History of American Women Abolitionists

19th Century Anti-Slavery Activists

Image: The Underground Railroad, 1891 painting by Charles Webber, depicts Catharine and Levi Coffin leading a group of fugitive slaves to freedom on a winter morning. The setting of the painting may be the Coffin farm in Cincinnati.

White Women Abolitionists
The increase in religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s led abolitionists to see slavery as a sin against humanity. By the 1830s, thousands of American women were involved in the movement to abolish slavery, and some became prominent leaders in the abolition movement. They wrote articles for abolitionist papers, circulated pamphlets and delivered petitions to Congress calling for abolition.

Since the days of William Penn, Quaker practice had allowed women to take public stances on social issues and granted women the right to speak openly at public meetings. Licensed as a Quaker minister in 1821, Lucretia Mott was soon speaking out against slavery in Quaker meetings. After disagreements about slavery split the Quakers into two groups in 1827, Mott became active in the abolition movement in Pennsylvania.

Mott participated in discussions at the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society – founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1833 – but women were not permitted to serve as delegates. Recognizing the need for an anti-slavery society in which women could actively participate and contribute, Mott and seventeen others – including several African American women – founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December 1833.

This was the first time women had the opportunity to run an organization, but they quickly learned how to conduct meetings, prepare agendas and conduct petition campaigns. Anti-Slavery Sewing Circles enabled women to turn their domestic skills into fundraisers for the cause as they sold their goods at antislavery bazaars and fairs.

Key white women who worked for the abolition of slavery, helping African American women find their voices as well as their rights, included Martha Wright, Julia Ward Howe and Mary Livermore. While these and other well-known activists are mentioned in accounts of the abolitionist movement, there is scant reference to most other female abolitionists.

William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, noted in 1847:

…the Anti-Slavery cause cannot stop to estimate where the greatest indebtedness lies, but whenever the account is made up there can be no doubt that the efforts and sacrifices of the women, who helped it, will hold a most honorable and conspicuous position.”

Women who were active in the abolitionist movement also became interested in women’s rights. Many of the men who were opposed to slavery were also opposed to women playing active roles in the abolitionist movement. This was at a time when respectable women did not speak in public. The discrimination female abolitionists faced within the movement itself led them to see that some of their own rights were being infringed upon.

The women’s rights movement was the offspring of abolition, and many people actively supported both reforms. Women abolitionists had already mastered the organizational skills necessary for a successful social movement. They learned to write persuasively, raise funds, organize events and speak to large groups about political and social issues. While fighting for the abolition of slavery, women found their own voices.

The attempt to silence women at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 led directly to a discussion by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott about the state of women’s rights in America. Stanton’s young family required all of her attention for the coming eight years, but in July 1848 she and Mott organized the first Women’s Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls, New York (Stanton’s hometown).

Stanton later wrote:

The general discontent I felt with woman’s portion as wife, housekeeper, physician and spiritual guide, the chaotic conditions into which everything fell without her constant supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women, impressed me with a strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular.

Angelina and Sarah Grimke
Sarah Grimke (1792–1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805–1879) were the first female antislavery agents and pioneers in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements in the early 1830s. Though born in the South, the sisters became disillusioned with slavery and moved North to escape it. Other abolitionists could give stirring speeches about the need to abolish slavery, but the Grimkes could not testify to its impact on human lives from personal knowledge.

The Grimke sisters were also among the first abolitionists to recognize the importance of women’s rights and to promote the cause of female equality. They were the first women who dared to speak before mixed crowds of men and women, which at that time were called promiscuous audiences. They continued to stretch the boundaries of women’s public role as the first women to testify before a state legislature on behalf of African Americans.

Lydia Maria Child
In her book An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) Lydia Maria Child argued in favor of the immediate emancipation of the slaves without compensation to slaveholders. An Appeal was the first anti-slavery work printed in America in book form. However, abolitionism was still an unpopular concept in some circles, and after its publication she was ostracized socially, but she continued to be a conspicuous champion of anti-slavery.

