Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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How did women's participation in the abolitionist movement raise issues of their rights and freedoms?

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Two lesser-known examples of white female abolitionists are, I think, helpful in understanding how white women's participation in the abolitionist movement helped them to articulate their own rights and freedoms.

Lucy Stone was one of few women allowed to attend Oberlin College in Ohio beginning in 1843, though she was not allowed to participate in courses on speech. To develop her skills in this area, she first practiced her oratory alone, in the forest near the college. Not long thereafter, she met the reformer Henry Browne Blackwell, who was one of the founders of the Republican Party and a strong advocate for abolition. Along with Blackwell, who later became her husband, Stone began giving speeches on abolition. She and Blackwell also shared a mutual interest in women's suffrage. Thus, Stone gradually developed a voice on the subject of suffrage by learning to articulate her passionate opposition to slavery. As previous educators have mentioned, white women (often from middle-class, well-educated backgrounds) learned to understand their own oppression through regarding that of slaves. The mistake that some of them made was in likening their oppression to that of slaves. One mustn't forget that many white women, both in the North and the South, benefited socially and financially from slavery. Their direct and indirect complicity with this system makes their oppression as women, which included being denied rights of inheritance and, often, access to a quality education, incomparable with the dehumanization that black people experienced.

Angelina Grimke, who was raised as the privileged daughter of a South Carolina plantation owner, understood how her oppression was different from that of the slaves on her family's property. To assert her opposition to slavery, she abandoned the family home and went to the North. There, she became an abolitionist and married Theodore Dwight Weld, who is considered one of the founders of the abolitionist movement. Grimke and Weld not only shared strong anti-slavery views but also had a wedding in which they exchanged vows that included their promise to treat each other as equals.

It's important, though, to remember the contributions that black women have also made to the abolitionist movement, and how instrumental they were in helping white women see how their racial and class identifications prevented them from empathizing with the experiences of black women. Sojourner Truth's speech at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 is probably most helpful in illustrating this point. "Ain't I a Woman?" uses various rhetorical devices, particularly the rhetorical question in the title of the speech and that she repeats as a refrain throughout, to question standards of womanhood. Truth, a former slave, is physically strong and, as a black woman, lacks the standard feminine delicacy of white women. By posing the question of whether or not she, too, is a woman, she forced those in the audience to think about their complicity with standards of womanhood that oppressed both Truth and themselves. Similarly, the Massachusetts-born Sarah Parker Redmond described for white suffragists the sexual abuse that black women frequently endured on slave plantations, making sexual exploitation part of the conversation about women's oppression.

Thus, the abolitionist movement helped white women learn to articulate their own form of oppression in a white patriarchal system, but it also gave some black women a chance to speak about how they were marginalized by traditional conceptions of womanhood.

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As white women participated in the abolition movement, they began to realize that while they were fighting for freedom and rights for slaves, they were also dealing with many of their own inequalities. There was some debate about if white women should support the abolition movement, because some white women felt it would only delay their quest for equal treatment. Some women believed that men would support only one of the movements, and therefore women shouldn’t be involved in the abolition movement. However, many women believed that working to end slavery would be beneficial to their desire for equality.

As white women worked for freedom for the slaves, they gained a platform and a voice to highlight the inequalities they faced. They were able to question why women didn’t have voting rights and why they had fewer educational opportunities. They also were able to show that if they could successfully help abolish slavery, then they could eventually prevail in their own movement to gain the rights and equality they deserved.

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By participating in the abolitionist movement, women came to think more about their own rights and they gained credibility among some men.  This allowed them to form a women's movement.

As women participated in the abolitionist movement, they came to think about the irony of pushing to give African Americans rights that they did not enjoy themselves.  This encouraged many to think of their own rights.

Because women had participated forcefully and well in the abolitionist movement, some men were more willing to accept that women might deserve rights.  This gave a little more support for the idea of a women's movement.

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