Early Black Feminists in the Abolitionist Movement Part 1

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879)

Historians have often downplayed the role of black abolitionists and have often failed to recognize their importance in initiating and carrying out the movement.  Instead, they have focused on the work of white male abolitionists, while regarding important blacks as exceptions.1  However, black female abolitionists and activists made many contributions in community projects, organizations, as important members of the church, and in promoting literacy.2  Ultimately, black female activists became the foundation for black feminist ideology in the 20th century.

Maria W. Stewart recognized the importance of literacy and education for the liberation of black women.  “O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! Awake! Arise!” she wrote, “No longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves.  Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties”.3  Stewart had a vision of educating the people, which she enacted with the help of women who pooled together to build high schools.  Stewart emphasized the education of black women, but not because of images of feminine refinement, but rather because of the political urgency of gaining knowledge to advance the black community.  She also saw domesticity as something to transcend through a higher level of education.4 “The concept that ‘knowledge is power’ for blacks was one of the most important ideas developed in the 1830s”.5  Enslaved men and women went through remarkable difficulty and efforts to learn to read, but it was also difficult for free women because of discrimination and limited access to schools.  Many whites claimed that Africans were inferior in their ability to reason, and many published these claims as fact.  Education therefore had much deeper meaning than just gaining literacy; it is also meant tearing down stereotypes, as well as moving toward greater social responsibility and achievement.6

In 1832, Maria W. Stewart was the first American woman to publicly address an audience of men and women.  In her speeches, she challenged racial discrimination as well as gender conventions.  Despite being criticized and heckled by male audience members, she persisted boldly in defending her right to speak.7 In her public speaking, Maria W. Stewart expanded the message of anti-slavery rebellion and resistance to address issues of gender and sexism in the black community, and could be said to be the founding voice of black feminist ideology.  The culture of oppression had “made it much more difficult to develop empowering ideas about what it meant to be a black woman with limited control over sexuality and motherhood”, and she realized the importance of black women’s awareness of their two-sided oppression as women of color.8  As an opponent of slavery, Maria W. Stewart cited both the Bible and the Constitution of the United States as declaring universal birthrights to freedom and justice.  She also believed that by proving themselves equal to white standards by showing refinement, virtue, and ability, blacks could change the prevailing racist opinions and prove the innate equality of all races.9  Over time, especially after the intensification of the debate over slavery following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the gender conventions against women speakers faded and many black women abolitionist lecturers became well known, among them Frances E. W. Harper, Mary Ann Shadd, and Sojourner Truth.10

This topic is again revisited in Part 2. 

References

1.  John H. Bracey, August Meier, and Elliot Rudwick, ed.  Blacks in the Abolitionist Movement (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971), 1-2.

2.  R. J. Young.  Antebellum Black Activists: Race, Gender, and Self (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996), 135.

3.  Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, ed.  Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2007), 60.

4.  Ibid., 27.

5.  Ibid., 115.

6.  Wilma King.  The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era (Columbia, MO: University of Missuori Press, 2006), 90-91.

7.  Ibid., 166-167.

8.  Waters and Conaway, Intellectual Traditions, 4-5.

9.  Ibid., 18-21.

10.  King, Essence of Liberty, 167-169.

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2 thoughts on “Early Black Feminists in the Abolitionist Movement Part 1

  1. Art & History says:

    Waters and Conway quote from an original source:
    “Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer” (Indiana University Press), Marilyn Richardson, ed.

    Thanks,
    M. Richardson

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