Child was very active in anti-slavery societies, helping rase funds to finance the first anti-slavery fair in Boston in 1834. In 1839, she was elected to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and served alongside Maria Weston Chapman and Lucretia Mott in the 1840s and 1850s. Child also became editor of the society’s paper the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1840, but she left the paper because she refused to promote violence as an acceptable way to fight slavery.

Prudence Crandall
Raised as a Quaker, Prudence Crandall (1803-1890) opened a private girls’ school in Canterbury, Connecticut in the fall of 1831. After Crandall admitted a 17-year-old African American girl in 1833, the white students’ parents were outraged and demanded that the girl be expelled. Crandall, however, believed in educating African Americans. She refused to expel the young student and decided instead to open a new school for black girls.

Crandall established the first African American female academy and began admitting students from New England. On March 9, 1833 the town held a protest meeting in response to her school. Within months, the town of Canterbury led the legislature in passing the Black Law, which made it illegal to open a school that taught African American students from a state other than Connecticut.

Crandall was arrested and tried, but was later released on a technicality. However, she was forced to close the school after she and her students were harassed and attacked by a mob. In 1886, supported by Mark Twain and others, an annuity was granted to Prudence Crandall by the Connecticut Legislature. Legal arguments from her 1834 trial were submitted to the Supreme Court during their consideration of the historic civil rights case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Prudence Crandall is remembered for her great influence on abolition and the education of African Americans. Her old schoolhouse in Canterbury is now the home of the Prudence Crandall Museum and she has been named Connecticut’s official State Heroine. To this day, her efforts to promote equality in education remain unequaled.

Black Women Abolitionists
Much of the history of abolitionism has been written about whites struggling to eradicate slavery, yet African Americans instigated much of the effort. The struggle was much more personal for black abolitionists, who wanted not only their freedom but equal rights as well. Many white abolitionists, while denouncing slavery as an institution, still could not accept blacks as their equals.

The first black woman, or woman of any color, to speak on political issues in public, Maria Stewart gave her last public speech in 1833 before retiring to work only in women’s organizations. Although her lecturing career lasted only two years, it set the stage for the African American women speakers who followed, including Sojourner Truth and Sarah Parker Remond. There were countless others who have received little recognition, and those whose names we might never know.

Margaretta Forten, of the Forten family of black abolitionists, was inspired by the many people who visited her parents to join the abolitionist cause. Because membership in the American Anti-Slavery Society was denied to women, Margaretta and several other African American women helped to establish the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. She founded her own private grammar school for black students in Philadelphia in 1850 and spoke out against slavery.

Pennsylvania Hall
This hall in Philadelphia was built as an abolitionist meeting place in 1838. In the years prior to the building of the Hall, the city’s African American population had grown substantially, as freed and runaway slaves began to unite with the city’s Quaker population in the struggle to end slavery. Three days after the dedication of the Hall it was the site of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

As 3,000 white and black women gathered inside to hear prominent abolitionists such as Maria Weston Chapman, the speakers’ voices were drowned out by a mob which had gathered outside. When the women finally emerged, arms linked in solidarity, they were stoned and insulted. The mob returned the following day and burned the hall, which had been inaugurated only three days earlier to the ground.

Mob violence against abolitionists began to increase, as they were seen as a threat to the social order. And increasingly in the 1840s, abolitionist leaders were escaped slaves, who had a more personal approach to the issue of slavery and were more anxious for action rather than rhetoric. The most famous of these were fugitive slaves from Maryland, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, two of the most radical voices calling for an immediate end to slavery.

Why there were more white than black women abolitionists? The answer is simple. The activities of all women in the 19th century were restricted by social convention, but white women had more freedom than black women to move about, and were more likely to have the income to support themselves while doing abolitionist work. After the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 African American women, even in the North, were at risk of capture if someone alleged (rightly or wrongly) that they were escaped slaves.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
A prolific author, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) used her writing talents for social reform. Born a free black in the slave state of Maryland, she witnessed the atrocities of slavery firsthand. In 1850, she took a job as the first female professor at the Union Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, but she was soon inspired to join the abolitionist struggle. She moved into an Underground Railroad station in Philadelphia in 1853 and continued writing poems and essays dedicated to abolition, temperance and women’s rights.

