White Women Abolitionists: More 19th‐Century Freedom Fighters
Having previously discussed abolitionist black women, Presley highlights some of the white women in the movement to end slavery.
The valiant efforts of abolitionist men like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown are well‐known to many Americans, as is the heroic activism of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. (I have written about Truth, Tubman and other black women abolitionists in a prior essay.) However, though Garrison and Douglass get credit for their early writings against slavery in the 1830s, unknown white women like Elizabeth Heyrick, Frances Wright, and Elizabeth Margaret Chandler were already protesting in the 1820s.
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 woman’s cause.
Elizabeth Margaret Chandler
Elizabeth Margaret Chandler was by birthright a white Quaker. In both Philadelphia and in Michigan, she wrote anti‐slavery pieces and supported the free produce movement, i.e., she only bought produce from the free Northern states and none from the slave South. This commitment to principle was not without cost, since most sugar for baking and cotton for dresses came from the South. Mixing social events with recruiting by asking her friends to join her to read over antislavery material, she co‐founded the first anti‐slavery society of any type in Michigan in 1832.
Also a poet, her first literary effort was at the age of 18, “The Slave Ship,” was first published in the Casket, a literary miscellany, in 1826. It won a prize. It was reprinted in abolitionist Benjamin Lundy’s magazine Genius of Universal Emancipation. At his invitation, Chandler joined the editorial staff in 1827 and was later joined by Garrison. She was also later to write articles for Garrison’s publication, The Liberator.
Chandler also introduced one of the most famous abolitionist images, the kneeling female slave with the slogan “Am I not a Woman and a Sister.” The idea was taken from the depiction of a male slave in the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, designed by pottery maker and English abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood. William Lloyd Garrison later adopted this symbol and slogan to head the “ladies department” of The Liberator.
Lucretia Mott, a petite Quaker powerhouse, was as fierce an advocate of abolitionism and women’s rights as any reformer in the 19th century. Even when scorned by her fellow Quakers, who thought she was too radical for a woman, she persisted for more than three decades.
Not only strongly opposed to slavery, Mott, like Chandler, advocated boycotting the products of slave labor. This prompted her supportive husband James to get out of the cotton trade around 1830. She and James remained staunch crusaders all their lives.
According to the Biography website: “Lucretia Mott and her husband attended the famous World’s Anti‐Slavery Convention in London in 1840, the one that refused to allow women to be full participants. This led to her joining Elizabeth Cady Stanton in calling the famous Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848… and from that point on she was dedicated to women’s rights and published her influential Discourse on Woman (1850).”
Sarah and Angelina Grimke
The Grimke sisters were two of the most important pioneers in both the abolitionist and feminist movements of the nineteenth century. Born into a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, they might at first seem like unlikely candidates for such pioneers. A life of privilege in the highly patriarchal South, where women were taught to be “proper” and gracious homemakers, is an unlikely milieu for political radicals. But they had minds of their own from the very beginning.
Like so many radical women in the 19th century, the intellectual journey of the sisters led them to the Quakers at an early point. They were impressed with the Quaker idea that men and women are equal in the inner light. Though the Quakers had an important influence on both sisters, they eventually became disillusioned with the prejudice against blacks within the Quaker community. They also defied the wishes of their Quaker community, which did not think it was seemly for women to make opinions public, with their public support of abolitionism.
Both sisters were lecturers for the abolitionist cause, the only women among Theodore Weld’s band of 70 who toured New England in the 1830s. Offering a unique perspective because they were former slave owners, they acquired a large following among women. It is estimated that over 40,000 people heard them speak. Their lecturing helped create respect for and attention to the rights of women. However, they were also viciously attacked for being public speakers, since doing so was considered “improper” by the standards of the day. Ministers even vilified them from the pulpit, accusing them of not following their “appropriate duties” as stated in the New Testament. The most vicious attack, the “Pastoral Letter from the Council of Congregationalist Ministers of Massachusetts,” called the sisters “unwomanly and unchristian,” claiming that their speaking in public would “…threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury.” Sarah and Angelina, though concerned by this criticism, remained undaunted. Censure only spurred the sisters to defend the rights of women in a series of essays.
During their years of public activity (1837–39), both Sarah and Angelina’s writings made significant contributions to the abolitionist movement. At the first convention of antislavery women in 1837 in New York, not only were both sisters elected officers, the two formal publications endorsed and sponsored by this convention were written by the Grimke sisters—Angelina’s An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States and Sarah’s Address to Free Colored Americans. Angelina’s essay, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, argued that petitions were an especially appropriate means of political expression for women, an important point to make in a time when women’s activities outside the home were frowned upon by many. In 1836 Sarah penned An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, a call to the southern clergy asking them to support the northern abolitionist cause.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke served as role models for many younger women activists to follow, including Abby Kelley, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony. The two sisters are among the eighteen women to whom Stanton, Anthony, and Matilda Gage’s monumental History of Woman Suffrage is dedicated. Pioneers in a time when there were almost no role models for them, Sarah and Angelina Grimke truly paved the way for the women resisters who were to come.
