“Let me suggest, then, that the opening Chapter go farther back than 1848. . . . From the time of the first Convention on Womenin New York 1837the battle began.” Lucretia Mott, to Elizabeth Cady Stanton
A decade prior to the Seneca Falls Convention, black and white women joined together at the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention in the first instance of political organizing by American women, for American women.
United by their determination to reshape a society that told women to ignore the mechanisms of power, these pioneers converged abolitionism and women’s rights. Incited by “holy indignation,” they believed it was their God-given duty to challenge both slavery and patriarchy. Although the convention was written out of history largely for both its religious and interracial character, these women created a blueprint for an intersectional feminism that was centuries ahead of its time.
Part historical investigation, part personal memoir, Hunt traces how her research into nineteenth-century organizing led her to become one of the most significant philanthropists in modern history. Hunt’s journey to confront her position of power meant taking control of an oil fortune, being deployed on her behalf but without her knowledge, and acknowledging the feminist faith animating her life’s work.
Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, is a philanthropist, activist, and scholar. She helped found several organizations, including the Sister Fund, Women Moving Millions, and the Women’s Funding Network. She is the author of Faith and Feminism and the coauthor of bestsellers including Giving the Love That Heals and Making Marriage Simple.
|Publisher:||Feminist Press at CUNY, The|
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About the Author
Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, is a feminist philanthropist, activist, and scholar. The founder or co-founder of several organizations including the Sister Fund and Women Moving Millions, she also developed, with husband Harville Hendrix, the Imago mode of relationship therapy. She is the author of Faith and Feminism and the coauthor of bestsellers including Giving the Love That Heals and Making Marriage Simple.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He is best known for his classics, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and for his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Dr. West is a frequent guest on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN, C-Span, and Democracy Now.
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BAND OF SISTERS
Confusion has seized us, and all things go wrong, The women have leaped from "their spheres," And instead of fixed stars, shoot as comets along, And are setting the world by the ears!
* * *
So freely they move in their chosen ellipse, The "Lords of Creation" do fear an eclipse.
— MARIA WESTON CHAPMAN
It was October 21, 1835. Maria Weston Chapman felt the meeting hall tremble around her, rocked by the force of five thousand pairs of stomping feet on the cobblestone streets outside. Her face and voice betrayed no alarm as she surveyed the group of forty-five women who had come together for a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. Their very presence had awakened a slumbering giant of protest. No other gathering of women had ever instigated such a vicious chorus of dissent. And no other female gathering had been so poised for a clash of morality, ideals, and identity.
This clash took place on the first-year anniversary of the formation of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, started by twelve women in 1834. Maria, a prominent socialite in the Boston community, was among its leaders, stepping outside the restricted bounds of her social status and gender to join the others. Maria was not new to intellectual pursuits or to social action; founding the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was the culmination of a lifetime of learning and soul searching. She had been raised the eldest of six children in a Unitarian household in Weymouth, Massachusetts, and married a Unitarian who shared her abolitionist views. Her three unmarried sisters joined in her abolition work, devising a fundraising scheme in the form of "Anti-Slavery Fairs," which raised thousands of dollars for the cause. They sold a variety of goods for ladies, including aprons, cloaks, purses, quilts, and dolls, and, in spite of their subversive purpose, the fairs were very popular.
But as eagerly as the women embraced their mission, its public nature made it controversial. At the time, the cultural ideal for upper-class white women, known as the "cult of true womanhood," highlighted their moral superiority, but limited their influence to the domestic realm. This "true womanhood" was expressed in four attributes: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Piety in that a woman was the keeper of morality in her family and community, but was also subject to it, while men were permitted to be more profane. Purity meaning a woman was chaste, belonging only to her husband, and her sexuality completely dependent on him. Submissiveness required a woman to remain passive, obedient, and mostly silent about her beliefs and opinions. Domesticity in that a woman's purpose was the perfection of home life. Home and hearth was her realm, and there alone should she shine.
