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Abstract

If, as Angela Davis has argued, "the last decade of the nineteenth century was a critical moment in the development of modern racism," the same can be said of the development of modern feminism. Late nineteenth-century feminism, like institutional racism, saw "major institutional supports and ideological justifications" take shape across this period. Organizations of American women, both black and white, were shaping political arguments and crafting activist agendas in a post-Reconstruction America increasingly enamored of hereditary science, prone to lynching, and possessed of a virulent nationalism. This essay takes a historical view of "womanhood," bodily self-determination and well-being, concepts now at the heart of feminist thinking by women of color and white women. It explores the racist tenor of the 1890s and its impact on the concept of female "sovereignty" as it emerged in the speech and writing of four black and white intellectuals at the turn of the century. Reading work of Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells in the context of Frances Willard and Victoria Woodhull, I explore the emergence of "sovereignty" or self-determination of the body as a racially charged concept at the base of feminist work.

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