54. Promised Land
Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, c.1871
Sung by Elizabeth Knight
From the album Songs of the Suffragettes (Folkways, USA 1958)


Our weary years of wandering o’er
We greet with joy this radiant shore
The Promised Land of liberty
The dawn of freedoms morn we see
O Promised Land, we enter in
With ‘Peace on earth, good will to men;’
The ‘Golden Age’ now comes again,
As breaketh every bond and chain
While every race and sect and clime
Shall equal share in this glad time

Toilers in many fields have come
With sheaves for this, our ‘Harvest Hour’
While spirits true in every age
Have won for us this heritage
O golden dawn, O promised day,
When error’s lost in truth’s fair ray
When all shall know that God is love
His kingdom here, around above
The world one equal brotherhood
And evil overcome with good

Then onward march in truth’s crusade
Earth’s faltering ones implore our aid
The children of our schools and state
This coming of the mothers wait
O doubtful hearts, O tempted ones!
The shadows fade, the sunshine comes!
Freedom for each is best of all
The golden rule our bugle call
And as to victory on we move
The banner over us is love

…the promised land in question being an America in which women were granted the vote at a time when the broad consensus, enshrined in U.S law, was that ‘a woman is nothing. A wife is everything.’

Elizabeth Boynton Harbert [1845-1925], author, social reformer, activist, mobiliser, and suffragist was a major figure in the women’s movement in Chicago during the mid to late 19th century.

Organised efforts to secure the vote for women in America began in 1848. Harbert was one of the pioneers who turned the struggle into a popular, national movement. One of the founding members of Northwest University’s Woman’s Club of Evanston, Harbert helped establish a range of public service groups and organisations in Illinois, including the Evanston Hospital and the Association of Evanston Charities. A fierce prohibitionist, she was an early and vocal member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in which she argued for greater female representation.

Harbert was a popular speaker and efficient mobiliser. She was associate president of the World’s Unity League, vice-president of the Women’s Civic League of Pasadena, vice-president of the Southern California Woman’s Press Association, and president of the National Household Economic Association. She was president of the Illinois Woman’s Suffrage Association for twelve years [1876-1888], and was also president of the Cook County (Illinois) Woman Suffrage Society.

In 1877, in addition to co-founding and presiding over the Illinois Social Science Association, Harbert edited Women’s Kingdom, the women’s section of the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper, resigning in 1884 in opposition to the paper’s anti-prohibitionist, anti suffragist perspective. That year she founded a women’s newspaper, the New Era of Chicago, and lent her signature to the nationally promoted Declaration of Rights for Women. Through these works Harbert brought the question of female suffrage into the homes and lives of America’s white middle class. In 1909, suffragists launched a year-long drive to collect one million signatures urging Congress to pass the Federal suffrage amendment. Women received the right to vote in 1920, when Harbert was seventy five. Here’s how the Matilda Joslyn Gage website sums up Harbert’s contribution to this victory, and describes Harbert’s development as an advocate of women’s rights:

‘[in] her early writings [Harbert] expressed her belief that ‘both women and society were injured by pushing children into stereotypical sex roles that confined females to the ‘women’s sphere.’’ She thought that this practice condemned a woman to a non-productive lifetime of dependence on others. However, Harbert ‘s later writings admit that perhaps women did have some virtues and traits that were typically characteristic of her sex, such as purity, charity and fidelity. She wrote that women were ‘born to soothe and to solace, to help and to heal the sick world that leans upon her.’ Therefore, giving women the vote would allow them to fulfil their natural nurturing function. In essence, Harbert’s writings exemplified the whole movement’s shift from an elite intellectual pursuit for justice, to a middle-class reform movement that would benefit society.’

Harbert’s songwriting formed an early part of the women’s movement’s cultural canon: her song The New America was printed in a number of suffrage collections, including the programme of songs sung at the National-American Woman’s Suffrage Convention of 1891.

Irwin Silber tells us in the liner notes to Songs of the Suffragettes that Harbert dedicated Promised Land to the International Council of Women, one of the first international women’s organisations, founded in 1888. Describing the song, Silber writes Promised Land’s ‘flowery imagery and anthem like pace are typical of the spate of ‘inspirational’ songs which the suffrage crusade produced.’ Nonetheless, songs like Promised Land and the sheet music that sold them proved a valuable means of making the struggle for women’s rights part of America’s cultural landscape. And there, but for the question of race, goes Elizabeth Boynton Harbert.

The succession of Carrie Chapman Catt as head of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association [an amalgam of the National Women's Suffrage Association, of whose Illinois chapter Harbert was vice president, and the American Women's Suffrage Association] saw a shift in the organisation’s emphasis, a move away from a racially inclusive struggle for votes for women in the context of slavery and its abolition, and a move toward female suffrage as a tool of segregation and empire building. We came across this reading of Catt’s intent in a text by Clenora Hudson Weems in Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies [Lexington, 2000]:

‘Catt and other women in her camp insisted upon strong Anglo Saxon values and white supremacy. They wanted to work with white men to secure the vote for pure whites, excluding not only Africans but also white immigrants. Historians Peter Carrol and David Noble quoted Catt in ‘The Free and the Unfree: A New History of the United States’ [1977] as saying that ‘there is but one way to avert the danger. Cut off the vote of the slums and give it to [white] women.’ She continued that the middle class white men must recognise ’the usefulness of woman suffrage as a counterbalance to the foreign vote, and as a means of legally preserving white supremacy in the South.’

