Their Right to Speak: Women's Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates

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Overview

When Alisse Portnoy recovered petitions from the early 1830s that nearly 1,500 women sent to the U.S. Congress to protest the forced removal of Native Americans in the South, she found the first instance of women's national, collective political activism in American history. In this groundbreaking study, Portnoy links antebellum Indian removal debates with crucial, simultaneous debates about African Americans--abolition of slavery and African colonization--revealing ways European American women negotiated prohibitions to make their voices heard.

Situating the debates within contemporary, competing ideas about race, religion, and nation, Portnoy examines the means by which women argued for a "right to speak" on national policy. Women's participation in the debates was constrained not only by gender but also by how these women--and the men with whom they lived and worshipped--imagined Native and African Americans as the objects of their advocacy and by what they believed were the most benevolent ways to aid the oppressed groups.

Cogently argued and engagingly written, this is the first study to fully integrate women's, Native American, and African American rights debates.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historial Review

Alisse Portnoy's excellent book developed as an attempt to resolve a contradiction. In 1830, Catharine Beecher quietly organized women to petition the federal government, protesting the removal of Native Americans in Georgia and Alabama. In 1837, she very prominently denounced women's involvement in antislavery petitioning. This apparent contradiction in Beecher's understanding of woman's appropriate role turns out to be a rich vein for scholarly analysis. Portnoy argues that only by studying the rhetoric of Indian removal, African colonization, and the immediate antislavery movement together can we fully understand the politics of the movements themselves. In addition, she argues that studies of women's political activism structured by gender are insufficient, since they exclude analysis of the rhetorical constructions available to women...Portnoy is particularly interested in how activists used different rhetorical constructions to serve different goals and justify different activities. However, her provocative arguments about reconnecting the study of Indian removal, colonization, and the immediate antislavery movement, and her recentering of debates about women's role in the broader political context of the era, make this an important book for historians as well.
— Beth A. Salerno

American Literature

Alisse Portnoy's Their Right to Speak [is] an exemplary interdisciplinary analysis at the juncture of historical, rhetorical, and feminist studies...Engagingly written and persuasively argued, this is a valuable book for scholars in multiple fields.
— Dalia Kandiyoti

Women and Social Movements in the United States

Their Right to Speak marks a meaningful addition to the scholarship of the period. In persuasively positioning women's activism within the context of Indian removal, colonization efforts, and the antislavery movement, Portnoy enables readers to understand with even greater depth the national role of Beecher and Grimké—and how their use of gendered arguments can be seen in light of broader motivations and ongoing rhetorical strategies.
— Bruce Mills

Nancy A. Hewitt
In a delightfully written work, Alisse Portnoy examines the debates over women's petitioning in the larger context of Indian removal, colonization, and abolition politics. She provides a new and persuasive interpretation of the now classic debate between Catharine Beecher and Angelina Grimké over antislavery activism. In fine detail and with great sophistication, she combines close readings of particular texts -pamphlets, petitions, novels, slave ads -with a sweeping narrative of social movements and national policies regarding Indians and African Americans. Their Right to Speak is a tour de force.
Michael A. Morrison
By situating women's collective activism in the context of the problematic public policy issues of Indian removal, colonization, and the emergence of abolitionism, Their Right to Speak is that rare book in which the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This first-rate study makes significant contributions to the history of antebellum reform, political culture in the Jacksonian era, and rhetorical analysis.
American Historial Review - Beth A. Salerno
Alisse Portnoy's excellent book developed as an attempt to resolve a contradiction. In 1830, Catharine Beecher quietly organized women to petition the federal government, protesting the removal of Native Americans in Georgia and Alabama. In 1837, she very prominently denounced women's involvement in antislavery petitioning. This apparent contradiction in Beecher's understanding of woman's appropriate role turns out to be a rich vein for scholarly analysis. Portnoy argues that only by studying the rhetoric of Indian removal, African colonization, and the immediate antislavery movement together can we fully understand the politics of the movements themselves. In addition, she argues that studies of women's political activism structured by gender are insufficient, since they exclude analysis of the rhetorical constructions available to women...Portnoy is particularly interested in how activists used different rhetorical constructions to serve different goals and justify different activities. However, her provocative arguments about reconnecting the study of Indian removal, colonization, and the immediate antislavery movement, and her recentering of debates about women's role in the broader political context of the era, make this an important book for historians as well.
American Literature - Dalia Kandiyoti
Alisse Portnoy's Their Right to Speak [is] an exemplary interdisciplinary analysis at the juncture of historical, rhetorical, and feminist studies...Engagingly written and persuasively argued, this is a valuable book for scholars in multiple fields.
Women and Social Movements in the United States - Bruce Mills
Their Right to Speak marks a meaningful addition to the scholarship of the period. In persuasively positioning women's activism within the context of Indian removal, colonization efforts, and the antislavery movement, Portnoy enables readers to understand with even greater depth the national role of Beecher and Grimké--and how their use of gendered arguments can be seen in light of broader motivations and ongoing rhetorical strategies.
American Literature
Alisse Portnoy's Their Right to Speak [is] an exemplary interdisciplinary analysis at the juncture of historical, rhetorical, and feminist studies...Engagingly written and persuasively argued, this is a valuable book for scholars in multiple fields.
— Dalia Kandiyoti
American Historial Review
Alisse Portnoy's excellent book developed as an attempt to resolve a contradiction. In 1830, Catharine Beecher quietly organized women to petition the federal government, protesting the removal of Native Americans in Georgia and Alabama. In 1837, she very prominently denounced women's involvement in antislavery petitioning. This apparent contradiction in Beecher's understanding of woman's appropriate role turns out to be a rich vein for scholarly analysis. Portnoy argues that only by studying the rhetoric of Indian removal, African colonization, and the immediate antislavery movement together can we fully understand the politics of the movements themselves. In addition, she argues that studies of women's political activism structured by gender are insufficient, since they exclude analysis of the rhetorical constructions available to women...Portnoy is particularly interested in how activists used different rhetorical constructions to serve different goals and justify different activities. However, her provocative arguments about reconnecting the study of Indian removal, colonization, and the immediate antislavery movement, and her recentering of debates about women's role in the broader political context of the era, make this an important book for historians as well.
— Beth A. Salerno
Women and Social Movements in the United States
Their Right to Speak marks a meaningful addition to the scholarship of the period. In persuasively positioning women's activism within the context of Indian removal, colonization efforts, and the antislavery movement, Portnoy enables readers to understand with even greater depth the national role of Beecher and Grimké--and how their use of gendered arguments can be seen in light of broader motivations and ongoing rhetorical strategies.
— Bruce Mills
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674019225
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Alisse Portnoy is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature and Faculty Associate in the Program in American Culture, University of Michigan.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

A Note on Terminology

Introduction

1. "Causes of Alarm to Our Whole Country": Articulating the Crisis of Indian Removal

2. "A Right to Speak on the Subject": Petitioning the Federal Government against Removal and Slavery

3. "The Difference between Cruelty to the Slave, and Cruelty to the Poor Indian": Imagining Native and African Americans as Objects of Advocacy

4. "Merely Public Opinion in Legal Forms": Imagining Native and African Americans in the Public and Political Spheres

5. "On the Very Eve of Coming Out": Declaring One's Antislavery Affiliations

6. "Coming from One Who Has a Right to Speak": Debating Colonization and Abolition

Notes

Index

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