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Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21.2 (2005) 31-59

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A Greater Awakening

Women's Intellect as a Factor in Early Abolitionist Movements, 1824–1834

Criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.
Karl Marx

Prudence Crandall, well-known Quaker schoolteacher, was in fact not a Quaker in 1833, when she transformed her female academy into an academy for black women. Crandall, despite being raised and educated in the Society of Friends, had converted to the Baptists and undergone full immersion in eastern Connecticut's Quinebaug River three years earlier. This easily verifiable fact has escaped most accounts of her school, past and present. This particular instance typifies a larger recurring pattern of personal religious transformation in the lives of many early women abolitionists, both black and white, and illustrates one of the many ways in which these changes have been marginalized and dismissed. In a similar vein, the dramatic history of Crandall's school has often been sentimentalized, reduced to an icon of a white woman teaching black girls to read.1 This ignores the fact that her students were teenagers and [End Page 31] young women who knew how to read before they arrived at her school. The resulting phenomenon is all too familiar to feminist scholars: women's intellectual development, agency, and ambition (in this case, black women's minds in particular) are ignored in favor of romantic images and, ultimately, trivialization.2

What factors spurred women to change their religious affiliation and to articulate their religious ideas? How was women's intellectual development tied to political and moral activism in the early nineteenth century? Women's restricted access to some intellectual resources—namely, schools, languages, books, and extended time for study—led them to deploy their intellectual skills in other arenas. Generally this meant applying their critical discernment in two areas that not only were considered permissible for women but even were culturally valorized as feminine: religion and school teaching. For those women who joined radical movements such as abolitionism, they discovered (like Marx) that the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism. Although few women dismissed all religious belief and practice (Ernestine Rose being a notable exception), they did question their received religions thoroughly. Despite being routinely shut out from formal leadership in church and politics, women who were activists in radical causes nurtured their critical faculties through religious questing, and in the process they questioned much more than the issues that had immediately sparked them. This trajectory led to Seneca Falls, suffrage, and beyond. 3 [End Page 32]

The development of women's rights in America over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is famously marked by deep divisions over the prioritizing of race, gender, and class. But when one examines the roots of feminism's trajectory—prior to 1848, prior even to the tours of the Grimké sisters—previously unexamined pathways emerge, moments of coalescence when alliances across race and class were possible, inchoate moments worthy of reconsideration because they anticipated, and addressed, problems still with us. This article considers the incipient growth of women's intellect in the earliest phase of abolitionism, from 1824 to 1834, as exemplified by Elizabeth Heyrick, Elizabeth Chandler, Maria Stewart, and Prudence Crandall. For each of these women, taking religion and education seriously did not condemn them to domesticity and the cult of true womanhood; on the contrary, these interests enabled them to develop transformative ideas and practices. In this regard, their participation in a transatlantic world, however disjointed it may seem at this early stage (they certainly did not yet form a cohesive, articulated, self-conscious feminist movement), is especially interesting, because internationalism provided an arena patently larger than privatized concerns of home and hearth. This could be a double-edged sword, however; for the women examined herein, the international stage could spark their minds yet could also function in alarmingly concrete ways when international institutions (such as the Society of Friends or mercantile interests) used their extended powers to silence dissent...


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