In 1851, Sojourner Truth, a freed slave from New York, purportedly asked, Ain’t I a Woman? at a womens convention in Akron, Ohio. That same year, William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the Boston based abolition newspaper The Liberator declared forcefully The Slave is a Man! Debates around the abolition of slavery between 1820 and 1860 (or in the decades leading up to the Civil War) used gendered arguments about manhood and womanhood to humanize black slaves for white voters. Proponents of slavery argued that the racial hierarchy in slavery between white masters ownership of black slaves was biblically based and mirrored the natural hierarchy of man over woman in the household. Radical abolitionists like Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison rejected both of these arguments, supporting women’s activism and suffrage while seeking to overturn slavery simultaneously.
Actress Nkechi performs Sojourner Truth’s speech for Ted Talks.
Antebellum America often excluded and marginalized women (although gender inequality, like the institution of slavery, was at odds with its revolutionary origins). The rhetoric of the American Revolution opened ideological doors for women to claim an active place in public society. During the American Revolution and War of 1812, women served as deputy husbands by serving as nurses, running family businesses while their husbands were in active duty or away on business. Women were leaders in their local communities by overseeing farms and participating in the political economy through boycotting British-made goods. Although women in the new Republic were technically strong actors in both commerce and local society, they were denied the right to vote (with the exclusion of New Jersey) and were encouraged to model Republican Motherhood as a form of national service. Republican Motherhood was a belief that women could serve the nation by educating their young sons and advocating to their husbands and brothers for positive political change.
Even before women began agitating for the vote in the late 1840s, middle- and upper-class women in the north involved themselves in benevolent societies and reform movements like abolitionism and temperance; they petitioned and lobbied legislators, conducted business affairs, and even spoke to mixed-race audiences. Historians like Edward P. Crapol in 1987, and more recently Amy Kaplan and Robert May, argue that women played roles in shaping the nation’s foreign policy. Historians have found ever more areas of antebellum society and culture that were shaped by ideas on gender, women, and the family. Bruce Dorsey argues that a highly gendered reading of the American Colonization Society is fundamental to understanding that society’s impact and aims. Women published books and pamphlets, they spoke on political issues and lobbied government, they formed societies, and women like Jessie Fremont played visible and active roles in political campaigns. In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, urging suffrage. Facing a changing society, writers arguing for slavery’s abolition or protection undergirded their arguments with theories about gender and the proper organization of society.
In the south, proslavery writers recognized widespread fears over women’s activism and astutely tied threats to patriarchy to slavery. Historian Stephanie McCurry argues that southern slaveholders recruited poor white yeoman farmers to their proslavery cause by suggesting that even man’s superiority in his household was threatened. Although these poor white farmers did not own slaves, many believed that upholding slavery meant upholding their authority over their wives. This rhetoric conflated gender with slavery, upholding male supremacy along with white supremacy. In an address in 1860, Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor at the First Presbyterian of New Orleans, asked rhetorically, Need I pause to show how this system of servitude… is interwoven with our entire social fabric? That these slaves form parts of our households, even as our children; and that, too through a relationship recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God? Must I pause to show how it has fashioned our modes of life… and moulded the very type of our civilization? In this view, the collapse of slavery would mean the collapse of men’s superiority, and thus civilized society. Proslavery writers, as McCurry articulates, viewed society as an egalitarian place where all white men held certain privileges, and saw the household as a place where white men’s position was inextricably tied to their dependents: slaves, children and women. In doing so, they labeled slave men as not true men – if they were, gender hierarchies would apply – but closer to children.
Antislavery and Radical Abolitionists
The main difference between anti-slavery proponents and radical abolitionists was that radical abolitionists wanted the immediate and complete abolition of all slave systems in the United States, while many anti-slavery writers supported gradual emancipation that would roll out over the course of decades. Antislavery writers often agreed on the importance of gender hierarchy, but sought to separate the unnatural system of slavery from this natural gender inequality. Both moderate and conservative antislavery writers used gender to argue that slavery unnaturally stripped slaves of their gender roles such as female slaves who were denied the right to motherhood and male slaves who were denied full manhood through the denial of recognized marriage. In an 1856 address, Reverend Joseph P. Thompson, a pastor from New York, agreed with many proslavery writers when he said, marriage is the law of nature which lies at the foundation of human society. But these writers extricated slavery from these natural gender relations. Slavery, Thompson declared, does not spring from nature. Thompson and other antislavery writers formulated an attack on slavery without challenging the conservative order of the household. Some antislavery writers went further, arguing that not only was slavery unnatural but it actually threatened gender relations. In 1835, David Root, an antislavery agitator, wrote that, by disrupting the natural relations between husband and wife, slavery was abrogating the dearest laws of nature; thus outraging all decency and justice.
