Women were very active in the movement to eliminate slavery in North America, for religious, moral and practical reasons. Quakers, a religious movement that spread to North America in the 17th Century, were adamantly opposed to slavery, and the women among them were active in agitating for abolition of that practice. Beyond the Quakers’ role in opposing slavery, however, was the struggle among women for rights equal to those enjoyed by men, including the right to participate in elections – the foundation of the democratic system installed during the American Revolution. From that point on, the fight for women’s suffrage ran parallel to the effort at ending slavery, with many women appropriately viewing the two types of prejudicial behavior on equal, or near equal terms. Despite this mutuality of interests, however, there was not a full consensus regarding what role, if any, should be played by black women in either of these movements.
The most prominent manifestation of the role of women in agitating for the abolition of slavery was the convening of the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York City on May 9, 1837. This gathering of 175 women, led by the organization’s president, Mary Parker, set in motion a continuing series of organized political activities illuminating the enduring interest of women in civil rights for all Americans. The second such convention, held a year later in Philadelphia, proved more contentious than the first, with riots breaking out among whites, mainly white men, opposed to any role in the proceedings for black women. These disturbances aside, however, women continued to gather for such conventions, with the 1840 meeting occurring in London, England, the British having already taken concrete steps to end the slave trade.
While the Anti-Slavery Conventions of American Women were largely a product of the Quakers, and focused primarily on the issue of slavery, in July 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to hold a convention that was almost entirely focused on women’s rights, but that implicitly recognized the inviolability of the rights of all men and women. The main organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the former one of the earliest and most influential proponents of women’s rights and the latter a prominent Quaker and feminist, were deeply committed to the cause of abolition, and, together with other like-minded women (e.g., Susan B. Anthony, another Quaker), carried the banner both for suffrage and for the end to slavery. The focus of the 1848 convention, however, was clearly on women’s rights and not on slavery, despite the presence during the proceedings of Frederick Douglass.