An Alphabet of Feminism #5: E is for Emancipate
She bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power. ‘I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’
-Sojourner Truth speaking in 1851, as recalled by Matilda Gage in History of Woman Suffrage
Well in hand
Alas and alack, I have no Latin language linked tea-towel (or indeed any other lexical kitchenware). So I had to do some trans-linguistic dictionary groping (oh ho) to reveal that the verb ‘emancipate’ can be broken down into not one but three etymological building blocks (oh, alright pedant, two words and one suffix).
Ahem. These are: ‘e-’ (out of), ‘manus’ (hand), ‘capere’ (to capture, to seize). So to emancipate is, etymologically speaking, something like ‘to release something captured from your hand’. Its first meaning in the OED is ‘to release or set free (a child or a wife) from the patria potestas, the power of the pater familias‘. Most of those Latin words come back to the same idea: Big Daddy and his eternal potency, and it is here that, presumably, the ‘Emancipation of Women’ has its phrasal origins. To emancipate someone is to relinquish the (legal) power that you hold over them, and it is thus that, in its association with women’s rights, the word has come to be associated with first wave feminism and its fight for property rights, women’s suffrage and basic legal equality. It is presumably for this reason that it is no longer widely considered technically applicable to gender issues, as a quick look at Wikipedia will confirm.
But emancipate also has a definitional cousin in the word ‘manumit’ (‘to set forth from one’s hand’), which means ‘to release from slavery’, and indeed, slavery – and emancipate‘s second definition - is where we must next turn. Of course the Romans who bandy these manii around were, if not exactly pioneers, at least great practitioners of the flesh trade. But, perhaps unexpectedly, they did have a sort of ‘liberal’ edge to their way of doing things: slaves could be legally freed, and, as ‘freedmen’, often enjoyed considerable socio-political power (the Vettii brothers in Pompeii were famous for having a rather rockin’ house).
Thus, emancipate‘s second meaning, ‘to set free from control; to release from legal, social or political restraint’, which, as the dictionary points out, has in modern use acquired a primary application to slavery, with ‘other uses felt to be transferred from this’. In ancient Rome, female slaves (‘libertae’), of course, had less options, and generally ended up marrying their former masters (oh, the liberalism), suggesting that they might need emancipation in the third sense – ‘to set free from intellectual or moral restraint’, and in fact getting into its fourth and final meaning, ‘to enslave’, via the explanatory quotation, ‘a wiues emancipating herself to another husband’. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
In the years following the Emancipation Proclamation of the early 1860s, which of course challenged the slavery widely practised by a more modern empire, emancipate starts to gain something of its modern sense, as the dictionary puts it, ‘primarily suggesting the liberation of slaves’. Turning briefly to said Emancipation Proclamation, it was an ambiguous document, widely criticized for freeing only those slaves its authors had no authority over and shying away from declaring slavery itself to be illegal. The more-than-hundred years of struggle leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prove the limits of technical ‘emancipation’, and the battle that had to be fought over every remnant of restraint in American law, not least the abolition of slavery as a concept.
But where does this history take us, as followers of a gynocentric lexical trail? Well, one of emancipate‘s most interesting side-effects as a word-journey is to take us into the realms of historical figures who stood up for freedom in women’s rights as part of a wider struggle for racial – human – equality. These include Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth C. Stanton, alongside Sojourner Truth, ex-slave, abolitionist and women’s rights activist (reported to have an ‘Amazonian’ form, for those following the progress of this series intently).
Whilst technically ‘emancipated’ herself (although in practice anything but, forced due to a contextually ironic hand injury to continue working for her master after New York had finished emancipating slaves in 1827), Truth set about challenging the sexism and misogyny rife in white society alongside the need to abolish slavery. She highlighted in her most famous speech, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ (1851) how plantation owners would savagely beat their female slaves while simultaneously offering white women a hand into their carriages and over ditches. Ideally positioned to turn upon both injustices, Truth herself expressed the frying pan-fire of emancipate‘s fourth meaning when she said that “Man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.”
It is one of the recurring criticisms of modern feminism that it leaves groups behind. Emancipate is a word fraught with definitional hooks and barbs that the escapee can catch on – from legal to moral and social restraint, to, finally, re-enslaving. I chose the verbal sense for a reason.