ruthlessly suppressed.51 Black club women, meanwhile, began to emphasize the achievements of young women, especially those able to pursue educational opportunities and, despite the continuing force of discrimination and violence, seek opportunities outside domestic work. This culminated in the celebration of New Negro womanhood in the 1910s and 1920s. Black girlhood, always an object of concern, became even more central to black feminist organizing, and the justice claims of old black women receded to the background, thus shaping how later generations understand the legacy of nineteenth-century black feminism.52
Black feminist scholars seeking to recover the long history of intersectionality often cite Truth and Tubman as foundational thinkers but have yet to fully draw out the implications of their focus on old-age justice. Truth and Tubman posed searching questions about who cares for whom and how this impacts survival in later life. By theorizing later life as a process through which disparities based on sexism, racism, and economic inequality accumulate over time, Truth and Tubman made visible how the comfortable old age of some, including white women’s rights activists, relied on the undercompensated labor of others. At the same time, they forged tenuous alliances with white feminists eager to reconfigure old age for their own purposes, and created small spaces of common ground where alternative ways of growing old through mutual support might be imagined, even as this potential remained unrealized.
I write this brief overview of Truth’s and Tubman’s legacies in 2020 as the spread of the COVID-19 virus intensifies existing health disparities in the United States at the intersection of old age, racial inequality, and the organization of service work. Older people have been more vulnerable than youth to severe illness, but with marked racial disparities in who lives and who dies. Ruth Gilmore’s understanding of racism as the differential vulnerability to premature death takes on a new urgency in this pandemic and helps explain the “preexisting” conditions that render African Americans more likely to die from this novel virus. But the organization of care work and service work matters as well. As the historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains, fewer than 20 percent of African Americans have jobs that allow them to work at home, with most concentrated in service jobs, mass transit, retail, and health care. Classified as “essential” but underpaid, these workers continue to care for others while exposing themselves to risk of disease.53 Though they lived under very different conditions, Truth and Tubman helped articulate a far-reaching program for old-age justice built around the principle that those who provide care also deserve care as a social and political priority, enabling us to envision how we might begin to theorize the importance of later life to visions of a more equitable future.
This research was made possible by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and a Drawn to Art Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society.
For recent overviews of black girl studies, see Webster, “History of Black Girls”; Jordan-Zachery and Harris, Black Girl Magic; and Owens et al., “Towards an Interdisciplinary Field.”
Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 186. Foucault developed the related concept of biopolitics in History of Sexuality and hr8822590C28“Society Must Be Defended.” See also Glenn, Forced to Care; and Lerner, “Aging in Bondage.”
This essay builds on a special issue of American Quarterly, offering one answer to the editors Greta LaFleur and Kyla Schuller’s call for more attention to the “role of the household in the history of both labor exploitation and antiblack thought” (“Introduction,” 618). See esp. Windon, “Superannuated,” 767–87.
Humez, Harriet Tubman, 92–107; Larson, Bound, 271–76; National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, History of the Club Movement, 55, 58; Taylor, “Appeal”; Woman’s Journal, “To Save Harriet Tubman’s Home”; Talbert, “New York,” 5.