This cultural ideal was meant to effectively silence women on public matters, even as they were paid lip service as the moral core of the family and society. When these women began to speak out on the evils of slavery, a violent backlash rained down on them. In every instance of protest, they were chastised and reviled, whether from the pulpits of their own churches or the centers of commerce.
The founders of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society stirred controversy by associating with abolitionist firebrands such as William Lloyd Garrison. A young white man impassioned by the antislavery movement, Garrison had established a weekly periodical in 1830 as a megaphone for those voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. The Liberator's masthead proclaimed, "Our country is the world — our countrymen are all mankind," an expression of universal oneness with a single consciousness most closely expressed as love. In the early years, black men and women were the majority of subscribers to the paper and wrote approximately one-fifth of its articles. Garrison was refreshingly outspoken about the "potent" influence of women, and he did not hesitate to support their efforts, making him even more despised in establishment circles.
Amid this fraught atmosphere, Maria Weston Chapman and her sisters strode onto the public stage. Although many vitriolic aspersions were cast against them, the abolitionist women of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society were strong, linking their cause with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the first anniversary of their founding neared, they decided to hold an annual meeting and published an announcement in newspapers, asking that it be read in churches as well:
By leave of Providence, the annual meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society will be [held] on October 14, in Congress Hall, at 3 o'clock P.M. An address will be delivered by George Thompson. Ladies generally are invited to attend.
The response was rapid and furious. Newspapers and churches were full of declamation for the "undignified" women. One might speculate whether it was the involvement of George Thompson, a notorious British abolitionist, or the open invitation to ladies that created such a stir. It was widely believed that the women were not acting on their own — they could not possibly know their own minds in such serious matters! Plainly, they had been seduced by those wild abolitionist men. The belief in a woman's weak nature was so entrenched that people literally could not fathom that they had the presence of mind to act on their own. The ladies in question begged to differ, indignantly firing off a letter in the Courier:
This association does firmly and respectfully declare that it is our right, and we will maintain it in Christian meekness, but with Christian constancy, to hold meetings, and to employ such lecturers as we judge best calculated to advance the holy cause of human rights. ... The cause of human freedom is our religion; the same taught us by him who died on Calvary — the great reformer, Christ. In it we will live — in it, if it must be so, we will die.
The furor continued until finally the proprietors of Congress Hall announced that, in the interest of public safety, the ladies' society would not be allowed to hold its meeting there. Denied entry to Congress Hall, the women regrouped and announced that the meeting would be held on the afternoon of October 21 at the office of the Liberator.
Violence was openly threatened, and indeed, by early afternoon on the twenty-first, the throngs numbered some five thousand men — many loudly calling for the head of Thompson, although, unbeknownst to them, he was not in attendance after all. By 3:00 p.m., when the meeting was called to order, the mob outside was so fierce that the building shook. Crowds forced themselves inside and up the stairs, some hurling objects through the partition, while the women began their meeting with a reading from scripture. The women never became angry or cowered, but proceeded with a strong, serene focus on their business, as if immune to the frothing mob that seemed bent on doing them harm.
Suddenly, Theodore Lyman, the mayor of Boston, pushed his way into the meeting room, shouting, "Go home, ladies! Go home!" They stayed in place. Fearful of the mob outside, the mayor begged, "Ladies, do you wish to see a scene of bloodshed and confusion? If you do not, go home."
One of the women called out, "Mr. Lyman, your personal friends are instigators of this mob. Have you ever used your personal influence with them?"
"I know no personal friends," he protested. "I am merely an official. Indeed, ladies, you must retire. It is dangerous to remain."
At that point, a sense of calm came over Maria. She spoke in a firm voice that echoed above the roar below: "If this is the last bulwark of freedom, we may as well die here as anywhere."
Garrison, who knew that much of the rioters' anger was directed at him, decided to leave, hoping to take the angry mob with him. Some did follow him, threw a rope around him, and dragged him through the streets of Boston before Mayor Lyman stopped them and jailed Garrison for his own protection.
