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The women’s rights movement of mid-nineteenth century America grew out of the preceding and concurrent abolitionist movement because anti-slavery women recognized greater political power could help end the nation’s “peculiar institution.” The emancipation of women, in other words, could lead to the emancipation of black slaves. This is seen, for example, in the writings of abolitionist activist Angelina Grimké. “Slavery is a political subject,” she wrote in a letter to a friend on February 4, 1837, summarizing the words of her conservative critics, “therefore women should not intermeddle. I admitted it was, but endeavored to show that women were citizens & had duties to perform to their country as well as men.”[1] If women possessed full citizen rights, Grimké implied, they could fully engage in political issues like slavery and influence outcomes as men did. The political project of abolishing slavery necessitated political rights for the women involved in and leading it.

Other documents of the era suggest this prerequisite for abolition in similar ways. Borrowing the ideas of the Enlightenment and the national founding, abolitionists positioned the end of slavery as the acknowledgement of the inalienable rights of enslaved persons — to achieve this end, women’s rights would need to be recognized as well. In 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society created a petition for women to sign that urged the District of Columbia to abolish slavery, calling for “the restoration of rights unjustly wrested from the innocent and defenseless.”[2] The document offered justification for an act as bold and startling (“suffer us,” “bear with us” the authors urge) as women petitioning government, for instance the fact that the suffering of slaves meant the suffering of fellow women.[3] Indeed, many Americans believed as teacher and writer Catherine Beecher did, that “in this country, petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES, to fall entirely without [outside] the sphere of female duty. Men are the proper persons to make appeals to rulers whom they appoint…”[4] It would not do for women to petition male legislators to act. In drafting, circulating, and signing this petition, women asserted a political right (an inalienable right of the First Amendment) for themselves, a deed viewed as necessary in the great struggle to free millions of blacks. (Many other bold deeds were witnessed in this struggle, such as women speaking before audiences.[5]

Beecher’s writings reveal that opponents of women’s political activism understood abolitionists’ sentiments that moves toward gender equality were preconditions for slavery’s eradication. She condemned the “thirst for power” of abolitionists; women’s influence was to be exerted through the encouragement of love, peace, and moral rightness, as well as by professional teaching, in the “domestic and social circle.”[6] The male sex, being “superior,” was the one to go about “exercising power” of a political nature.[7] Here gender roles were clearly defined, to be adhered to despite noble aims. The pursuit of rights like petitioning was, to Beecher, the wrong way to end the “sin of slavery.”[8] Yet this castigation of the pursuit of public power to free the enslaved supports the claim that such a pursuit, with such a purpose, indeed took place.

Overall, reformist women saw all public policy, all immoral laws, within their grasp if political rights were won (a troubling thought to Beecher[9]). In September 1848, one Mrs. Sanford, a women’s rights speaker at a Cleveland gathering of the National Negro Convention Movement, summarized the goals of her fellow female activists: they wanted “to co-operate in making the laws we obey.”[10] The same was expressed a month before at the historic Seneca Falls convention.[11] This paralleled the words of Grimké above, as well as her 1837 demand that women have the “right to be consulted in all the laws and regulations by which she is to be governed…”[12] Women saw themselves as under the heel of immoral laws. But as moral beings, Grimké frequently stressed, they had the responsibility to confront wrongs just as men did, and from that responsibility came the inherent political rights needed for such confrontations.[13] If a law such as the right to own human beings was unjust, women would need power over lawmaking, from petitioning to the vote, to correct it.

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[1] Angelina Grimké, “Letter to Jane Smith,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 93.

[2] The American Anti-Slavery Society, “Petition Form for Women,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 85.

[4] Catherine Beecher, “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 110.

[5] “Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y.,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 163.

[10] “Proceedings of the Colored Convention,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 168.

[12] Angelina Grimké, “Human Rights Not Founded on Sex,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 135.

[13] Angelina Grimké, “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 103. See also Angelina Grimké, “Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier” in ibid., 132.

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