Feminism | Posted by Vicki S on 01/19/2015

Lost Women of History: Maria Stewart, the First Black Feminist-Abolitionist in America

“Let our girls possess what amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself; let their natural taste and ingenuity be what they may; it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise above the condition of servants.” – Maria Stewart, The Limits of True Womanhood

Best remembered as the first recorded American-born woman to give a public speech in the United States in 1832, Maria Stewart should also be remembered as an incredible role model for her lifelong work as a black, female feminist-abolitionist at a time and in a society largely resistant to all of these ideas and identities.

Though she was born to free African-American parents in Hartford Connecticut in 1803, Maria Miller was orphaned by the age of five and hired out as a domestic servant. She worked for a clergyman’s family until the age of fifteen, but then left to seek an education. While attending a Sabbath school, she supported herself through domestic work until her marriage to James Stewart, a veteran of the War of 1812, in 1826.

The couple was deeply influenced by David Walker, a black abolitionist author who wrote a pamphlet called Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, which made the case for the “idea of freedom.” While Maria disagreed with Walker’s militant approach to abolitionist activism, she agreed with Walker’s goal of freedom and was a major supporter of his work. However, Stewart’s husband died just three years after they married and Walker also died soon after. Stewart also soon found that she was unable to inherit anything from her husband.

These events arguably shifted her work from that of supporting others to becoming an activist in her own right. Stewart began to write and in 1831 she handed famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison an essay to be published in his newspaper, The Liberator. Over time she published many of her essays in this newspaper, but her words and messages could not be limited to paper: She soon began to deliver public speeches as well.

Her first speech was delivered in the Spring of 1832 to a predominantly female audience. Soon after, on September 21, 1832, she delivered her second — and arguably most famous — speech to the meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston’s Franklin Hall. Although known for her abolitionist perspective, this speech addressed the system of oppression that denied African-American women educational and professional careers. She stated:

“Most of our color have dragged out a miserable existence of servitude from the cradle to the grave. And what literary acquirements can be made, or useful knowledge derived, from either maps, books or charm, by those who continually drudge from Monday morning until Sunday noon? O, ye fairer sisters, whose hands are never soiled, whose nerves and muscles are never strained, go learn by experience! Had we had the opportunity that you have had, to improve our moral and mental faculties, what would have hindered our intellects from being as bright, and our manners from being as dignified as yours?… And why are not our forms as delicate, and our constitutions as slender, as yours? Is not the workmanship as curious and complete? Have pity upon us, have pity upon us, O ye who have hearts to feel for other’s woes; for the hand of God has touched us. Owing to the disadvantages under which we labor, there are many flowers among us that are…born to bloom unseen.

Delivering this speech made Stewart the first abolitionist to advocate for the inclusion of African-American women into the movement. Stewart detailed real life examples and crafted a narrative to make herself relatable to her audience and to remind them that while black women were often dehumanized at the time, they were in fact as human as anybody else. This speech raised consciousness about oppression while ensuring the audience that oppression could, with their help and advocacy, be conquered.

Stewart urged women to refuse the dominant, domestic images and thoughts associated with black women. As she queried in one of her speeches, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” Stewart recognized the intersectional position of black women in America by blaming racism, classism, and sexism as the main forces of their oppression. She confronted injustice and pushed women to rely on, and define, themselves largely by seeking an education. She challenged women to “turn [their] attention to knowledge and improvement; for knowledge is power.”

Ultimately, Stewart devoted her life to promoting and supporting a Black activist community inclusive to women. While dominant society saw women — and especially black women — as weak and domestic, she recognized the power black women could bring to the activist community. She recognized their spirit of independence, fearless, and boldness and fought for opportunities to augment those qualities through education.

And yet, despite her incredible work, Maria Stewart has been woefully under-recognized in the dominant narrative of American history. We must fight to make Stewart’s legacy known and recognize the numerous ways her work has impacted our lives today.

This post is part of the FBomb’s “Lost Women of History” series, which seeks to correct the unfortunate fact that trailblazing women are routinely left out of history books by highlighting their work. Beyond their absence being insulting to their brave and historic work and memory, it can often lead to young women today failing to realize just how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time and we hope to contribute to righting this wrong.

Source: Rycenga, Jennifer. “Maria Stewart, Black Abolitionist and the Idea of Freedom.” Frontline Feminisms: Women, War, and Resistance. New York: Garland Pub., 2000. 297-324. Print.

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