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Women, Anti-slavery and Internationalism

By Clare Midgley

Sheffield Hallam University



   The history of slavery and emancipation, as Robin Blackburn has recently highlighted, lies at the heart of development of the discourse of human rights that underpins the actions of international social movements today.[1] It is thus appropriate that a resource devoted to the history of women's international activism should begin with documents relating to the anti-slavery movement, at the point when it both internationalised and became linked with the beginnings of the movement for women's rights. The anti-slavery movement was one of the key movements to propel American and British women into involvement in international activism, a commitment that fueled the emergence of modern western feminism and helped shape its agenda.[2]

   While about a 40 percent of the WASM International archive's pages consist of the proceedings of international meetings, most of these relate to international women's organisations that emerged from the 1880s onwards. However, the documents in the resource relating to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and its aftermath offer the opportunity to trace women's international activism back to its inception, at a time when it took place within male-dominated rather than women-led organisations, and to trace the emergence of feminist organisation in a transatlantic milieu. They comprise excerpts from the official proceedings of the Convention, diaries of a British and an American woman who attended, and a small selection from the extraordinarily extensive correspondence between British and American abolitionists that marked the consolidation of radical abolitionist and feminist networks in the aftermath of the Convention.[3] This material shows the importance of moving beyond the study of women-only and/or exclusively women's rights-focussed organisations in exploring women's international activism and the international roots of feminism. The letters between individual activists, discussing issues of peace, workers' rights and an enormous range of other issue of global significance as well as abolitionism and feminism, testify to the breadth of concerns of this early generation of transnational activists.

   The World Anti-Slavery Convention is so significant to the history of women because it was perhaps the first international meeting of reformers at which extended public controversy erupted over the role of women: this occurred when the Briitsh organising committee rejected the credentials of women appointed as official delegates by the radical wing of the American anti-slavery movement.[4] The Convention has thus, not surprisingly, gained a prominent place in scholarly debates concerning the roots of the organised women's rights movement in the United States. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her history of the women's suffrage movement, credited a meeting between herself and one of the rejected delegates, Lucretia Coffin Mott, at the time of the Convention, with setting in train the movement for women's rights in both the United States and Britain, and the importance of the Convention to the development of the American women's rights movement, as well as the broader intertwining of abolitionism and feminism in the United States, has been stressed by several scholars.[5] There is a danger, however, in over-emphasising transatlantic anti-slavery as the main route into women's rights. First, in the British case the connection was complicated, with the vast majority of women activists keen to keep anti-slavery as a single issue campaign and only moving on to agitating for their own rights as the transatlantic anti-slavery movement wound down in the 1860s.[6] Second, in the American case the connection between slavery and abolition is not the only global context into which the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls—held in 1848, the year of European revolutions—needs to be placed, as Nancy Hewitt has recently stressed.[7] The recent transnational and global turn in historical scholarship will hopefully encourage further study which extends beyond the Anglophone transatlantic frame of most existing work comparing the relationship between antislavery and feminism in different nations, or exploring the transatlantic connections between women abolitionists and feminists.[8]

   There is also the need for more studies exploring the place of African-American women activists, both fugitives from slavery and those born free, within the history of transnational abolitionism and feminism, though the lives of individual women who were part of the Black Atlantic are beginning to be explored.[9] While no black women were sent to the 1840 Convention as delegates, a number of black male abolitionists were appointed as delegates, from both the United States and Britain's Caribbean colonies. Amongst them was women's rights supporter Charles Remond, who some twenty years later was followed into the transatlantic anti-slavery movement by his sister, the feminist and abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond. In focusing, as this online archive does, on organisational records and literate educated middle-class women with the time and means to engage in transatlantic correspondence and attend meetings overseas, we should also be careful not to lose sight of the wider world of female activism that helped inspire and motivate their work for anti-slavery and women's rights: the actions of enslaved African women themselves in resisting slavery. Enslaved women's lives were bound up with the history of the Atlantic world and the transatlantic slave trade that linked Africa, Europe, the Caribbean Islands and the Americas.[10] Their acts of resistance, far from being simply localised actions taken in isolation from wider events, throw powerful light on the dynamics connecting local and global movements for change. They were inspired by rumours of slave revolt in other lands and by news of emancipation proclamations by foreign governments, and they involved colonial subjects exerting pressure on imperial governments.[11]

The documents

   Perhaps the best place to start in studying this set of documents on women and anti-slavery is the official proceedings of the World Anti-Slavery Convention, as it was popularly referred to, or the General Anti-Slavery Convention, as the committee of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) preferred to describe it. These were published by the Society in London in 1841. The BFASS had been set up in Britain in 1839 after the termination of the apprenticeship system in the Caribbean marked the full emancipation of enslaved Africans in Britain's colonies. It was initiated by Birmingham Quaker anti-slavery activist Joseph Sturge, who was keen to revive a national network of anti-slavery societies to mobilise British women as well as men in the new cause of the universal extinction of slavery and the slave trade, and the protection of newly emancipated Africans in Britain's colonies.[12] The stress on "universal" abolition led to the decision to call the World Convention in London in June 1840. This happened to be just at the time that the American anti-slavery movement was in the midst of a schism between radical supporters of William Lloyd Garrison, who retained control of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), and the more moderate followers of Lewis Tappan, who seceded in 1839 to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFAAS), its title indicative of its close alliance with the BFASS in Britain.[13]

   As the extract from the Proceedings on WASM International shows, most of the first day of the Convention was taken up with debate over whether to accept the credentials of the female delegates representing the radical wing of American abolitionism, a debate in which only men were allowed to participate, and which women had to witness in silence from special seating areas at the side of the hall and in the gallery, as shown in Benjamin Robert Haydon's collective portrait of the delegates.[14] Examining this document in detail, we can pick out the range of arguments deployed both for and against the acceptance of women delegates. Interestingly, speakers on both sides stressed their appreciation of the very important role women had played in the anti-slavery movement, and the vital role they hoped and expected that they would continue to play. The issue of disagreement was over whether on not women should be able to take a full part in the proceedings of a mixed public meeting, as delegates who could speak in debates and take part in decision-making. At the heart of this debate was the nineteenth-century ideology of "separate spheres," closely associated with the evangelical Protestantism espoused by many middle-class abolitionists in both Britain and the United States. While there has been much debate among historians as to the extent to which this ideology was actually carried over into practice, the issue of women speaking in public at mixed meetings was extremely contentious in both nations in the first half of the century, and generally seen only to be respectable in the context of the exceptional case of Quaker women's ministry. Looking at the document, we see a debate conducted entirely by men over the "woman question," with women as a silent presence.

   The documents throw light on some of the broader tensions which could arise when campaigners from different nations got together at an international meeting to try to agree on transnational forms of co-operation. One line of argument from both sides centred on the whether or not it was appropriate to respect the different customs of different independent nations at an international convention. This line of debate, however, broke down when the split within American anti-slavery ranks was exposed. In fact the Convention's debate over seating female delegates marked the public emergence of two rival transnational alliances of abolitionists — the BFASS aligned with the AFASS while a number of other individual activists and local anti-slavery societies aligned themselves with the AASS. A second line of debate concerned principles of universality: could a "world" convention really lay claim to a global reach when it excluded some delegates? Could a convention "met to act on the principles of universality" through promoting the universal abolition of slavery and through admitting "coloured brethren" to equal participation in their movement, begin "by disfranchising one-half of creation," or were Africans' rights and women's rights two completely different issues which should not be mixed? These arguments touched on core issues for international activists concerning the exclusions of Enlightenment and liberal discourses on human rights, and the appropriate relationship between different campaigns.

   As the public debate at the Convention over women's role in abolition was conducted entirely by men, we need to go to other sources to see how American and British women engaged with the question. Invaluable here are two diaries in the archive, one a hitherto little-known manuscript diary written by an English woman abolitionist who attended the Convention as an onlooker, the other a better-known account by an American woman who came as a delegate. Amelia Opie's diary of the Convention is housed in the Williams College collections and has not hitherto been widely used by historians. Opie came from a Norwich Unitarian family but had joined the Society of Friends and was a close personal friend of John Joseph Gurney, a leading evangelical Quaker member of the committee of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Her account thus gives us an interesting insight into the views of a woman whose connections would have predisposed her to align herself with the BFASS leadership against the seating of the women delegates. Her account is valuable both in describing the segregated seating arrangements for women decreed by the BFASS, and in conveying her excitement at seeing the "American Ladies," especially Lucretia Mott from Pennsylvania, "distinguished there for her talents, and her extensive influence." British women abolitionists were already well-informed about the bravery of their American sisters through the writings of the well-known British author Harriet Martineau,[15] and Opie comments: "I could not behold these devoted, persevering, and successful friends of Abolition whose fearless services I had seen so eloquently recorded, without a considerable degree of interest, and I felt impatient to greet them." She made a detailed record of the debate on the admission of women delegates and at the end of this we have her own take on the events in which she makes it clear that, despite her admiration of the women delegates, she was very worried by the potential disruption caused by the "division of sentiment" which had been manifested, and was relieved when the supporters of female delegates acceded to the majority vote and were willing to unite "with a single eye to the great end in view — Freedom to the Slave."