Lydia Maria Child
“Over the river and through the woods, to grandfather’s house we go…” Though most of us born in 20th century America remember the lyrics as “grandmother’s,” almost all of us have heard this charming song. Almost none of us know that the writer was one of the most outstanding abolitionists of the 19th century, a writer so gifted and so dedicated to the cause of human freedom that William Lloyd Garrison referred to her as “the first woman of the republic,” Lydia Child was a prolific author and editor with a string of impressive accomplishments that included 57 books and tracts, and thousands of letters. She founded the first children’s magazine in the U.S.; wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, the first book by a white person on the issue on slavery; and was an advocate of Native American rights, writing a novel and many articles on that.. But, like so many other women of accomplishment in the 19th century, Child was virtually unknown in the 20th. Not until the 1980s and the 1990s was her remarkable career brought to light again.
Even before she became an active abolitionist, Child campaigned against prejudice and slavery. She used her children’s books and her magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, as a vehicle for combating racial prejudice, publishing her first antislavery story in 1830. Each subsequent issue contained antislavery commentary. In 1831, she editorialized against slavery in the Massachusetts Journal, edited by her antislavery husband David Lee Child. Not afraid of controversy like so many of her rivals, these writings reflected Child’s uncompromising commitment to the cause of human freedom.
Though her literary career ranged from children’s material and household advice to Native American rights, Child’s greatest legacy was as a scholar and writer in the fight against slavery. According to According to her biographer, Carolyn L. Karcher, no other white abolitionist researched African cultures more thoroughly or dedicated herself more to refuting racist myths. Child’s book An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called African, published in 1833, was a powerful and carefully researched book that influenced many people to join the abolitionist cause. In 1836, she published Anti‐Slavery Catechism, which addressed fears about the effects of immediate emancipation. The Evils of Slavery, and the Cure for Slavery was published in 1836. Child also protested against slavery and racism in two other books, Philothea (1836), a book highly praised by Edgar Allan Poe, and The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1845). These are only some of the antislavery tracts she wrote.
Child paid a high price for her abolitionist activism. Since most Americans disapproved of the abolitionists, her choice to become an activist crippled her literary career. When Appealin Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africa came out, The JuvenileMiscellany folded, her innovative childrearing Mother’s Book went out of print, and sales of The FrugalHousewife dropped precipitously. Renouncing a highly coveted paean of praise and recognition from the prestigious NorthAmerican Review, she was forced to give up her livelihood at a time when she and her husband were in bad financial circumstances. It took great moral courage to renounce her promising literary career and her livelihood for what she considered a higher calling. She was well aware that her positions on race would be condemned. In the essay in An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans , writing on the topic of laws against interracial marriage she says: “I am perfectly aware of the gross ridicule to which I may subject myself by alluding to this particular; but I have lived too long, and observed too much, to be disturbed by the world’s mockery.” Once again, moral courage. She also sacrificed valued friendships to become an abolitionist. When her cherished role model, writer Catherine Sedgwick, objected to her radical views, speaking out for moderation instead, Child’s impassioned response was “Moderation! How can you be moderate?”
Like many other abolitionists, Abby Kelley (later Abby Kelley Foster) was raised a Quaker. Influenced by a speech by William Lloyd Garrison, she became an abolitionist and soon was appointed as a delegate to the first national Anti‐Slavery Convention of American Women in New York City.
Kelley was also in the thick of the debate about the involvement of women within the abolitionist movement. The Garrisonians favored the activism of women but the more traditional forces thought that they should keep quiet. According to the National Abolition Hall of Fame, “When she was elected to the business committee at the annual meeting of the American Anti‐Slavery Society in 1840, Lewis Tappan and other opponents walked out to found the American and Foreign Anti‐Slavery Society.” Even reformers have their prejudices.
Abby Kelley, says the National Abolition Hall of Fame, “is most remembered for her advocacy of “come‐outerism” the belief that abolitionists must leave churches that did not fully condemn slavery.” She eventually disowned the Society of Friends because it had violated “its own professed principles on the question of slavery.” Her future husband, Stephen Symonds Foster, joined her in this campaign against pro‐slavery churches.
The Legacy of the Women Abolitionists
The work of the abolitionist women had a strong influence on the feminist reforms yet to come later in the nineteenth century. Many women’s rights advocates, such as Stanton, Mott and Kelley, first began learning their political skills in the abolitionist movement. They learned how to organize, speak, and strategize. Petition campaigns gave them firsthand experience in practical politics. Thinking about the condition of slaves raised their awareness of their own subordinate status. Many women, including most notably, Angelina Grimke in “Appeal to the Christian Ladies of the South,” could see parallels between their status and those of slaves. ”It was while being denied the right to speak because of their sex at the World Antislavery Convention in London in 1840,” writes historian Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, “that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton hatched the idea for the women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls New York, eight years later.”
Without women the abolitionist movement would not have succeeded to the extent it did. They raised the funds to keep the movement going; their petition campaigns were critical in the political arena; and they wrote many of the pamphlets, poems and articles that provided the “moral suasion” of the Garrisonians. No movement succeeds simply on the basis of a few key leaders, no matter how charismatic they are. Without the contributions of the women, both white and black, the abolitionist movement may very well have faltered and the antislavery movement set back for many more years. It is fortunate that historians have now allowed us to finally recognize the contributions of these brave women. They clearly understood that freedom means freedom for all, not just for a privileged few, and they were willing to fight for that principle, even at the cost of disapproval and censure.