There was still a large, angry gathering outside as Maria finally rose to her feet and invited the women to retire to her home and continue their meeting.
They walked out of the building in a silent procession as the crowd slowly parted to let them through. They would later report that their hearts were broken as the faces of their tormenters came into focus. This mob was not rabble but comprised of some of the most upstanding members of the community. These were men they recognized as friends and neighbors — even some who privately had supported the abolition efforts. Maria saw members of her church and felt great sadness that the customary warmth had gone from their eyes and the smiles from their lips.
Later, when they learned that Garrison had been accosted by the mob, one of the women hesitantly asked if they should repent if their actions resulted in the deaths of friends and family. The women cried, "No!" They knew their cause was righteous, a manifestation of their Christian faith. They had to stand up for themselves, their beliefs, and their children. They would not relent.
THIS WAS NOT the first assault on these courageous ladies, nor would it be the last. The cause of the abolition of slavery, which drew them from their hearths, was a benchmark in an era of radical societal change.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, America's soul was still bound up with slavery. The nation faced a shameful and divisive conflict; with the exponential growth of slavery in the South, the North and South were growing apart more each year. Attempting liberation of the slaves was a band of sisters, both black and white, whose weapons were courage, intelligence, faith, and solidarity. These women envisioned a new society where the full expression of democracy and Christian values would be denied to none. They did not speak out in a vacuum. The creation of ladies' antislavery societies was not an anomaly that occurred overnight or without social context. Rather, the times themselves had organized to make the women's new role a possibility.
Three significant cultural trends converged as a backdrop that allowed white women to find a voice and a cause in abolition: the Industrial Revolution, which changed the nature of work and family life; the influence of the Enlightenment, which created new expectations about human rights; and the Second Great Awakening, a populistreligious movement that defined a more personal and accessible spiritual experience.
The Industrial Revolution began in the textile mills in northern England in the middle of the eighteenth century and soon spread to America. New technologies led to the creation of small factories manufacturing everyday products, such as cloth and shoes. Industrialization changed family structures as people shifted from agrarian to urban life. For the first time, men left home in large numbers for employment and the promise of upward mobility. Their wives were left in charge of the domestic arena, where the husbands had dominated. The new social guidelines directing women toward a cult of true womanhood gave them authority exclusively over the moral lives of their families. They had no social or political influence outside the home.
Industrialization delivered a separate, more ambiguous message to poorer women. They, too, went off to the factories, lured by the opportunity to make money. It was usually a false lure. Paid less than men, these women were deprived of the promise of economic opportunity and promotion.
Industrialization also enhanced the slave economy. By the 1830s, cotton was America's most lucrative export. The Southern states supplied the textile industry of New England with most of its raw material and purchased much of the grain, beef, and pork produced in the region referred to as the Old Northwest, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. This economic interdependence gave Southern slaveholders significant influence in the North, and led to an increased reliance on slavery.
There was an upheaval growing beneath the surface of this new economy, for while many prospered, the gap between wealthy industrialists and working people grew cavernous. Street violence was not just aimed at the wealthy but also at free black people, who were seen as taking jobs from white workers. Racial tensions were exacerbated by economic strife, and women were in the middle, struggling for a foothold.
The social changes brought about by this economic flux were heightened by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. A European movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the central theme of the Enlightenment was human progress through reason. This new intellectual framework promoted individual and natural rights and equality for all. The Enlightenment contributed to the French and American revolutions, with independence and self-reliance as central values.
Ironically, the originators of this enlightened ideology only meant their ideas to apply to a select group — affluent white men. They explicitly excluded people of color, landless men, and women. Many women read Enlightenment philosophy and found resonance in its tenets, but were frustrated that it was not meant for them. The very philosophy that elevated white men left their wives and daughters trapped in a lower realm.
As women and people of color chafed at their exclusion, they began to see that if they were to share in the new spirit of individual liberty and equality, they would have to mount another revolution — and they found the path in an awakening of faith.