   A very different perspective is provided by Lucretia Coffin Mott's diary of her visit to Britain and Ireland and attendance at the Convention. The original forms part of the collection of Mott's papers in the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, but the archive utilizes the published version, edited by Frederick Tolles, giving the advantage of a detailed introduction and extensive footnotes. Lucretia Mott is the only American woman named in Opie's diary and Mott herself mentions a number of occasions when she met Opie during and after the Convention — an illustration of how even orthodox Quaker women aligned to BFASS were keen to meet personally with the controversial American women. Mott (1793-1880) and her husband James, who accompanied her to the Convention, were leading figures in Philadelphia anti-slavery circles and Lucretia attended the convention with credentials from the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Association of Friends for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Because her diary is not just an account of the Convention but covers her whole extended visit to Britain and Ireland it gives enormous insights into the informal networking which went on between British/Irish and American abolitionists outside the formal meetings of the Convention. In such informal social spaces women did have a voice, and were free to exchange views and forge new friendships that formed the personal bedrock on which the transatlantic network of radical abolitionists rested through the 1840s and 1850s.

   Reading through her diary, it is possible to identify the British women with whom Lucretica Mott made most connection. They included Elizabeth Pease of Darlington, Ann Knight of Chelmsford, and Londoner Elizabeth Jesser Reid. All three women were to become leading feminist activists, and Mott noted that Reid "manifested much sympathy with us in our exclusion." Reid was later to host Harriet Beecher Stowe during her first visit to England in 1853 after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and later hosted African-American abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond, whose brother Charles she had met at the Convention. Remond, who studied at Bedford College, which Reid had founded to promote higher education for women, became the first woman to conduct a public lecture tour tour of Britain in the cause of abolition.[16] Another encounter for Mott was with the wife of Liverpool abolitionist William Rathbone, who was keen to hear from her of her impressions from her travels around England “how far we considered their [women’s] minds fettered and crushed by public opinion and external restraints – and that we would give our opinion of the comparative situation of American and English females.” (p. 76)

   WASM International also includes a number of letters between Lucretia Mott and British and Irish abolitionist men and women, showing how the network was consolidated after her return to America, and correspondence between Sarah Pugh, the Philadelphia Quaker who led the women's delegation to the Convention, and British and Irish abolitionists. These letters are only a tiny sample of the thousands of letters exchanged between British and American abolitionists, male and female, many of which are now housed in the Anti-Slavery Collection at Boston Public Library. They do, however, give an indication of the ways in which women's rights and anti-slavery were linked in the radical transatlantic network to a much wider range of causes, including peace, temperance, and workers' conditions and rights. Further work is needed on the role women played in interconnecting these different campaigns at an international level.