Charles C. Burleigh, a popular abolition lecturer, argued that slavery must be abolished to give back to manhood its plundered rights. Burleigh suggested that in societies without slavery the natural hierarchy of gender relations were better protected, and women were relegated to their proper role below men. Where slavery existed, however, all relations between men and women were thrown off-kilter, and men’s place imperiled. The Rhode Island Antislavery Convention declared it is for the rights of MAN that we are contendingthe rights of ALL menour own rights. These antislavery writers focused the fight against slavery on the threat to white men’s civil rights. In the 1830s and 1840s, the postal campaign, the gag rule, and the question of free territory for white families in the West all convinced white men that fighting slavery was intricately connected to their own rights. Through appeals to common manhood, antislavery writers sought to link the plight of black men to that of white men.
Some abolitionist writers went a step further, seeking to direct the focus of the campaigns on the damage done to the slaves themselves, and convince audiences of their humanity. By arguing that slavery threatened these natural gender roles, they asserted the manliness and womanliness of slaves, arguing that these people deserved to embody their proper gender roles, rather than, as proslavery writers and thinkers suggested, the lesser roles of children or genderless dependents. These writers argued that slavery, as Kristin Hogansen articulated in her article Garrisonian Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Gender, 1850-1860, degenderized slaves, perverting and obstructing their gendered qualities. Abolitionist writings detailed the removal of the rights of husbands over their wives, and the separation of mothers and children and abuse of pregnant women. The abolitionist Charles K. Whipple wrote in 1858, It is the obvious duty as well as the right of a husband to provide for the defence, and security, and comfort, and happiness of his wife. But slavery not only disregards this duty and this right, but undertakes to reverse them. They argued that slavery both removed the natural rights of men, and perverted the sexuality of those in slavery, depicting these enslaved men as victims. Yet abolitionist writers also sought to prove black men’s true manliness and black women’s true femininity when not abused by slavery, in order to assert their humanity. Recognizing the importance of gender to civilized society, they realized they must prove slaves’ ability to occupy gender roles. In his narrative, Frederick Douglass, a freed slave, recounted how he stood up to a slaveholder, writing you shall see how a slave was made a man. This was an important project because, as abolitionists recognized, being a man was vital to having rights in antebellum society.
Some abolitionist writers, like William Lloyd Garrison, advocated women’s suffrage and full participation, giving credence to the proslavery writers who feared of the breakdown of both racial and gender hierarchies. Abolitionists in the 1830s often sought women’s participation, reflected in the use of sexual and voyeuristic abolitionism. When the American Antislavery Society was founded in 1833, women had begun to become involved in the cause. Some antislavery activists welcomed these women in. Others, however, rejected the claims of women and saw their participation as divisive and harmful to the antislavery cause. They recognized that they could not appeal to moderate Americans through protection of the conservative gendered order if they employed activist women. By the end of the 1830s, the antislavery movement fragmented, and anti-Garrisonians turned toward a more moderate antislavery agitation that excluded demands for women’s rights and turned toward mainstream political action. In 1839, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, among others, left the Antislavery society to form the American and Foreign Antislavery Society, which did not admit women.
Meanwhile prominent women activists like Maria Chapman, Abby Kelley Foster, Lydia Maria Child, Lecretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and the Grimke sisters continued to agitate for abolition. Antislavery writers had laid the groundwork for questioning the hierarchy of gender in society. Angelina Grimke, in her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, counseled Southern women to try to persuade your husband, father, brothers, and sons, that slavery is a crime against God and man. Although she embraced the domestic sphere, she nevertheless gave women agency and urged them to take action for a public, political issue, challenging the superiority of men in society. Radical male abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison also made appeals urging suffrage and equal rights for women as well as African Americans. As Hoganson points out, however, their activism on behalf of women sometimes revealed contradictions in their own rhetoric. Garrison and his supporters recognized the importance of proving the manliness of black male slaves, and often embraced rhetoric that upheld the conservative gendered order despite their own activism working to overturn it.
Through gendered language, proslavery and antislavery writers attempted to forge different and competing alliances. Proslavery writers worked to forge alliances between white men of different classes, especially southern yeoman and slaveholders. At the same time, antislavery writers sought to unite white and black men in the bonds of manhood, across racial divides. Conservative proslavery and antislavery writers both sought to monopolize on the commitment of men to preserving their superior status in their relationship with women. Meanwhile, antislavery arguments gave women an avenue, theoretically and physically, into political life. When Sojourner Truth bluntly asserted her black womanhood, and Garrison called all male slaves true men, they were both engaging in a debate around the ability of slaves to be true citizens. Truth, Garrison, and the proslavery and antislavery writers of their time were operating in an America where gender denoted one’s place, rights, privileges, and status, and where conservative gendered hierarchies were jealously and fearfully guarded. They were acutely aware of it.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Civil War
- Read pro- and anti-slavery tracts at Cornell University’s Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection