LBU Together

Harriet Tubman and her fight for racial and gender equality in nineteenth century America

During our History degree at Leeds Beckett, we have studied several aspects of women's history and have learned about many inspirational women.

Published on 03 Mar 2021
Students walking in front of James Graham building, Headingley Campus

However, one figure who we felt really encapsulated the IWD 2021 #choosetochallenge theme is Harriet Tubman. Famed for her work as an abolitionist and activist, Tubman ‘chose to challenge’ racial and gender equality in nineteenth century America. Her story also has contemporary relevance, with recent attempts to commemorate her legacy generating considerable controversy

In March 1822, Tubman was born in New York, where from the age of just six, she worked for multiple plantation owners. During heavy forest work undertaken in her teens, she suffered a serious head injury and was left bleeding and unconscious for two days. This incident caused lifelong epilepsy, triggering a series of visions that Tubman interpreted as messages from God, which would guide her throughout her life.

Tubman managed to escape plantation life in 1848 using the underground railroad. However following her escape, she put herself at risk when she disguised herself and returned to the plantation several times to free approximately seventy other slaves. This led to a $40,000 reward being placed on her head. Using money she made through working various odd jobs, she purchased a plot of land in Auburn, New York, which became a ‘haven’ for those she had freed.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Tubman was active in a group of Boston abolitionists and participated in the Combahee River Raid in which a further seven hundred and fifty slaves were rescued. Along with this, she also worked as a nurse in Port Royal. Tubman’s work as an activist did not stop after the American Civil War ended and slavery was abolished in 1865. While continuing to tend to her land in New York, she also promoted women’s equality by speaking at numerous suffrage meetings. For Tubman, her experiences were evidence that women deserved equality with men.

Today, Harriet Tubman’s legacy serves as a symbol of the continued fight against injustices in American Society. Her incredible story has cemented her status as a popular history icon with her story being adapted for the big screen in 2019, alongside her recent depiction in a comic book series aimed at younger audiences. This serves to interweave Tubman’s story into wider American culture and mythology, particularly within the African American community.

Watch: Video trailer for the film “Harriet” about the life of Harriet Tubman.

However, a recent plan to more formally commemorate Tubman by depicting her as the new face of the $20 bill (replacing former American President - and slave holder - Andrew Jackson) was met with resistance. Initially proposed by the Obama administration in 2016, the plans were blocked during the Trump administration (2017-21) only to be recently resurrected again by the current Biden administration. The initiative has also recently been criticised as 'disrespectful’ to Tubman and her legacy as an abolitionist. There has also been push back due to Tubman’s physical appearance, as some people rejected her older portrait as ‘not glamorous enough’ to feature on the $20 bill. An alternative photograph, purporting to show a ‘younger Tubman’ even began circulating on social media, although this image was not actually her. This shows how contemporary beliefs and gender stereotypes continue to affect popular perceptions of women in history. Surely Tubman’s remarkable actions are what should cerement her status in American history, rather than her physical appearance.

Harriet Tubman provides an excellent example of a woman who ‘chose to challenge’ through her heroic actions as an abolitionist and activist, promoting racial and gender equality. However, while her story has been widely publicised, the recent controversies over her commemoration also show the need for us to continue to ‘choose to challenge’ regressive views and outdated stereotypes today.