Broader themes: religion and feminism; genealogies of activism

   The anti-slavery material in WASM International also offers interesting insights into other wider areas of recent scholarly interest. The relationship between Protestant Christianity and women's public activism and feminism is one such. While earlier scholarship tended to stress the constraining impact of religion on women's lives,[17] recent work has explored the role of religion in motivating and shaping female activism in social reform, and the links between religious dissent and anti-slavery radicalism.[18] The importance of transatlantic Quaker and Unitarian networks to anti-slavery has long been recognised,[19] and Mott's record of her meetings with contacts in London, during her travels around Britain and Ireland after the Convention, and the correspondence of Mott and Sarah Pugh with British Quaker men and women shows evidence of the strength of Quaker networks. However, the online documents also encourage us to dig deeper and examine the complexities of the relationship between dissenting religious traditions and anti-slavery and women's rights. How do particular strands within specific religious traditions offer openings for female public activism, and what limits do they set? The documents caution us against generalisations such as that which presents Quakerism as particularly conducive to female public activism because of its long history of acceptance of female ministry. While the official account of the Convention shows a careful side-stepping of direct conflict over religious differences, the diaries and letters in WASM International offer glimpses of the religious schism among Quakers which fueled hostility to the women's delegates. It is clear that the Hicksite strand of Quakerism in the United States to which Lucretia Mott adhered, had an overriding emphasis on the inner light of God over Biblical authority, and offered a space for outspoken women in a way that the dominant evangelical strand of nineteenth-century Quakerism in Britain did not, influenced as it was by the broader evangelical stress on "separate spheres." Some orthodox British Quaker women, however, as both Amelia Opie and Lucretia Mott's diaries show, were very keen to meet with Mott and her fellow women delegates, even if they were concerned to stress that they strongly disagreed with their religious beliefs; in some cases these meetings sowed the seeds of enthusiasm for women's rights. Mott, as her diary reveals, also found a warm welcome among Unitarians in Britain, a group also often considered heretical by orthodox Christians. Interestingly, it was women and men at the radical end of the Unitarian movement, rather than Quakers, who led the emergence of the British women's rights movement, and many of these women had a history of involvement in anti-slavery.[20] Evidence for overlaps between radical Quaker and Unitarian networks, and for rifts within Quakerism, complicates the standard picture of denominational networks forming the basis for transatlantic anti-slavery networks.

   The WASM International material relating to the 1840 Convention also sheds light on processes of organisational and institutional history-making, including the attempts made by women to influence commemorative processes in order to ensure women's place in the collective memories of movements and their inclusion in the movement histories written by activists themselves. Just as male-led evangelical Christian missionary organisations wrote their official histories with a focus on founding fathers, so leading male anti-slavery activists sought to shape a patriarchal genealogy of anti-slavery, and the opening of the Convention and the official painting recording the convention were key moments in this process. Through the documents we can see that some women, including Amelia Opie, were completely uncritical of this patriarchal process, whereas women like Lucretia Mott offered a challenge to it, sketching out an alternative feminist genealogy of anti-slavery. The opening of the Convention was chaired by the aged and ailing Thomas Clarkson, who was presented by the leader of the BFASS, Joseph Sturge, as the founding father of the campaign against slavery; Clarkson's widowed daughter-in-law, the only woman given a platform seat, was presented by Sturge as the mother of his anointed successor, her nine-year-old son: speaking for the silent mother, Sturge expressed her wish that "her darling child should devote his life to the cause" and take on "the mantle of his venerable ancestor." Amelia Opie, summing up first day of convention, stated: "Nor can I doubt but that the interest was heightened by the privilege of seeing 'the Patriarch of Abolition' presiding over the meeting, and by his hearing his young grandson devoted to that glorious cause." Patriarchal genealogies of anti-slavery are here being constructed, legitimating a male-dominated future for the movement, and reflected in the overwhelming prominence given to men in the commemorative portrait of the Convention commissioned by the BFASS.

   This patriarchal process of commemoration did not go unchallenged by women activists. In September 1840 Anne Knight wrote to her friend Lucy Townsend, co-founder of first women's anti-slavery society in Britain, urging her to put herself forward for inclusion in the commemorative painting as "the person who established woman agency," who "has as much right to be there as Thomas Clarkson himself."[21] Mott's diary expresses her sadness at discovering that Mary Lloyd, the Birmingham Quaker who in 1825 had joined with Lucy Townsend in co-founding the first British women's anti-slavery society, would not be at the Convention “as she was the first to suggest the formation of Female Anti-Slavery Societies in America” (p.18). It also records that, at an informal meeting with the BFASS committee, Mott enquired of the male leadership if they were supporters of "immediate emancipation" and, on being answered affirmatively, pointed out to them that this policy originated with a woman—-the English Quaker activist Elizabeth Heyrick. She then claimed that this was the reason that the radical wing of the American movement would never consider excluding women if they held a convention. Here we see recollection of women's leading role in initiating the shift to a radical anti-slavery policy used to justify full participation by women in the current movement. Later, of course, the Convention was to be written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton into the history of feminism as a foundational moment; what we see in 1840 among radical women who attended the Convention are the beginnings of the creation of a feminist genealogy of women's activism.



[1] Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible. Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (Cambridge: Verso, 2011).

