"Abolitionist" was the word used in the 19th century for those who worked to abolish the institution of slavery. Women were quite active in the abolitionist movement, at a time when women were, in general, not active in the public sphere. The presence of women in the abolitionist movement was considered by many to be scandalous -- not just because of the issue itself, which was not universally supported even in states that had abolished slavery within their borders, but because these activists were women, and the dominant expectation of the "proper" place for women was in the domestic, not the public, sphere.
Nevertheless, the abolitionist movement attracted quite a few women to its active ranks. White women came out of their domestic sphere to work against the enslavement of others. Black women spoke from their experience, bringing their story to audiences to elicit empathy and action.
Black Women Abolitionists
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Maria W. Stewart are not as well known, but both were respected writers and activists. Harriet Jacobs wrote a book that was important as a story of what women went through during slavery, and brought the conditions of slavery to the attention of a wider audience.
Why More White Women Abolitionists?
More white women than black women were prominent in the abolitionist movement, for a variety of reasons:
- Although the movement of all women was restricted by social convention, white women had more freedom than black women to move about.
- White women were more likely to have the income to support themselves while doing abolitionist work.
- Black women were, after the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, at risk of capture and transport to the South if someone alleged (rightly or wrongly) that they were escaped slaves.
- White women were generally better-educated than black women were (even though not at all on a par with the education of white men), including in formal oratory skills popular as a topic in education at the time.
White Women Abolitionists
White women abolitionists were often connected with liberal religions like the Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists, which taught the spiritual equality of all souls. Many white women who were abolitionists were married to (white) male abolitionists or came from abolitionist families, though some, like the Grimke sisters, rejected the ideas of their families. Key white women who worked for the abolition of slavery, helping African American women find their voices as well as their rights (in alphabetical order, with links to find more about each):
- Susan B. Anthony
- Antoinette Brown Blackwell
- Lydia Maria Child
- Angelina Grimke and her sister, Sarah Grimke
- Julia Ward Howe
- Mary Livermore
- Lucretia Mott
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Lucy Stone
- Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Martha Coffin Wright