An exhibit on the connection between the antislavery movement and the women’s rights movement was created and displayed in Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor Center in 2002.
Neither Ballots nor Bullets: The Contest for Civil Rights
Two great early 19th-century social movements sought to end slavery and secure equal rights for women. Gerrit Smith and Susan B. Anthony helped shape these two movements. The anti-slavery movement grew from peaceful origins after the American Revolution to a Civil War, or War Between the States, that effectively ended slavery while severely damaging the women's rights movement.
Wielding the ballot and the bullet as well as the petition to win the legal, political, and military contest of the Civil War, abolitionists decided the fate of slavery with the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment. Seeking their own rights, women used more peaceful tactics but suffered long delays. Not until 1920 did women add the ballot to their arsenal of political tools.
The women's rights movement was the offspring of abolition. Many people actively supported both reforms. Several participants in the 1848 First Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls had already labored in the anti-slavery movement. The organizers and their families - the Motts, Wrights, Stantons, M'Clintocks and Hunts - were active abolitionists to a greater or lesser degree. Noted abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass attended and addressed the 1848 Convention.
Both movements promoted the expansion of the American promise of liberty and equality - to African Americans and to women. How did these two movements develop and how were they related to each other? How did each develop strategies and deal with the contradiction of violence and war that results from the advocacy of peaceful change?
"...the flagrant injustice and deep sin of slavery"
Religious revivals during the Second Great Awakening intensified anti-slavery activity after 1830. Seeking to perfect society, adherents targeted slavery as an evil that destroyed individual free will as moral beings. Abolitionists began to demand immediate, uncompensated emancipation of slaves.
In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, Quaker Lucretia Mott, and several others formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. Women were a large part of the general membership and formed separate, local female anti-slavery branches. Mott also helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, an organization, noted for its promotion of racial and gender equality, that included African American and white women as leaders and members.
Many anti-slavery reformers, like the Quakers, came from pacifist backgrounds or espoused nonviolent social reform. They shaped public opinion by distributing newspapers and tracts, sending out organizers and lecturers, and hosting fundraising fairs. Garrison, who saw the U.S. Constitution and federal government as pro-slavery forces, observed Independence Day as a day of mourning. Lucretia Mott and Thomas M'Clintock helped form the Philadelphia Free Produce Society, which boycotted slave-made products.
Between 1838 and 1840, the American Anti-Slavery Society split in three, in part over the issue of women's leadership, specifically Abby Kelley's appointment to the business committee. Radical abolitionists and women's rights supporters, known as "Garrisonian" abolitionists, remained in the American Anti-Slavery Society. The newly formed American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society restricted membership to males, with auxiliaries for females. The politically minded formed the Liberty Party, limiting women's participation to fundraising. The discrimination of women in abolition and other reform movements led them to advocate for women's rights.
"Justice and Equality:" Antislavery and Women's Rights
At the 1848 First Women's Rights Convention, the Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth and Mary Ann M'Clintock, was read and signed by 100 men and women. Claiming that "all Men and Women are created equal," the signers called for extending to women the right to vote, control property, sign legal documents, serve on juries, and enjoy equal access to education and the professions.
Arguments for women's rights came from experiences in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina and Sarah Grimké of South Carolina were Quakers and effective anti-slavery speakers, although it was considered improper for women to speak before "promiscuous" audiences composed of both men and women. During a petition drive in Massachusetts in 1837, male listeners thronged to female-only lectures. While condemning slavery, the Grimkés upheld "the cause of woman as a moral being." "Sister Sarah does preach up woman's rights most nobly and fearlessly," reported Angelina to a friend. Rebuked by Congregational ministers and others for speaking to promiscuous audiences, they held their ground. To do otherwise would have been "…a violation of our fundamental principle that man & woman are created equal, & have the same duties & the same responsibilities as moral beings."
As reformers, women developed organizational skills necessary for a successful social movement. They learned to write persuasively, raise funds, organize supporters and events, and speak to large groups of men and women about important political and social issues. In the service of anti-slavery, women found their voices. Between 1850 and 1860, women's rights advocates held state and national conventions and campaigned for legal changes.
The Emergence of Violence
The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law authorized federal marshals to seize and return fugitive slaves. Northern free blacks had little protection against false claims by southern slaveholders. While many free blacks fled to Canada, previously neutral northerners were enraged at the injustice.
As the U.S. expanded, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, allowing each new area to decide whether it would allow slavery. Slavery and anti-slavery supporters rushed into Kansas to claim it for their side. In 1856, after anti-slavery settlers died during an attack in Lawrence, Kansas, John Brown led a raid against pro-slavery homes along Pottawatomie Creek, killing five men in retaliation.
With a warrant out for his arrest, John Brown returned east to plan a daring raid. He hoped to create a large slave insurrection in Virginia. Brown sought support among prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's cousin, Gerrit Smith, provided financial support. A decade earlier, he had sold Brown a parcel of land in a settlement for free blacks in the Adirondacks. Now, Brown asked Smith to help finance his scheme. Smith agreed, becoming one of the "Secret Six" financiers of John Brown's raid.
On October 16, 1859, John Brown and twenty-one followers launched an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. When the anticipated slave revolt failed to materialize, the raid ended in dismal failure. Brown and his men were tried, convicted, and hanged. A letter in Brown's possession incriminated Smith, who went insane as a result of the publicity and threat of prosecution. A martyr in the eyes of non-violent abolitionists, Brown became a symbol of escalating violence in pursuit of emancipation.
"How Glass Our House Is:" An Uneasy Truce with the War
Many nonviolent reformers, concluding that slavery could only be purged by war, welcomed the outbreak of the Civil War in April, 1861. Even Quaker pacifists reluctantly supported the war if it would bring an end to slavery. David Wright's support of the war brought no criticism from sister-in-law Lucretia Mott, considering, "how glass our house is." She hoped the war "would be prosecuted with energy and faith since it was founded on so good a cause." When Horace Greeley and others pointed out that these hardly seemed the words of a pacifist, she responded, "…as the natural result of our wrong-doings and our atrocious cruelties, terrible as war must ever be, let us hope it will not be stayed by any compromise which shall continue the unequal, cruel war on the rights and liberties of millions of our unoffending fellow beings.…"
Meanwhile, the national conventions for women's rights ended. In 1864, the National Woman's Loyal League, headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, gathered 400,000 signatures on a petition for an immediate end to slavery. Having neither access to the vote nor military service, women used the petition to support the 13th Amendment.
In victory over slavery, decades-long alliances were broken. The women's rights movement split and old friends in the abolition and women's rights movements parted company. Just as anti-slavery forces had divided, so too did organizations struggling for women's suffrage.
Last updated: February 26, 2015