Women's Influence on the Abolitionist Movement
From the 1830s until 1870, the responsibility of the abolitionist movement was to free all slaves and stop racial segregation and discrimination. Racially diverse men and women supported the movement and became unified for the same cause. Around a time when it was improper for a woman to engage in public speaking, antislavery societies welcomed women to speak out if they chose to do so. Publically addressing mixed crowds opened new opportunities for abolitionist women to protest against slavery and join or form their own female societies. When money was to be raised, women held fairs or bazaars for the cause. Free women also exercised their civil right to petition-to affirm significant political authority. In order to help the abolitionist movement, females were taking new risks and stepping out of the social norms that they were restricted to. Although the abolitionist movement was supported by both sexes, women proved to be some of the most essential advocates for the fight against slavery.
Around a time when it was improper for a woman to engage in public speaking, antislavery societies welcomed women to speak out if they chose to do so. Public speaking was a way women could protest slavery. (Jeffrey 54) Public speech was the most complicated and controversial position of women's abolition work, "particularly when the audience consisted of men and women known as promiscuous gatherings (Pierson 13). Primary examples of "promiscuous female lecturers are, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The Grimke's were the first women to openly address large groups of men and women. Sarah and Angelina Grimke's public endeavors opened a new door to other female abolitionists to follow and strengthen the abolitionist movement with the much needed female support. Throughout the history books published, the sisters are consistently portrayed as dignified, virtuous, and legendary for their time. The controversies surrounding the Grimke sister's "promiscuous and "un-ladylike lecturers lead them to be exiled from their home and family into the public eye to travel around the lecture circuit. Being the daughters of a wealthy plantation owner themselves, the Grimke's incorporated personal first hand experiences with the institution of slavery to their audience (Goodman 178). Their persuasive ability to cite biblical references and emphasize women's moral duties met oppositions about women being allowed to speak on such a political subject as slavery (Warner 58). When accusations of the Grimke's role in the American Anti-Slavery Society were challenged as being neither peaceful nor Christian-like in nature, Angelina Grimke retorted:
Now I solemnly ask thee, whether the character and measures of our holy Redeemer did not produce exactly the same effects... Listen, too, to his own declaration: I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword... The rebukes which he uttered against sin were eminently calculated to produce 'recriminations and angry passions, in all who were determined to cleave to their sins... Why, then, protest against our measures as unchristian, because they do not smooth the pillow of the poor sinner, and lull his conscience into fatal security?
The sisters also published pamphlets that encouraged additional support from fellow women to become active participants in the abolition of slavery. Sarah and Angelina's public speaking abilities led them on an expedition to "sixty-seven towns and lecture to over 40,000 people in more than 88 meetings (Zaeske 118). In particular, "the tour prompted the development of amass amount of female antislavery societies and is credited for the initiation of bulk petitioning campaigns by women, which set the groundwork for antislavery political organization in the future (Foner 475).
"The work of female antislavery societies was considerable and vital to the reform (Jeffery 54). Documents and records that exist today do not mention an exact figure as to how many female societies actually existed. However, some recordings suggest that by 1838, there were one-hundred and ten female antislavery organizations, which accounted for eight percent of the total. The female antislavery societies by this time had over of sixty-four hundred members total (Goodman 206). Most of the female antislavery organizations outlined these ideologies: abolish slavery, distribute literature, and fund-raising.
"The American Anti-Slavery Society claimed thirty-three juvenile societies in twenty-eight cities and towns, nineteen of which had female societies, suggesting that women played a vital role of their formation (Goodman 251). A significant value to these female juvenile societies was that these young women were learning benevolent and political organizational skills they would need to comprehend and partake in the heightened slavery debate of the 1850s."Despite the disapproval of these juvenile societies, they shaped their young members' understanding of an economic system that threatened fundamental American ideologies (De Rosa 113).
Women in anti-slavery societies also prospered great success with the funding of the abolition movement by conducting bazaars to raise money for the abolition movement. In Massachusetts, the National Anti-Slavery bazaars were so lucrative that they became the primary source of revenue for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and for its root organization, The American Anti-Slavery Society (Bennett 20). Proceeds from the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society bazaar helped fund the escape of black slaves through the Underground Railroad (Calarco 206).
From 1831 to 1863 women publicly expressed their opinion about slavery by affixing approximately 3 million signatures to petitions aimed at Congress (Zaeske 2). Women were the head proprietors in slavery petition campaigns. Both men and women abolitionists made petitioning one of their foremost strategies. "By 1837, females accounted for 59 percent of the petition signers for abolishing slavery in the District of Colombia (Goodman 229). Approximately, 70 percent of the petition signers in the late 1830s were women. The petitions flooded congress and eventually led congress to a "gag rule. Representatives voted in favor of a resolution stating:
All petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatever, to the subject of slavery, or the abolition of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid upon the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon.
The resolution was implemented by a majority vote of 117-68. After this new rule, female antislavery societies joined petitioning campaigns intensely (Zaeske 72).
During the summer of 1836, abolitionist women printed four major addresses that explained in detail the significance of petitioning. Shortly after the addresses, congress was handed petitions signed by 15,000 women. John Quincy Adams mentioned dismissively in his diary, that ''it multiplied fivefold the antislavery petitions.'' In 1837, after women met at a national convention to organize their attempts, over two-hundred thousand women appended their signatures to antislavery petitions. In combination with the almost equivalent amount of men's names sent that year, the vast amounts of antislavery petitions "would have filled, from floor to ceiling, a room twenty feet wide by thirty feet long by fourteen feet high(Zaeske 173). Essentially, petitioning functioned as the main way through which women campaigned to win the vote (Zaeske 13).
Throughout the fight against slavery, women have played a part in contributing to the cause. Females provided the much needed support to an unpopular cause. Women started publically addressing crowds and announcing their position against slavery, which led many women to join or organize their own antislavery society. The women's antislavery societies contributed to the abolition movement by orchestrating bazaars that raised money and funded the abolition campaigns. In the end, women affirmed their political authority by collecting mass amounts of signatures and petitioning to congress against slavery. Although, men and women supported the abolitionist movement, women proved to be some of the most essential advocates for the fight against slavery.
Bennett, Michael. Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement And Antebellum American Literature. New Jersey: Rutgers University, 2005. Print.
Calarco, Tom. People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport: Greenwood, 2008. Print.
Foner, Eric. Readers Companion To American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1991. Print.
Goodman, Paul. Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality. 1 ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Print.
Pierson, Michael. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement.: An article from: Journal of Southern History. New York: Southern Historical Association, 2000. Print.
Warner, Laceye C.. Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology and Practice. Waco: Baylor University, 2007. Print.
Zaeske, Susan. Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, & Women's Political Identity.. Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill University of North Carolina, 2003. Print.