[2] For the origins of the international women's movement among connected groups of women in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany see: Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women's Movement 1830-1860 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) and Margaret H. McFadden, Golden Cables of Sympathy: The Transatlantic Sources of Nineteenth-Century Feminism (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999); for the connections between transatlantic anti-slavery and the emergence of the women's rights movement see Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart, eds., Women's Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[3] Much of this correspondence is preserved in the Anti-Slavery Collection in Boston Public Library, Massachusetts, U.S.A.. For a published selection, see: Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists: An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974).

[4] For a summary of the controversy see Donald R. Kennon, "'An Apple of Discord': The Woman Question at the World's Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840," Slavery and Abolition, V (1984), pp. 244-66.

[5] Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al., eds., History of the Woman Suffrage, 3 vols (Rochester: Charles Mann, 1887), I, 62; Gerda Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition (New York: Schocken Books, 1971 ed.); Blanche Glassman Hersh, The Slavery of Sex: Feminist-Abolitionists in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978); Jean Fagan Yellin, Women and Sisters: the Antislavery Feminists in American Culture (New Haven: Yale Unviersity Press, 1989); Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996); Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women's Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement 1830-1870. A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000).

[6] Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery. The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992), especially pp. 154-75.

[7] Nancy A. Hewitt, "Re-rooting American Women's Activism. Global Perspectives on 1848" in Karen Offen, ed., Globalizing Feminism 1789-1945 (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 18-25.

[8] For a pioneering study combining exploration of British-U.S. comparisons and connections see Kathryn Kish Sklar, "'Women Who Speak for an Entire Nation': American and British women Compared at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, London, 1840," Pacific Historical Review (1990), pp. 453-99.

[9] Sklar and Stewart, eds., Women's Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery, Part III on "The transatlantic activism of African-American women abolitionists" includes essays on Sarah Forten, Harriet Jacobs, Sarah Parker Remond and Frances Watkins Harper. See also R.J.M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Alan J. Rice and Martin Crawford, eds., Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).

[10] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery. From the Baroque to the Modern,1492-1800 (London: Verso, 1997).

[11] Hilary McD. Beckles, Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slavery Society (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1999); Pamela Scully and Diana Paton, eds., Gender and Slavery Emancipation in the Atlantic World (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005).

[12] Howard Temperley, British Antislavery 1833-1870 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1972).

[13] Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969); Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998); Betty Fladeland, Men and Brothers: Anglo-American Anti-slavery Cooperation (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1972). For a selection of correspondence between Lewis Tappan and the male leadership of the BFASS see Annie Heloise Abel and Frank J. Klingberg, eds., A Side-Light on Anglo-American Relations, 1839-1858 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970; Originally published, 1927).

[14] The original of this painting, entitled "The Great Meeting of Delegates, held at the Freemasons Tavern, June 1840, for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade throughout the world" is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. It is reproduced in WASM International as the frontispiece to Tolles's edition of the Mott's diary. For a discussion of the portrait, see Catherine Hall, "The Lords of Humankind Re-Visited," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 66:3 (2003): 472-85.

[15] Martineau wrote a series of articles for the London and Westminster Review of December 1838, portraying radical female abolitionists such as the Grimké sisters as martyrs to the cause. These were republished as The Matryr Age in the United States of America (Newcastle: J. Blackwell, 1840).

[16] For Remond in Britain see Midgley, Women Against Slavery, pp. 143-45, 163-64, 170-72, 181, 193, 196, 199.

[17] Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (London: Hutchinson, 1987).

[18] Sue Morgan, ed., Women, Religion and Feminism in Britain, 1750-1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Sue Morgan and Jacqueline de Vries, eds., Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800-1940 (London: Routledge, 2010); Elizabeth J. Clapp and Julie Roy Jeffrey, eds., Women, Dissent, and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Julie Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Anna M. Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women: Spirituality in the Lives of Five Abolitionist Lecturers (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

[19] For the eighteenth-century roots of transatlantic Quaker abolitionist networks see David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 212-54; Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital. Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 391-450; for Unitarians, see Douglas Charles Stange, British Unitarians against American Slavery, 1833-65 (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1984).

[20] Kathryn Gleadle, The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women's Rights Movement, 1835-51 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1995).

[21] Letter from Anne Knight to Lucy Townsend, Paris, 20 September 1840, in Lucy Townsend, "Autographs," p. 102, Rhodes House Library, Oxford, MSS Brit. Emp. S.5; see discussion in Midgley, Women Against Slavery, pp. 1-2.