Women were a dominating and powerful force when it came to abolition. Though they were largely overlooked in male driven abolitionist societies, women pushed ahead and established their own networks and organizations aimed at ending the practice of slavery.
As groups popped up throughout the country, they decided to meet as a collective and streamline their efforts. These meetings, held between 1837 and 1839 are historic for a number of reasons.
Anti-Slavery Convention Of American Women 1838: Philadelphia, Pa.), Lucy Stone, and National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Proceedings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, held in Philadelphia. May 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th. Philadelphia: Printed by Merrihew and Gunn, 1838. Pdf. (LINK)
Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. “An Address to free colored Americans.” 1837. Courtesy of Oberlin College. (LINK)
Brown, Ira V. “‘AM I NOT A WOMAN AND A SISTER?’ THE ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION OF AMERICAN WOMEN, 1837–1839.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 50, no. 1 (1983): 1–19. 24132
“Conventions.” Young American Republic. Michigan State University. (LINK)
Parker, Mary S.; Weston, Anne Warren; Anti-Slavery Convention of American Woman. “Address to anti-slavery societies.” 1838. Courtesy of Oberlin College. (LINK)
Brown, Ira V. “Cradle of Feminism: The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1833-1840.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 102, no. 2 (1978): 143–66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20091253.
We are told that it is not within the province of women to discuss the subject of slavery; that it is a political question and we are stepping out of our sphere when we take part in its discussion. It is not true that it is merely a political question - it is likewise a question of justice; of humanity; of morality; of religion. A question which, while it involves considerations of immense importance to the welfare and prosperity of our country, enters deeply into the home - concerns the everyday feelings of millions of our beings. - Mary S Parker, 1838.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
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Throughout the nineteenth century, one cause gave women as a collective group the motivation, exposure and experience to finally enter the public political space: abolition. While there are examples of individual activism found throughout our history, it is in the fight to end slavery where women learned to speak in a collective voice to champion the cause they believed in.
Largely left out of the male established abolitionist groups, women throughout the country created their own female based organizations. From Philadelphia to Rhode Island, female led abolitionist societies began cropping up, each focused on petitioning Congress to outlaw slavery and to work together to find other ways they could help bring about its end. Understanding the power of the collective, a few of the leaders proposed a gathering of their groups which spawned a series of meetings between 1837 and 1839 known as the American Anti Slavery Convention of American Women.
So just what was this convention? What were its goals? Who was in attendance? And why did they stop after just three years?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
As the fight against slavery continued to gather steam throughout the 1830’s, a number of abolitionists came together in an effort to push for the immediate end to the slave system. While there had been anti-slavery sentiments brewing before this, much of the focus was on relocating former enslaved individuals to Africa. Now there was an increasing desire to not only see the men and women living in forced servitude to be freed, but to also pushed for their ability to remain within the country’s borders.
The largest, most vocal, and best known abolitionist pushing these ideas was the one and only William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison has come up on the pod before when I discussed Frederick Douglass, but to summarize: Garrison was a loud and leading champion for abolition, publishing his newspaper The Liberator, which he used to highlight the ills of slavery and argue for its termination. Garrison was present at the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1833, and was called upon to pen their constitution. And though white women were allowed to attend meetings, they were not really given an active role in the organization, with some even suggesting they establish their own auxiliaries.
Lucretia Mott did just that. One of the most prominent female abolitionists of her time, Mott helped establish the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Racially integrated, the group enjoyed the support and membership from the Grimke Sisters and the Forten family, to name a few. Just like the male driven abolitionist societies, a host of other female anti-slavery organizations cropped up throughout the country, established by both white and free black women. Despite the various societies across the country, their activities and goals were similar; they submitted petitions to Congress, organized fundraisers and worked to improve the free black community.
The idea to gather as a group was first proposed in 1836 by Maria Weston Chapman. Writing on behalf of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, Chapman wrote to Philadelphia member Mary Grew and suggested that the various groups meet up to coordinate their efforts. Grew agreed and the meeting was set for May 1837 in New York. Once the location and date were settled, the groups put out the call to other female anti-slavery societies, soliciting any who was interested to send a representative to the general meeting.
The meeting was called to order on May 9, 1837 at 4pm. Seventyone delegates representing eleven states made the journey, making it the widest geographically represented conference of women to date. Past episode subjects and leaders of the abolitionist movement, the Grimke Sisters played a key role in the meeting, speaking over the three day session and proposing several resolutions pointedly criticizing the institution of slavery and those who they perceived as passive supporters of the system.
The convention was also historic in that it was the first time a collection of women gathered together to discuss political matters in the public space. Sarah Grimke provided the opening remarks where she outlined the meeting’s goals, saying quote: “to interest women in the subject of anti slavery, and establish a system of operations throughout every town and village in the free states, that would exert a powerful influence in the abolition of american slavery,” end quote.
While the meeting was widely attended, not everyone was on board with the women meeting as a group or having their own, female led societies. Some pushed for the women to disband and join the men’s organizations and work within them to effectuate the change they were after. In their estimation, the male driven societies were going to have better luck at successfully ending slavery and women should play a supportive, not primary, role. Despite the naysayers, the women charged ahead with their convention, even electing a committee on day one to prepare for another meeting the following year.
Faith continued to be an influential part of the group and their efforts and its influence was present throughout the meeting. They opened their convention with a prayer and invoked God in their resolutions, proclaiming the work of abolition was the lord’s work. As I’ve discussed in prior episodes, the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, were forcefully against the institution of slavery and attracted many follows with their strong abolitionist message. Additionally, Quakerism provided many women with their first opportunity to witness and participate in activism as women were seen as equals within the society.
