Can a Murderess be a Political Heroine? Blog Post by Taylor Dunn



The story of Margaret Garner is a tragic one. On trial for the murder of her daughter, the devastating reality of slavery for those experiencing it is revealed. Viewed by many as an act of horrifying violence, Margaret Garner’s actions are a controversial topic of discussion. Without understanding the reasoning behind this distressing act, it is only natural to view the murder of a young child by its mother as a crime of the cruellest kind. However, as a victim of slavery, Garner’s opportunities to speak on her own behalf were practically non-existent. Instead, a slave “could only be known through his master,” denying slaves all rights to a voice. As a result of this, Garner’s case became subject to ventriloquism – and instead of speaking was spoken for by ‘commentators’ ‘claiming access to her inner life.’ Consequentially, much information gathered on Margaret Garner’s case was distorted and untrue, so much so that records of those who described the scene were so inaccurate in their portrayal that they even mistook the gender of Garner’s victim – two and a half year old Mary for a ‘son’. In addition to this, those prejudiced against Margaret Garner’s case – particularly unionist and pro-Southern editorialists – used the event to ‘demonize’ Garner, despite others taking the view that Garner’s actions make her a political heroine for choosing to take her daughter’s life instead of subjecting her to endless ‘suffering’ and ‘unmitigating toil’. According to Mark Reinhardt’s journal article, these contradictory claims reflected the general pattern of the coverage of Garner’s case, highlighting the dangers and controversy of ventriloquism and the single story. This presence and absence of speech can be traced throughout history in cases of not only slavery, but race and also gender. In investigating the lack of women’s literary voices throughout history, is it justified to suggest that the female gender was reduced to the same status as slaves and criminals in patriarchal society? Or are the accounts of female writers by male ventriloquists enough?



12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sofie Korstadhagen on October 19, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    If we compare white British women, with black slaves, there is a huge difference. It’s a huge difference in how they have been treated and also how or if their ‘voice’ have been heard. I think the answer to the question about women being at the same level as slaves is both yes and no. Women have been thought of as people with no thoughts, just like slaves have been. But then again, women haven’t been tortured and done hard labour that almost killed them. When it comes to voice, women in Britain have been able to publish their writing for centuries longer than black people in America. Black slaves spoke through their master, and therefore their writing wasn’t usable, which has led to a lot of ‘writing for’, like with Margaret Garner. It is a difficult question and a question that one needs to go really deep to answer. It’s almost as if one has to put up a poll and ask ‘who suffered the most?’


  2. Posted by Afshan Ahmad on October 19, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    The ‘accounts of female writers by male ventriloquists’, as Taylor puts it, are most certainly not enough. In fact, the ‘single story’ which Reinhardt refers to was an unjust representation of those subjected to the authority of owners and all other oppressors. Also, I do not think that the female gender was reduced to the same status as slaves as the roles of slaves were filled men and women, as well as children. I do however, think that Margret Garner was easier to demonise by the press because she was a woman. This is evident through the ways in which the media displayed her as a bad mother in order to prove her as a criminal.


  3. Posted by Shani on October 20, 2016 at 10:20 am

    It isn’t justified to suggest that the experience of women as a whole is on the same level as slaves. However, it can definitely be acknowledged that women, like slaves, have been silenced, spoken for, and misrepresented. Even then, women experience this silencing in different degrees depending on their ethnic background, their financial background, and a myriad of other factors, but this can all be condensed and ignored by viewing all women (or all slaves) through the same lens. Taylor’s point on the danger of the single story is prominent when thinking about Reinhardt’s point on ventriloquism and the right to speak for slaves; both the unionist’s and the abolitionist’s arguments demonstrated that they held a limited perspective on slaves – either a property, or as political hero(in)es. Both led to highly exaggerated views on Margaret Garner’s actions.


  4. I agree with Afshan that accounts of female writers by male ventriloquists, are certainly not enough. Margaret Garner was on trial for the murder of her own child. In Tony Morrison’s novel Beloved there is a fictional insight into the reason behind her act of violence on the child that she had carried for nine months and then gave birth to and nurtured for her two and a half years of life…to avoid a life of slavery, torture and rape. The case itself was used in a political storm to question the legislation of Slavery that returned slaves to their owners from a free state. The ventriloquism used, was able to harness very powerful ideas particularly among the unionist and pro-Southern editorialists, demonising a female slave and removing an authentic voice of truth and justice with a warning of the dangers of freeing said woman into society instead of returning her to the owners she had fled from.


