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Gender in Abolitionists

Female Abolitionists cum Suffragists

The abolitionist movement was pivotal for women, many of whom gained valuable experience with activism, organization, and a passionate commitment to ideals through their work fighting slavery. Female abolitionists got involved with politics, even if they still could not vote or hold office. They used their experience and their newfound voice to found their own movement for civil and political rights as American citizens. The women's suffrage movement and abolitionism were closely intertwined at their origins. Feminist leader Susan B. Anthony served as the principal New York agent for William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society, and delivered speeches urging her audiences to "make the slave's case our own." When Anthony was later arrested in 1872 in Rochester, New York for attempting to vote, black feminist and former abolitionist Sojourner Truth appeared at the same time at a polling booth in Grand Rapids, Michigan, demanding a ballot; she too was turned away.

In 1839, abolitionist Maria W. Chapman published the pamphlet Right and Wrong in Massachusetts, in which she argued that differences over the women's rights issue were at the center of the widening divisions among abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison was also firmly committed to women's rights; in 1840, he insisted that women be allowed to serve as delegates to abolitionist conventions. This unpopular demand, combined with Garrison's unwillingness to work with political organizations to bring about emancipation, led to a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the formation of the Foreign and American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by the wealthy Tappan brothers of New York). Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass participated in the first feminist convention at Seneca Falls in July of 1848. He was largely responsible for passage of the motion to support female suffrage, and his signature appears on the Declaration of Sentiments that became the movement's manifesto. The masthead for his antislavery newspaper, the North Star, read: "Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color." Douglass continued to support the cause until his death, which came in February 1895, just after he attended a Woman's Council meeting.

Just like their male counterparts, black and white women activists did not always get along smoothly or without controversy. Whites sometimes portrayed blacks as different from whites, but in an agreeable way; that is, they played up the virtuous or humble attributes of black people in the hope that their fellow whites would not be alarmed by the prospect of emancipation. Sometimes white activists went so far as to utilize their command of the written word and their knowledge of white society to interject phrases or speeches on behalf of black abolitionists. Frances Dana Gage (a white woman), the presiding officer at an 1851 Woman's Rights meeting in Akron, Ohio, was probably the true author of the "Ar'n't I a Woman?" line for which Sojourner Truth later became famous. Truth was a prominent black abolitionist and feminist, and Gage sought to mold and enhance her popular image. So Gage wrote the iconic line, which seemed to simultaneously symbolize Truth's race and gender, and publicly attributed it to Truth. Gage also wanted to display more formidable writing talents than her fellow white abolitionist, writer, and rival, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gage thus fictionalized the phrase, but Truth was in fact present at the meeting.

Stowe herself wrote an admiring 1863 essay about Truth entitled "The Libyan Sibyl"; both white women (Gage and Stowe) were, as historian Nell Irvin Painter writes, "fascinated by Truth and sought to capture her in writing."25 Scholars such as Painter have since criticized the Stowe essay and others like it for its portrayal of Truth as an exotic figure performing for the entertainment of white dinner party guests. They argue that such white abolitionists exhibited what historian George M. Frederickson has called a 'romantic racialism'; a sort of patronizing outlook that oversimplifies or tries to control the meaning and content of black identity and racial "essence," if such a thing could ever have been said to truly exist at all.26

Yet many of these speeches and essays were drafted with the good intentions and the heartfelt desire to eradicate slavery and demonstrate to the northern masses that black people did indeed possess an intrinsic humanity that made them deserving of both liberty and equality. Nineteenth-century culture and literary style dictated some degree of sentimentalism and nostalgia, though these elements certainly could be exaggerated to somewhat obnoxious degrees. Abolitionists were hardly perfect, but they were among the most progressive whites and the most steadfast allies of the African-Americans' cause.

The Grimké Sisters

By the 1830s, most abolitionists from the South were escaped slaves. Yet there were a very small number of outstanding exceptions to that general rule, and they are as notable for their effectiveness as for their rarity. Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah became antislavery agents and activists who wrote, lectured, and fought for emancipation and women's rights a decade before the Seneca Falls convention convened in 1848. The Grimkés were perhaps the most striking proponents of the concept that emancipation and women's rights were intertwined goals that sought a fair and equal society for men and women, blacks and whites. The Grimké sisters were also all the more striking to contemporaries because of the unlikelihood of their roles, given that they were raised in South Carolina as the daughters of a prominent planter, slaveholder, lawyer, and politician whose Huguenot ancestors had settled in the region three generations earlier.

Both sisters were horrified by the brutalities of slavery that they witnessed while growing up. Sarah recalled a pious church member and family friend who subjected her slaves to severe whippings and dismemberments, placing an iron collar on the neck of the enslaved family seamstress and removing her healthy front tooth so as to have a distinguishing mark if the woman tried to run away again. Angelina fainted in school when she noticed the bloody and scabbed whip-marks running up the legs and back of a little slave child of her school mistress.

Sarah, who was Angelina's older sister by thirteen years, became a Quaker and moved to Philadelphia shortly after, in 1821. Angelina followed her sister's lead and became known for appearing before her large audiences in simple Quaker dresses. Formerly, as a Presbyterian, Angelina could not understand how her former church members could privately agree with her that slavery was unjust and cruel, but no one would publicly stand against the institution. Her Presbyterian minister had been equally frustrating, for he agreed with her that slavery was morally wrong, but advised her simply to pray and have patience. Frustrated with her inability to act effectively as an isolated individual against slavery in the South, Angelina left Charleston for Philadelphia in the fall of 1829. Angelina went on to marry Theodore Dwight Weld, an evangelist and abolitionist organizer who seemed as indefatigable as she was. (Angelina Grimké Weld should not be confused with her future grand niece, Angelina Weld Grimké, who was named for her famous great aunt. The second Angelina was born into a biracial family and became a noted gay poet during the twentieth century.) Both Grimké sisters were excommunicated from the Quaker church after the wedding, since Angelina married a Presbyterian and Sarah attended the service.

Historically, these dynamic sisters were relatively unknown to the general public for at least a century after their deaths. Before the 1960s, most historians only gave the sisters peripheral notice; but as the profession shifted along with the revolutionary context of the period, publishers and scholars like Gerda Lerner began to take notice of their important contributions to this period in American history.

Angelina Grimké Weld and the Pennsylvania Hall Speech

While a mob surrounded Pennsylvania Hall in May of 1838, Angelina Grimké Weld delivered an antislavery speech inside, responding to the angry cries from without by calling the attackers "deluded beings." She insisted that each person in her audience of some 3,000 people had "a work to do, be his or her situation what it may, however limited their means, or insignificant their supposed influence. The great men of this country will not do this work; the church will never do it. A desire to please the world, to keep the favor of all parties and of all conditions, makes them dumb on this and every other unpopular subject."

Grimké felt it was her duty "as a Southerner" to testify against slavery and its horrors, as she had witnessed them while growing up. She courageously continued to speak for over an hour and persuaded the audience members to stay, despite the continued threats from outside. Her speech included a special closing message to the women of Philadelphia, reminding them that their female counterparts in England had done much to bring about abolition in that country. She urged them to petition against slavery, for while "Men may settle this and other questions at the ballot-box...you have no such right; it is only through petitions that you can reach the Legislature."27 Grimké thus recognized where women could wield the most effective political influence, despite their disenfranchisement. In a show of unity and to protect the black women present, the attendees marched out of the hall arm-in-arm, only to be pelted with rocks and other objects by the mob.

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