SWHM Guest: Piper Huguley on Maria W. Stewart

My friends, today we have Piper Huguley visiting with us again! You might remember that she’s been a guest at ALBTALBS once before, with an absolutely lovely post about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today she’s here to discuss a really important part of history with us – the female speakers who were trailblazers for right.

Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political WriterThe right for women to vote in the United States is only 95 years old. And it might have never happened if women had not found their voices on another issue that was seen reflect the nation’s morality in the early part of the nineteenth century: Slavery. It was in the cause of freeing the slaves that many women were able to find their public voices and be heard. This development of women into abolitionists, helped other women realize they had a right to contribute to the public discourse.

The outcry over the immorality of slavery can be said to be rooted in two things. First of all, there was a widespread belief and knowledge of the Bible. Using the enslaved to generate an income was seen by many as thwarting the intention of Genesis 3:19. The promise of the United States meant for many, including Abraham Lincoln, that people were supposed to earn their own bread through by their own sweat. Taking on slaves meant that others were used to do to make this money, thus breaking a covenant with God’s law.

Secondly, as the moral authority for their families, women were a large part of the outcry over slavery. They began to be drawn to the issue because of the unspoken use of the enslaved woman’s body as breeding grounds for increasing the unearned wealth of those who owned the enslaved population. The problem was that in the 1830’s women were supposed to only oversee the private sphere of the home. So, this aspect of enslavement did not receive public attention until an African-American widow, Maria (pronounced Mariah) Stewart began to speak up about it. In fact, Stewart was the first woman to speak to a promiscuous (meaning mixed in gender) audience about the evils of slavery. Women found their voices through several means, but it all began in the early 1830’s with her. She was willing to let people know of the suffering the enslaved endured. Yet, she used of her faith of Christianity as a cloak when she would say:

Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation–‘Who shall go

forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people

of color? Shall it be a woman?’ And my heart made this reply–

‘If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!’

Life as a public speaker was rough going for her. She only gave her lectures for two years, then compiled the lectures into a book that William Lloyd Garrison published. Then, she stepped down from speaking publicly for the rest of her life. She later said: “It was the nature of man to crush his fellow.” Ouch.

The Great Silent Army of AbolitionismOther women who followed Stewart had bad experiences as well. According to The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism, Julie Roy Jeffrey says of other women, “The Grimke sisters speaking tour occasioned a major clerical rebuke, while Abby Kelley was branded as a Jezebel during her tour of Connecticut….Ellen Smith, who lectured in a church in Main in 1843, left a vivid account of her hostile audience…Boys sitting in the church’s galleries threw hymn books at her, and she was lucky to escape without injury.”

Still someone had to be first. So in this women’s history month, we owe a debt of gratitude to Maria Stewart and her insistence to make the first public step for women and their public voices.

Stewart, Maria. “Lecture at Franklin Hall.” Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, ed. Marilyn Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987

Thank you so much, Piper! I don’t think I’d ever heard of Maria Stewart or these other women before. Or, if I had, they were grouped together as a collective in history books. Definitely we should be hearing more about such wonderful women.

Have you guys heard of these female speakers before? Is there anyone you want to give a shout out to?

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