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Jennifer Fleischner

slave, dressmaker, abolitionist, and White House memoirist, was born Elizabeth Hobbs in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, the daughter of Armistead Burwell, a white slaveholder, and his slave Agnes Hobbs. Agnes was the family nurse and seamstress. Her husband, George Pleasant Hobbs, the slave of another man, treated “Lizzy” as his own daughter, and it was not until some years later, after George had been forced to move west with his master, that Agnes told Lizzy the identity of her biological father. While her mother taught her sewing, the skill that would make her name and fortune, it was George Hobbs who first instilled in Lizzy a profound respect for learning. Ironically, it was Armistead Burwell, who repeatedly told Lizzy she would never be “worth her salt,” who probably sparked her ambition to succeed and prove him wrong.

As a young girl Hobbs lived in ...

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Edna G. Bay

high official in the government of King Glele (1858–1889) of the Fon kingdom of Dahomey (located in what is now southern Benin), held the key office of Tononu, a position that is sometimes compared with that of the head wife in polygynous marriages (e.g., the woman who directed all others in the household). Reportedly the king’s favorite, Visesegan was one of thousands of the king’s wives or dependents, all of whom—women and men—were called ahosi. A woman grown wealthy through commercial activities, Visesegan played a central political role in two major internal struggles of the late nineteenth century: the question of which prince would succeed Glele, and the development of appropriate responses to French demands that led to the 1892 invasion and conquest of Dahomey.

In the late nineteenth century an estimated five thousand plus women and a much smaller number of eunuchs inhabited a series of ...