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Recasting Women’s Activism in the Nineteenth Century

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 3, September 2012
pp. 444-451 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0060

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In analyzing nineteenth-century women’s lives, pioneering women’s historians—from Eleanor Flexner and Gerda Lerner to Thomas Dublin, Kathyrn Kish Sklar, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Sharon Harley, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Mary Ryan, and Ellen DuBois—highlighted women’s participation in social and political movements. Scholars have focused specifically on women’s contributions to campaigns for the abolition of slavery, racial justice, educational reform, labor reform, moral reform, temperance, Indian rights, woman’s rights, and suffrage. Scholars have continued to explore this terrain, highlighting specific movements, particular communities, and individual activists. The three books reviewed here further enrich this voluminous body of work. The authors demand greater attention to movements for abolition and woman’s rights in the Old Northwest, recast the history of antebellum reform through the life of Lucretia Mott, and reconceptualize the relationship between the state and its citizens by examining the political thought of key black and white activists.

Each of these books offers important insights in its own right. Carol Faulkner’s compelling biography of Lucretia Mott highlights her radical and often heretical views on religion and reform, challenging Mott’s image as a quiet Quaker who served only as a peacemaker among divergent factions. In the process, Faulkner relocates the early history of woman’s rights in a diverse and transatlantic movement for human rights. Stacey Robertson offers a fresh take on antebellum activism from the perspective of the Old Northwest and reveals the many ways in which that region both diverged from and influenced activism in the Northeast. Her insights demand that future scholars of abolition and woman’s rights broaden their geographical lens. Alison Parker analyzes the political thought of six nineteenth-century activists who participated in a robust conversation about gender, race, rights, and citizenship. Reminding us that activists can also be political theorists, her subjects thought creatively about national belonging and federal power. All three scholars address women’s relationship to partisan politics and the state, the role of race in shaping activist agendas and practices, and the wider networks—domestic and transatlantic—that alternately supported and challenged their work. A number of characters appear in more than one of these studies. Lucretia Mott is perhaps the most obvious, visiting the Old Northwest as a Quaker preacher and activist and befriending Angelina and Sarah Grimké, two of Parker’s six figures. But Abby Kelley, Lucy Stone, Frederick Douglass, Charlotte Forten, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also appear multiple times and from diverse perspectives. Individually and collectively, these authors provide complicated and persuasive interpretations of critical developments in nineteenth-century social, political, and intellectual history.

Robertson’s excellent study, Hearts Beating for Liberty, builds on a small and growing body of work on abolitionism and woman’s rights in the Old Northwest. But most of this work, especially theses and dissertations focused on women, remain unpublished. A few studies, like Tina Stewart Brakebill’s “Circumstances Are Destiny”: An Antebellum Woman’s Struggle to Define Her Sphere (2006) offer compelling stories of individual women, but they have failed to jar loose the Eastern bent of antebellum scholarship. Robertson addresses this issue directly, highlighting the independent trajectory of Western abolitionism, the astonishing number of female associations in the region, the cooperative spirit among Western women and men, and the importance of women to the development of the Liberty Party. She covers the five states carved out of the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and introduces readers to a diverse array of women—rural and urban, black and white, Quaker and evangelical. Demonstrating the willingness of abolitionists in the region to embrace both moral suasion and partisan politics, Robertson argues that a more pragmatic and collaborative approach marked antebellum activism in the Old Northwest.

Despite paeans to Oberlin College as the training ground of female luminaries like Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, women’s activism in the Old Northwest has generally been viewed as an Eastern import. Robertson makes clear that abolition developed independently in the West, and that women forged their own path in the movement. By 1836, Ohio had more antislavery groups than any other state; two years later, Ohio women alone had founded at least thirty...

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