The movement for abolition in England and the United States was instrumental in motivating women to assume an active role in the shaping of public events. Abolitionist women broke new ground in the areas of public speaking and writing. The urgency and gravity of the cause of abolition outweighed social conventions that restrained women from assuming this public role.
The earliest American woman to participate in the abolition movement — indeed, the first woman to speak publicly as a woman to a mixed audience — was Maria W. Stewart. Her landmark address at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill in Boston and her publication in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator occurred in 1831. They were followed by 3 additional public addresses, all subsequently published in Garrison’s paper, and the publication of a set of Meditations. Stewart undertook her public speaking career as a response to a profound conversion experience; her exhortations and public defense of freedom for enslaved Africans and dignity for women were her answer to a divine call. Controversy surrounding her public activities, however, may have encouraged her withdrawal from the public scene in 1832; her activist career, however, continued until her death in 1879.
Stewart was quickly followed by other forceful women around the country, who wrote, spoke, and undertook civil disobedience in the cause of ending the social evil of slavery. These included the free black women who organized the first woman’s anti-slavery society, the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts in 1832. The Society was re-organized in 1834 to include white women; it came to include among its members prominent abolitionists like Lucy Stone, Sarah Parker Remond and Charlotte Forten (later Charlotte Forten Grimké). The list of women who later became active in the movement for women’s suffrage who gained their political skills in the abolition movement is legend. The history of these two causes, for racial and for gender justice, remain deeply intertwined — another lesson of women’s history.
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Online Text of Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart presented to the First Africa Baptist Church & Society, of the City of Boston, which includes “Reliigon and the Pure Principles of Morality,” “Meditations,” “Lecture Delivered at the Franklin Hall” and “An Adress Delivered at the African Masonic Hall”
Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, “Maria W. Miller Stewart, ‘Lecture Delivered at Franklin Hall’ (21 September 1832), a thematic, historical-critical analysis of Stewart’s address
Margaret Washington, “‘Rachel weeping for Her Children’: Black Women and the Abolition of Slavery”
Discusses Maria W. Stewart in the larger context of African-American women’s leadership in the abolitionist cause.
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Exploring the Lives of Black Women During the 19th Century discusses Maria W. Stewart in the larger context of African-American women’s participation in the movements for abolition and women’s rights
A biography of Charlotte Forten Grimké
Biography of Sarah Parker Remond, abolitionist, activist, physician