Part of this initial meeting was the introduction of several resolutions, including a few by the other Grimke sister, Angelina. Pulling absolutely no punches, Angelia Grimke’s resolution criticized the north for their complicity in the slave system, writing the north’s dependence on the southern economy caused them to temper their abolitionist activities. According to Grimke it was the quote: “combination of interest which exists between the north and south in their political, commercial, and domestic relations” that played into their ineffective response to the ills of slavery. Grimke also took aim at the residents of the north who complied with southern requests to return runaway slaves and Congress for their denying abolitionists the right to petition them for the abolition of slavery. Finally, she pled for her fellow women to join the cause and quote: “do all that she can by her voice, and her pen, and her purse, and the influence of her example, to overthrow the horrible system of American slavery,” end quote.
Not to be outdone, Sarah Grimke submitted a resolution calling for the condemnation of those who married slave holders and calling on the northern states to repeal any laws that allowed slave owners the ability to maintain their human property when traveling through northern borders. As you may have inferred by now, the focus of the convention was to highlight the impact of petitioning Congress and local legislatures in the abolitionist cause. Having already decided there would be another convention the following year, the women in attendance began to draft pamphlets outlining their positions, publishing two, written by the Grimke sisters. Angelina’s An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States and Sarah’s Address to Free Colored Americans. In the appeal, Angelina tied free and enslaved women together by referring to the women in bondage as sisters and worked to fight the stereotypes about black american’s capacity for intelligence.
These pamphlets, and donations made during various speaking tours provided some of the funding needed to construct Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, which also happened to be the location of the second convention. Built as a dedicated space for abolitionist activities, Pennsylvania Hall had several offices, a press and type for the abolitionist newspaper the National Enquirer and General Register and auditoriums which were intended to host abolitionist events as many organizations found securing space difficult. Despite its placement within the relatively safe city of Philadelphia, the construction of a building dedicated to anti-slavery activities angered many and the building was seen as a prime target for destruction. It was during the second annual convention that Pennsylvania Hall would perish, destroyed by fire only days after its public opening.
On May 15th, 1838, the second annual Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women opened and saw their attendance jump significantly, more than tripling the number from the year prior. Attendance may have been boosted by the hosting of the Pennslyvania State Anti-Slavery Society, who had also decided to host their annual meeting at the newly opened hall. Famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was in attendance as were the Grimke Sisters, Maria Weston Chapman and Lucrettia Mott. Further challenging societal norms, attendees were completely mixed; men sitting with women; blacks seated among whites. Going further, women addressed these mixed crowds, which prompted a violent response causing the destruction of the hall. This was a time when women were not meant to have a public voice and were meant to keep their opinions private. It was considered improper for the female sex to address men, something convention attendee Lucretia Mott hoped would quickly give way, saying quote: “such false notions of delicacy and property would not long obtain in this enlightened country,” end quote.
Taking advantage of speaking in front of a truly mixed crowds, speakers addressed actions for both men and women to take to further the cause, including telling men to boycott slave products and petition church officials to adopt abolitionist principles.
Despite knowing the risks of hosting such public abolitionist activities, the women promoted a public talk about the antislavery movement throughout the city and called on people to show up and join the cause. Speaking to the gathered crowd as a newlywed, Angelina Grimke Weld shared her experience growing up in the south with a family who owned human beings, saying quote: “I witnessed for many years its demoralizing influences, and its destructiveness to human happiness. It is admitted by some that the slave is not happy under the worst forms of slavery. But I have never seen a happy slave,” end quote.
During Angelina’s impassioned plea, several angry residents gathered outside the hall and began to throw stones, breaking several windows. Not one to back down, Grimke used the outside violence to further the abolitionist cause, claiming whatever violence they may face was insignificant when compared to the daily torment of the slave. As the fury of the outside crowd grew, the meeting concluded. Concerned for the safety of their black attendees, many white members walked out of the hall arm in arm with them, including the women who displayed incredible bravery by antagonizing such a hostile crowd.
The situation was escalating quickly and in an effort to quell further unrest, the mayor of Philadelphia asked the women to limit their meeting attendance to white women only. They refused and, aware of the potential for the violence to escalate, several individuals made pleas to the mayor to bring in law enforcement to provide some protection. He neglected to heed their request, claiming there was two sides to the question of slavery and that he would address the crowd in the evening to try to prevent further issues. He also requested no meetings be held in the evening. True to his word, Mayor John Swift addressed the ever growing mob and asked they return to their homes and go to bed.
His request fell on deaf ears. The angry crowd forced their way into the hall and burned the building to the ground. Despite the destruction of their meeting house, the ladies carried on and again made plans to reassemble the next year at the Pennsylvania Writing School. As with their first meeting, they proposed several resolutions, including the ongoing petitioning of Congress to finally end the practice of slavery and calling on people to withdraw from churches who held pro-slavery stances. The second convention also produced several pieces of reading material, including the Address to the Free Colored People of the United States and Address to Anti Slavery Societies.
However, due to the mob violence of their most recent meeting, there was immense pressure for the society to limit their future meeting to white women only and to only hold their meeting during daylight hours. The meeting in 189 was a bit smaller in scale, with just over two hundred attendees, but they continued their practice of passing resolutions calling for people to boycott slave products and, of course, publishing pamphlets to help bring slavery to an end.
The society had made initial plans to meet for a fourth year, however this lost momentum when the men of the American Anti Slaverr finally allowed for women to have a more equal seat at the table. This proved an unpopular decision and some men became so enraged they decided to break off and start their own, men only societies.
The women who gathered for these conventions represented a historic moment for the United States. It was the first time women as a collective from such a wide geographic range met and openly discussed the politics of the moment. This collection of women enabled a space for them to share ideas, encourage each other and support each other’s work and was critical in developing their political experience which would become vital as they eyed the fight for women’s suffrage in the coming decades.
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