At the time, a powerful wave of religious reformation was sweeping across America. It was a time of tent revivals and the "democratization of religion." The Second Great Awakening ushered in a populist form of Christianity, attracting masses who believed Jesus dwells not within the church walls but within the individual. Previously, clergy interpreted the scripture; now people were reading it for themselves and felt called to create a kingdom of God here on earth. Many of the faithful saw their role as keeping the new materialism of industrialization in check. The leading evangelists preached a passionate relational theology, a stark contrast to the dogmatic hierarchical rules and everlasting punishment of early American Calvinism. Religious faith became deeply personal and less doctrinaire. New converts became reformers, taking seriously the message of the scriptures to do justice and love mercy. Large numbers of people opened their hearts to the indwelling (spiritual possession) of Jesus. Women in particular were drawn to this message because of their moral position in their households. They began bringing their husbands and male relatives to the revivals. The religious revival usurped some of the authority husbands previously held over their wives, giving women authority in the area of moral reform. With the revivalist movement, the emphasis was on change — starting a new, reformed life. And out of this sense of spiritual responsibility, some women became social reformers.
Transcendentalists, who were convinced that an ideal order "transcended" the concrete material world, also encouraged social reform. A prominent member of this circle, writer and intellectual Margaret Fuller, predicted that a new era would soon dawn for men and for women. Transcendentalism, along with a wide variety of faiths — Quakerism, spiritualism, premillennialism, Unitarianism, and Universalism — all stimulated feelings of spiritual intensity and social immediacy. This energy soon focused on the human stain of slavery.
RESISTANCE TO SLAVERY was as old as the practice itself, beginning when Africans leaped to their deaths from the decks of slave ships rather than embark on their hopeless journey. White opposition to slavery came later when members of the Quaker faith spoke out against the practice in the early 1700s. Other religious groups did not join the fight until the revivals "awakened" them to the notion that all people were God's children. But even these passionate protests were no match for the overwhelming economic engine that was dependent on slavery, and the explosive growth of the cotton industry increased the demand for slaves. White evangelical Christians and Spiritualists soon joined with African Americans and Quakers in the fight against slavery. When the North began to protest the expansion of slavery in the South, the South reacted defensively. Hostility increased. Verbal and political warfare ensued. In 1837 the country was perfectly divided — thirteen slave states and thirteen free states.
As the North and South sharpened their words and their weapons, one group of citizens decided repatriation was the answer. The founders of the American Colonization Society, some of whom were slaveholders and others passionately opposed to slavery, reasoned that if free black people were simply shipped to other parts of the world, the country would be free of the task of integration. David Walker, an ex-slave turned activist, helped to thwart the colonization movement. America was now the country of his people and he would fight to keep it that way. In 1829 Walker wrote Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, exhorting his brothers and sisters to claim their power, using violence if necessary. His book "alarmed society not a little," according to British sociologist Harriet Martineau, and the Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lundy called it the most inflammatory publication in history. Georgia and North Carolina immediately enacted laws against "incendiary publications." Years later, Maria W. Stewart, a black abolitionist author and speaker, called Mr. Walker "most noble, fearless, and undaunted," and asked, "Where is the man that has distinguished himself in these modern days by acting wholly in defense of African rights and liberty? There was one. Although he sleeps, his memory lives."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "And the Spirit Moved Them"
Copyright © 2017 Helen LaKelly Hunt.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: Holy Indignation Cornel West xiii
Introduction: Her Voice, Her Pen, Her Purse 1
Chapter 1 Band of Sisters 27
Chapter 2 A Convention Like No Other 52
Chapter 3 A Public Voice 84
Chapter 4 Fiery Backlash 113
Chapter 5 Walking with God 135
Chapter 6 Sympathy for the Woman 155
Chapter 7 A Bodyguard of Hearts 176
Conclusion: "Thine in the Bonds of Womanhood 198
Appendix A Timeline of the Abolitionist Women's Movement 233