The Role of Women
"When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly women's cause." - Frederick Douglass
Enslaved women had been working against slavery for years, as the example of Elizabeth Freeman, who successfully sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for her freedom, indicates. Women also played a central role in the abolition movement that emerged in the 1830s.
Women, both white and black, played a central role in abolition efforts, and those efforts, in turn, created the context in which the women's rights movement emerged in the mid-eighteenth century at Seneca Falls, New York. Women organized abolition efforts in parallel with the efforts of men. For instance, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded following the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, whose founding meeting included a small number of women.
The common cultural ideal that women ought to be primarily concerned about their household provided a way to convince them about the need to end slavery. Harriet Jacobs and her editor, Lydia Maria Child, for instance, attempted to convince Northern white women to work against slavery by pulling on their heartstrings, asking them to imagine what life must be like for black mothers, torn apart from their children and suffering sexual abuse at the hands of predatory slaveholders.
In addition to Harriet Jacobs, other African American, such as Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth, worked as activists, lecturers, and writers in the abolition effort.
In 1833, Prudence Crandall opened a school in eastern Connecticut "for the reception of young ladies and little misses of color." This event sent a shock wave through Connecticut society and brought abolitionism center stage. Crandall, a Quaker, had, at the invitation of town leaders, originally opened a school for local white girls in 1831. In 1833, Sarah Harris, an African American girl, asked to attend the school and Crandall, having read copies of William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator given to her by one of her employees, agreed. She explained, "My feelings began to awaken . . . [I] saw the prejudice of whites against color was deep and inveterate."
Immediately, there was a strong community backlash against Crandall. The white students were pulled out of the school by their parents, yet Crandall refused to yield to their demands, and the school was eventually closed. She reopened the school in 1833, specifically for young black women, again to strong community reaction -- local stores would not do business with her, the local doctor refused to treat the students, and neighbors threw rocks and eggs at the building. One local opponent explained, "The colored people can never rise from their menial condition in our country, they ought not be permitted to rise here."
In response to Crandall's school, the state legislature passed the "Black Law," which forbade out-of-state students of color from attending schools in Connecticut without the permission of the local community. Crandall was arrested in 1833 and stood trial; the school was closed in 1834. Arthur Tappan, a leading New York abolitionist, paid for Crandall's defense. Crandall's courage stood as a testament to many women of the time, fostering an emerging political consciousness.
To learn more about Prudence Crandall, click here
Maria W. Stewart
Maria W. Stewart was one of the first American women to give a public address; in 1832 she spoke at Franklin Hall, in Boston, at the African American Female Intelligence Society. She was a close associate of David Walker and, the next year, in 1833, was among the first women to offer a public address to a mixed-gender audience when she spoke to a group at the African Masonic Lodge, where Abdul Rahman had spoken only five years earlier.
Her speeches often emphasized the importance of both religion and education in improving the lives of African Americans, as in her most famous speech, "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on which We Must Build." In her speeches to African American audiences, she emphasized the need for black people to transform themselves so as to facilitate their freedom: "My beloved brethren, as Christ has died in vain for those who will not accept of offered mercy, so will it be in vain for the advocates of freedom to spend their breath in our behalf, unless with united hearts and souls you make some mighty efforts to raise your sons and daughters from the horrible state of servitude and degradation in which they are placed."
Stewart continued her work on behalf of enslaved people even after emancipation. Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, Stewart traveled to the South to assist newly-freed people in their efforts to find work and participate fully in society.
To read Maria Steward's essay in Early Negro Writing: 1760-1837, click here
Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., April 19, 1866
© Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-33937
© Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.