Abolition, Women's rights, Women abolitionists
For over two decades, scholarly monographs delineating antebellum women's civic, mainstream political, and partisan activity have been slowly changing the face of women's history by questioning the overriding impact of separate-spheres ideology on actual lived experience. Two recent books, Stacey Robertson's Hearts Beating for Liberty: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest, and Carol Lasser's and Stacey Robertson's coauthored Antebellum Women: Private, Public, Partisan, continue [End Page 315] to chip away at the separate-spheres monolith in exciting and creative ways, while deepening our understanding of the variegated pathways—including the partisan road—by which disfranchised women attained a sense of political agency between the post-Revolutionary War and Civil War eras.
Robertson's Hearts Beating for Liberty accomplishes this with a spotlight on women abolitionists of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin), a region that embraced third-party politics in the 1840s as a means for ending slavery. According to Robertson, abolitionist women utilized and tolerated diverse plans of action not only to accommodate partisanship, but also to navigate the region's particular environment of racism and discriminatory legislation that included the infamous "Black Laws." "Cooperative," "flexible," and "pragmatic," are words Robertson uses to define these Westerners—quite a contrast to the lexicon employed by Robertson for eastern abolitionists riven by internecine conflict over women's leadership or voting's efficacy. Because they self-consciously acted in concert with men and with abolitionists of all stripes, women of the Old Northwest "created a distinct approach" (2) to their political activism.
This well-written, lively, diligently researched book, based on manuscript personal papers, institutional records, and periodicals, is arranged in seven chapters that cover the range of venues for Western women's multivalent strategizing: the antislavery society, the Liberty Party, the free-produce movement, antislavery fairs, the lecture circuit, aid to fugitive slaves, and women's rights. To reach far and wide, women organized on the county and state levels, a matter of practicality given the rural population's spread. As "expert networkers" (17), they held membership together through correspondence and by rotating annual meetings. Many of these societies endorsed the Liberty Party. The party, in turn, invited female attendance at its conventions and treated women supporters "as much more than symbols" (55). Through the free-produce movement, which facilitated slave-labor goods boycotts, women necessarily tackled hardcore economic issues such as labor conflict and international finance, while travailing alongside men "often in equitably balanced leadership roles" (69). Men's previously overlooked participation in sewing societies and antislavery fairs—indicative for Robertson of western women's teamwork—is highlighted in chapter 4. The ability to bend characterized female Garrisonian lecturers who, albeit reluctantly, adjusted to politically divergent audiences. Synergism operated among the mixed-sex [End Page 316] and interracial assemblages of Garrisonians and mainstream and third-party affiliates who united to aid fugitive slaves.
Each chapter offers fresh and often surprising insights on the vital roles western women played in a movement that has been largely represented through northeastern lenses. Readers learn that the Portage County (Ohio) Female Antislavery Society's 1836 membership was numerically unrivaled, east and west, and that the 1850 Salem, Ohio, convention was "the first and last antebellum woman's rights meeting to exclude men from holding office or speaking" (185). Robertson argues that only in a region where the sexes effectively collaborated could men relinquish the reins of power. Chapter 6 is a treasure trove on black and white women's often perilous work for the Underground Railroad. Women's "everyday activity" for it, Robertson declares, "has been written out of the literature" (171).
Because Robertson deftly interrogates her sources, her featured women—such as Betsey Mix Cowles, Mary Brown Davis, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Jane Elizabeth Hitchcock, Josephine Griffing—emerge as...