In 1854, she published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects and donated a large portion of the proceeds to the Underground Railroad. That same year a speech she made in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race, launched a two-year public speaking tour as an agent of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. She continued to lecture throughout through the East and Midwest until 1860.

Harper also made frequent contributions to major abolitionist journals such as The Liberator and Mary Ann Shadd‘s Provincial Freeman. After the Civil War, she traveled throughout the South helping freed slaves. Her novel Iola Leroy (1892) was written in part to correct the romanticized plantation fiction that was becoming popular at that time. She continued to support women’s rights and in 1896 she was the co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women.

Lily Ann Granderson
Although it was illegal to educate slaves in Kentucky, Lily Ann Granderson, aka Milla Granson (1816-1880), became close to her master’s children, and they taught her how to read and write. When her master died, she was sold to a Mississippi slaveholder and put to work in the fields, but after a time was transferred to his house in Natchez, where she established a night school for slaves.

At eleven o’clock at night, slaves would sneak into a secluded room off of a back alley where Granderson held classes until two o’clock in the morning, teaching twelve students at a time. All the doors and windows were locked and covered because state law forbade the education of slaves. For about seven years this little slave school operated right under the noses of the authorities.

Word of the school’s existence eventually leaked out, however, but Granderson was surprised to learn that there was no law prohibiting a slave from teaching other slaves. In 1863, northern missionaries arrived in the wake of Union troops to establish schools for black children, and Granderson was hired as a teacher by the American Missionary Association. According to the records of the Freedmen’s Bank in Natchez she opened an account there in 1870 when she was fifty-four years old and a married mother of two, and still teaching.

Sarah Mapps Douglass
Born to a distinguished abolitionist family, Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882) was from an active African American abolitionist family who forged social and political networks with both black and white abolitionists. As a child, Douglass enjoyed life amongst Philadelphia’s elite and was well educated, but in her letters to Sarah Grimke, Douglass revealed the pain of encountering racial prejudice among her fellow Quakers.

Douglass became a teacher in New York, but returned to Philadelphia where she ran the girls’ preparatory department at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker-sponsored high school for women of color, from 1853 to 1877. During this time, she attended the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Medical University, where she studied female health and hygiene, then taught these subjects in evening classes at the Banneker Institute.

Throughout her abolitionist career, Douglass also served as recording secretary, librarian and manager for the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, contributed to both the Liberator and the Anglo-African Magazine, became a fundraiser for the black press, gave numerous public lectures and served as vice-president of the women’s branch of the Freedmen’s Aid Society.

End of Slavery
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are and henceforward shall be free.” Although the Emancipation did not end slavery in America, it captured the imagination of millions of Americans and transformed the Civil War from a war for union into a crusade for freedom. Four years of war achieved what seventy-five years of compromise could not.

slaves waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect

Image: Watch Meeting – Waiting for the Hour, December 31, 1862
Oil painting by William Tolman Carlton depicts slaves waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect. The original hangs in the White House, in the room where President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

After the war ended in April 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced throughout the remaining regions of the South where slaves had not yet been freed. Although the Emancipation did not officially end slavery, it brought about a significant transformation for African Americans and word of their release was received with intense joy.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had been passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864 and by the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865, but did not take effect until it was ratified by three-fourths of the states, which occurred on December 6, 1865. On that date, all remaining slaves – in Tennessee, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Washington, DC and twelve parishes of Louisiana – became officially free.

After slavery ended in 1865 members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society devoted their efforts to the campaign for African Americans suffrage, then organized their final fair in 1869. The Society was formally dissolved in March 1870 following the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Wikipedia: Lydia Maria Child
VEducation: The United States 1500s – Early 1900s
Gilder Lehrman: Woman Abolitionists
The End of Slavery in the United States – The Thirteenth Amendment

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