While individuals expressed their dissatisfaction with the social role of women during the early years of the United States, a more widespread effort in support of women’s rights began to emerge in the 1830s. Women and men joined the antislavery movement in order to free enslaved Africans. While men led antislavery organizations and lectured, women were not allowed to hold these positions. When women defied these rules and spoke out against slavery in public, they were mocked.
For example, in 1829 British-born reformer Frances Wright toured the United States and lectured against slavery. The same year, an artist published this cartoon making fun of Wright. The cartoon depicts Wright standing near a table and giving a lecture, but she has the head of a goose. The title says Wright “deserves to be hissed.” According to this artist and many others, women should not speak in public, and the public should not care what she has to say.
Frances Wright was one of many women—including sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké (who were from a slave-owning Southern family) and Lucretia Mott—who lectured against slavery. Even as women became more active in the cause, many of their fellow antislavery activists continued to disapprove of these female speakers. In 1840, for instance, the World Anti-Slavery Convention refused to seat female delegates.
In contrast, in the late 1830s, abolitionists (who called for an immediate end to slavery rather than a gradual one) began to advocate for women’s rights as well. Women gained experience as leaders, organizers, writers, and lecturers as part of this radical wing of the movement. The discrimination they continued to face eventually prompted them to band together to promote a new, separate women’s rights movement.
By Allison Lange, Ph.D.
In early 1831, Garrison, in Boston, began publishing his famous newspaper, the Liberator, supported largely by free African-Americans, who always played a major role in the movement. In December 1833, the Tappans, Garrison, and sixty other delegates of both races and genders met in Philadelphia to found the American Anti-Slavery Society, which denounced slavery as a sin that must be abolished immediately, endorsed nonviolence, and condemned racial prejudice.
By 1835, the society had received substantial moral and financial support from African-American communities in the North and had established hundreds of branches throughout the free states, flooding the North with antislavery literature, agents, and petitions demanding that Congress end all federal support for slavery. The society, which attracted significant participation by women, also denounced the American Colonization Society’s program of voluntary gradual emancipation and black emigration.
All these activities provoked widespread hostile responses from North and South, most notably violent mobs, the burning of mailbags containing abolitionist literature, and the passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of a “gag rule” that banned consideration of antislavery petitions.
These developments, and especially the 1837 murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, led many northerners, fearful for their own civil liberties, to vote for antislavery politicians and brought important converts such as Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Edmund Quincy to the cause.