It would be interesting to know what Harbert made of this thinking, and whether she was of a similar mind. To do that we need to go back to the1870s, the decade in which black men received the vote. Here we turn to the work of historian Allison L Sneider and her book, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870 – 1929 [2008], in which she describes the political backdrop against which Harbert engaged with the question of race:

‘In the late 1870s, when the NWSA suffragists linked their cause to expansive national power, they swam against the tide on states’ rights. Demanding ‘national protection for national citizens’ in 1878 was an argument that looked backward to the political exigencies of post war Reconstruction but failed to resonate in the contemporary climate of a growing backlash against black male voters across the South and toward immigrant voters across the states. The Republican government’s withdrawal of Federal forces from the South marked the end of its commitment to protecting black voters and the start of a long and bloody reestablishment of white supremacist governments across the south.’ Sneider writes that ‘When the NWSA met in Washington D.C that year, Democrats held majorities in both the House and the Senate [and] regularly used the phrase ‘states’ rights’ as convenient shorthand for describing a commitment to the progressive disenfranchisement of southern blacks and the dissolution of southern Republicanism.’

Sneider then describes how Harbert got to grips with the new political climate: ‘Harbert avoided the language of states’ rights, citizenship, and black democracy and instead advanced suffragists’ aims using the language of domesticity […] Speaking at the NWSA’s platform for women’s voting rights in January 1878, Harbert told her activists that the ‘new truth, electrifying, glorifying American womanhood today, is the discovery that the state is but the larger family, the nation the old homestead […] in this national home there is a room and a corner and a duty for ‘mother.’ ’ And here is Sneider’s assessment: ‘Although Harbert herself did not argue for the vote for white women only, her conception of women voters performing the work of motherhood on a national scale implicitly reinforced the idea of the nation as a family writ large, whose citizenry was linked by a shared racial and ethnic heritage.’

…a matrilineal racial and ethnic heritage which, allowing for the anxieties around miscegenation which were in full bloom in the 1870’s, may have excluded black men and women as well as America’s indigenous peoples and its new wave of impoverished immigrant labourers. Maybe we’re being harsh, but we’re wondering whether this was the landscape Harbert had in mind when she wrote Promised Land. Perhaps the song’s ‘flowery language’ serves to mask a contradictory appeal to the universalist inclinations of the suffragist movement, the nationalist inclinations that dominated the American political scene, and the supremacist impulse that would shape America in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.

This ambiguity appears to have a correlative in the regard the formerly inclusive NWSA now had with black suffrage. Sneider cites the example of the NWSA adopting the model of literacy tests, used in the south to dissuade black men from voting, to gauge the intelligence of potential black members. Sneider points out that this new climate was sufficiently unwelcoming to make Frederick Douglass speak of an anti black prejudice among white suffragettes, and dispiriting enough make black suffragists start their own projects, citing the example of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who responded to the NWSA’s growing departure from its universalist beginnings by forming Washington’s Coloured Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in 1880.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born free, in Delaware in 1823. But free as she was, Delaware was a slave state and Cary’s family played an active role in the Underground Railroad. We read in Shamina Sneed’s Mary Ann Shadd Cary: A Biographical Sketch of The Rebel that Mary Ann’s paternal grandfather was a German soldier, Hans Shad. He married Mary Ann’s grandmother, Elizabeth Jackson, a free black woman, and it made us wonder whether the Shadd’s were ‘the kind of family writ large, whose citizenry was linked by a shared racial and ethnic heritage’, that might have populated Harbert’s Promised Land or would not have been made to feel welcome there.

Cary was a teacher by trade, and by the time she formed the Association she had migrated to Canada, where she started an integrated school in Ontario, returned to the US and published a newspaper called The Provincial Freeman with her friends Frederick Douglass and Samuel Ward of the Anti Slavery Society, received the US government’s permission to recruit black soldiers for the union army during the last years of the US civil war, and represented the black working classes of Michigan at the Coloured National Labour Union convention in Washington. After forming the Association Mary Ann Shadd Cary carried on working with white suffragettes, being one of two black representatives at the annual congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women. Cary was the first black woman to enrol in Law School, the first black female newspaper editor and publisher, and a tireless abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights.

We don’t know if Cary was much of a music lover. She might have been, though it doesn’t sound as though she’d have had the time. Whatever musical inclinations she may have had don’t seem to have extended as far as writing songs. Saying that, we can’t help but wonder whether Cary ever heard Promised Land. And bearing in mind the growing distance between the women’s movement and struggles for racial equality, we can’t help but wonder what Cary might have made of Harbert’s vision of America – what she might have seen of the song and its world in her own efforts for a new world, what commonalities and differences, ruses and truths, she would have registered, not in the words alone, but in the texture and tone of the song, its melody and rhythm, what points of fraternity and discord she may have discovered in the song’s ideas about freedom, difference, belonging, and inclusivity.

All these questions and we can’t even tell you whether the two women ever met.


Songs of the Suffragettes [Folkways, USA 1958]
Historical Perspective: Elizabeth Boynton Harbert’s mark on the Valley started with the Terre Haute Female College Class of 1862, by Mike McCormick, 2007
The Records of the Woman’s Club of Evanston,
Northwestern University The Evanston Community Foundation
Ahead of their Time: A Brief History of Woman Suffrage in Illinois,
Matilda Joslyn Gage Website Biographical Dictionary
Music and Collective Identity in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement
Africana Womanism: An Overview, by Clenora Hudson-Weems, from Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, Eds. Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, ed. Lexington Books, 2000
Suffragists in an Imperial Age, by Allison L. Sneider, Oxford University Press US, 2008
Timeline, Mary Ann Shad Cary 1823 – 1893
Mary Ann Shadd Cary; A Biographical Sketch of The Rebel, by Shamina Sneed, Stanford Law School Women’s Legal History



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