Abolition And Slavery

Women and Abolition

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Though our American cousins ended slavery thirty years after the British, the same genesis, the discontented spirit of women as penned by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Rights of Women (1792), "the means and arts by which women had been forcibly subjugated, flattered into imbecility and invariably held in bondage," started everyone to think about all peoples in bondage.

Here's my friend Piper Hugeley talking about Women and Abolition in the Americas.

By Piper Hugeley

The right for women to vote in the United States is only 95 years old. And it might have never happened if women had not found their voices on another issue that was seen reflect the growing morality in the early part of the nineteenth century: Slavery.  It was in the cause of freeing the slaves that many women were able to find their public voices and be heard. This development of women into abolitionists, helped other women realize they had a right to contribute to the public discourse.

The outcry over the immorality of slavery can be said to be rooted in two things.  First of all, there was a widespread belief and knowledge of the Bible.  Using the enslaved to generate an income was seen by many as thwarting the intention of Genesis 3:19. The promise of the United States meant for many, including Abraham Lincoln, that people were supposed to earn their own bread through by their own sweat.  Taking on slaves meant that others were used to do to make this money, thus breaking a covenant with God’s law.

Secondly, as the moral authority for their families, women were a large part of the outcry over slavery. They began to be drawn to the issue because of the unspoken use of the enslaved woman’s body as breeding grounds for increasing the unearned wealth of those who owned the enslaved population.  The problem was that in the 1830’s women were supposed to only oversee the private sphere of the home.  So, this aspect of enslavement did not receive public attention until an African-American widow, Maria (pronounced Mariah) Stewart began to speak up about it.  In fact, Stewart was the first woman to speak to a promiscuous (meaning mixed in gender) audience about the evils of slavery. 

Life as a public speaker was rough going for her. She only gave her lectures for two years, then compiled the lectures into a book that William Lloyd Garrison published. Then, she stepped down from speaking publicly for the rest of her life.  She said later said:  “It was the nature of man to crush his fellow.”  Ouch. Other women who followed Stewart had bad experiences as well. According to The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism, Julie Roy Jeffrey says of other women, “The Grimke sisters speaking tour occasioned a major clerical rebuke, while Abby Kelley was branded as a Jezebel during her tour of Connecticut….Ellen Smith, who lectured in a church in Main in 1843, left a vivid account of her hostile audience…Boys sitting in the church’s galleries threw hymn books at her, and she was lucky to escape without injury.”

By the 1840’s, women took up the cause by organizing and joining anti-slavery societies. For instance, the American Missionary Society, still in existence today, was founded during this decade. Other women took up their pens to fight the cause.  Famous writer Lydia Maria Child ruined her prolific novel writing career by penning an anti-slavery tract.  African American Frances Ellen Watkins Harper took up her pen and wrote poetry during this time period. Into the 1850’s, Harriet Jacobs penned her famous Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and the most famous anti-slavery book of all time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published.

The disapproval of women entering the public space of the lecture stage did not stop them completely from speaking against slavery.  Young school children these days are still learning of the haunting nature of the words of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Although apocryphal, Truth’s speech is still seen as a hallmark of helping populations of all stripes recognize the humanity of the enslaved. As a result, the fight for their freedom increased in tempo. 

Jeffrey points out that Harper worked for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society for a time as a lecturer.  As a young woman of color, she was able to draw in crowd to hear her speak. One of the newspapers of the day said, “”Miss W. is slightly tinged with African blood, but the color only serves to add a charm to the occasion which nothing else give.’” Jeffrey continues, “Negative stereotypes of black women as different from white ‘ladies’ apparently also played a role in legitimating her speeches.”

Women found their voices through several means, but it all began in the early 1830’s with one brave soul—Maria Stewart. She was willing to let people know of the suffering the enslaved endured.  Yet, she still made sure to use of her faith Christianity when she would say:

Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation--'Who shall go

forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people

of color? Shall it be a woman?' And my heart made this reply--

'If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!'

Jeffrey, Julie Roy. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: The U of NC P, 1998.

Stewart, Maria. “Lecture at Franklin Hall.” Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, ed. Marilyn Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987

About Piper Huguley

Piper Huguley seeks to make new inroads in the publication of historical romance by featuring African American Christian characters.  The Lawyer’s Luck and The Preacher’s Promise, the first books in her “Home to Milford College” series, are Amazon best sellers.  The Mayor’s Mission, published in Winter 2014.  The next entry in the series, The Representative’s Revolt will publish in Spring 2015. She is a 2013 Golden Heart finalist for her novel, A Champion’s Heart—the fourth book in “Migrations of the Heart”. The first book in the series, A Virtuous Ruby, was the first-place winner in The Golden Rose Contest in 2013 and was a Golden Heart finalist in 2014. The first three books in the “Migrations of the Heart” series, which follows the loves and lives of African American sisters during America’s greatest internal migration in the first part of the twentieth century, will be published by Samhain Publishing in 2015.  She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son.