Section 3: Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement

Despite some advances in breaking up the Cult of Domesticity in the early 1800s, white women remained largely confined to apolitical, community- or religious-based roles. However, they were afforded many more rights than women of color who, under the persistent yoke of enslavement, had no rights. 

Unlike white women who experienced connection to a nuclear family, familial relationships for enslaved Black women were tenuous, often limited or torn apart by enslavers as a means of control. Rachel Cruze (1856–after 1937), for example, was bound on a farm in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, where she recalled enslaved husbands and wives only being allowed to spend time with each other once per week: “Men quit work at 12 o’clock on Saturday; then they’d get their selves [sic] cleaned up and go [to the neighboring farm] to visit their wives until Sunday night.” Women of color were also subject to sexual abuse by their owners (Cruze was the daughter of her enslaver’s youngest son) and were, at times, forced into prostitution. 

Slave Trader, Sold to Tennessee, watercolor and ink on paper, by Lewis Miller, c. 1853; from Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, courtesy of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia

An anti-enslavement movement formed in East Tennessee before many of the leading national abolitionist organizations were founded. In 1815, the Tennessee Manumission Society was organized at the Lost Creek Quaker Meeting House in Jefferson County to promote abolitionism (the end of enslavement through legislative decree). By 1816, East Tennessee boasted 16 abolitionist groups, most of them located in settlements founded by Quakers. Although scholars have not mentioned any specific evidence of female participation, Quakers were known for gender equality. 

In the 1830s, many abolitionists began leaving the region to continue their work elsewhere. During this same period, women began to call publicly for equitable reforms. Sarah Grimke (1792–1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805–1879), two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, published pamphlets advocating for women to “participate in the freeing and educating of slaves,” while other women used the Abolitionist Movement as a means to raise awareness for human rights. “As early as 1832, Bostonian Maria Stewart (1803-1879), an African American activist, was the first woman of any race to address a mix-gendered audience,” notes Linda. T. Wynn in her book Women’s Suffrage: African American Women and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender. Stewart “spoke out for both the rights of African Americans and women and shattered long-standing proscriptions against women speaking about political issues.”

The Negro Woman’s Appeal to Her White Sisters, broadside by Richard Barrett, 1850; courtesy of the Printed Ephemera Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC