restricted access Voyeuristic Abolitionism: Sex, Gender, and the Transformation of Antislavery Rhetoric

In the 1830s, antislavery advocates used highly sexualized language to recruit Northerners into the growing immediatist movement. The "voyeuristic abolitionism" they developed in speeches, pamphlets and periodicals served to shock and mobilize men and especially women, who were urged to identify with the enslaved of their own sex, and then to act to save these victims. Engaging women in such explicit discussions and encouraging female efforts to strike against slavery challenged established gender norms. Yet as the antislavery movement evolved beyond moral suasion into a political strategy, most abolitionists curtailed their use of sexualized imagery, and women's participation in the antislavery movement took its own form. The rise and fall of the rhetoric of "voyeuristic abolitionism" can be charted by studying the vocabulary used in magazines and other popular publications of the era, now searchable electronically through the American Periodical Series. The explosive potential of this language can also be seen in the ways in which it was employed -and avoided-in the U.S. Congress. By the 1850s, some Americans-among them African American authors and antislavery women, including most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe--found ways to reference the moral evils of slavery without invoking explicitly sexual language. In the end, attacks on slavery framed in political terms prevailed over the voyeuristic abolitionism that had first drawn women into the antislavery coalition.