  5. I agree with Afshan that the accounts of female writers by male ventriloquists is certainly not enough. Margaret Garner murdered her own child,and in Tony Morrison’s Beloved there is a fictional insight into the reason behind this act of violence towards her daughter, who she carried in her womb for nine months, gave birth to and nurtured for the two and a half years of her life…to avoid a life of Slavery, torture and rape.
    The case was used as a political storm to challenge the Slavery legislation that allowed a slave to be returned to its owner from a free state and the ventriloquism was a tool to demonise a black female slave particularly among the unionist and pro-Southern editorialists that would most certainly distort an authentic and justified truth, in order to warn of the dangers of setting free said woman into society instead of returning her to her owners.


  6. Posted by annakhan on October 20, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Though on some level women have been perceived as slaves, it isn’t correct to place them on the same level as an actual slave as their degree of suffering is regarded as being more intense than a woman living in a patriarchal society. However the reason for this could be due to women being entrapped with no freedom of speech, therefore the magnitiutude of their suffering was never fully acknowledged or accounted for.


  7. Posted by Lenni-Mai Levy on October 20, 2016 at 11:37 am

    I do not believe that women were subjected to the treatment that slaves received, it does not come close. Whilst women were oppressed by patriarchal systems, slaves received unjust treatment, regardless of their sex, class, age and race. This therefore, Slaves were also men, women and children. I do agree, with Shani, because, yes they were misrepresented, but it was based on other factors. To put forth a question of ‘who suffered the most’ is almost an insult to the slaves who suffered at the hands of of their slave masters.


  8. Posted by Kristine Aasland on October 20, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Reading Reinhardt’s essay was quite frustrating for me. I found myself really wanting to know the actual story of Margaret Garner, to hear her own version of it all, and then somewhat annoyed at the many versions of her story produced. Taylor quotes Reinhardt on ventriloquism in her blogpost, where he writes about how many who ‘discuss the case end up speaking for Margaret Garner, putting words in her mouth and claiming access to her inner life.’ (p. 84) I wonder if we are better listeners today, that is, if we are better at letting people produce their own stories today?


  9. Posted by Yasmin on October 20, 2016 at 11:51 am

    I agree with Taylor’s point of there never being accurate accounts of the hardships slaves faced at the hands of their white oppressors. In the same breath, I really relished the idea of Toni Morrison’s giving a voice to the Margaret Gardener’s often distorted life, as I am more inclined to believe the narrative of a black author when discussing slavery. In terms of the questions posed by Taylor, I believe the lack of female literary voices in history pales in significance when compared to the plights black slaves suffered. I think the two can never be compared or even spoken about in the same breath.


  10. Posted by Lucy Goodall on October 21, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    I found this essay very interesting. By comparing the suffering of a slave to the suffering of females, it almost oppresses the slaves struggle and once again demonstrates that their struggle is irrelevant which highlights more inequalities. I found Anna’s point valid that being a slave bears similarity to women in a patriarchal society as the ‘magnitiutude of their suffering was never fully acknowledged or accounted for.’ Although parallels can be drawn between the two, it is important to remember that women did not suffer to anywhere near the same extent that slaves did.


  11. Posted by Neeti Rao on October 24, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    Women’s position in the society was more or less like a slave. They were expected to carry out tasks such as birthing children and raising them, looking after the house – all tasks which were assigned by the patriarchal society. Women were owned. Similarly, the slaves were also owned so what is the difference between a slave and a woman? However, I do agree with the points made above which present the argument that women cannot be placed at the same level as slaves because of the different type of unjust treatment happening to both slaves and women. But it cannot be ignored that both went through an oppression which cannot be justified. So this is a contradiction on my side where I like to believe that women should not be compared to slaves due to the cruel treatment of slaves. However, it cannot be disregarded that both were victims of tyrant.


  12. Posted by Ashley Foley on October 27, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    I would not say that women in any way have had to suffer the same hardships as slaves. However, I will argue that both the voice of both women and slaves have been suppressed by the same superior male figure, who they are both owned and spoken for. Like Taylor has stated, both have not been given the chance to be speak and have constantly been spoken for. A ‘single story’ had been attached to both women and slaves for a very long time before they were allowed or reveled against their suppressor to get their story out.


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