Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 83-85
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The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism:
Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement
Nearly three decades have passed since Gerda Lerner published her groundbreaking study of the Grimké sisters. Since then, scholars have written dozens of articles and books on women's abolitionism, making it a well-established field within women's history. Julie Jeffrey's recent book--an insightful, lively, and thorough exploration of women's antislavery experiences--offers readers a culminating addition to this exciting terrain.
Jeffrey promises to reveal the "meaning of abolitionism in ordinary women's lives," and she does not disappoint (6). Unlike most scholars of antislavery, Jeffrey passes over the dozen or so leading lights who pop up in nearly every history of the movement. Instead we are introduced to unrecognized but important rural women, African American women, and Western women. Jeffrey also privileges smaller, lesser-known female antislavery societies in locations like Dover, New Hampshire; Salem, Massachusetts; and Canton, Ohio; over the well studied groups in Boston, [End Page 83] New York, and Philadelphia. This new focus offers readers a more representative and therefore more complicated picture of the movement.
Jeffrey's first two chapters on "recruiting women into the cause" and the experiences of women in antislavery organizations in the 1830s exemplify the way in which she broadens our understanding of abolition. We are immediately introduced to a diverse range of "ordinary" women abolitionists who found time to attend meetings, sew, write, raise funds, and sign petitions. By placing women abolitionists' activities in the context of their daily lives we can see the deep motivations that must have driven them to make room for additional duties in their already exhausting "rhythms of commitment" (63). These motivations, however, were not simple and easily identifiable. Jeffrey, for example, offers a nuanced analysis of the gendered rationales for women's participation. She argues that the traditional "cultural definition of the female sex as a moral and religious force" encouraged the female abolitionist to participate in the movement, but it also allowed her to develop a kind of independent identity which was "both rooted in and separate from her familial identity"(36). Jeffrey also offers insights into the evolution and longevity of female antislavery organizations, again being careful to place the operation of these groups in the context of women's domestic, familial, and work responsibilities. Using the records of little-studied groups like the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, she points to long-term leadership as one particularly important factor in influencing the success of an organization.
Jeffrey's chapters on the 1840s and 1850s demonstrate both her contributions to continuing debates within the historiography of female antislavery and also her original additions. Several historians have argued women's participation in abolition decreased during the 1840s and 1850s, but Jeffrey persuasively shows that new avenues of activism, like antislavery fairs, were developed in this period. Although several scholars have written about women's fairs, Jeffrey offers new insights. Fairs "fostered communication and sympathy between women" and also gave "visibility and life to the cause" (108-9). Jeffrey also develops a trenchant analysis of the "commercial meaning of the fair" that placed "women squarely in a bustling world of buying, selling, and consuming" (122).
In perhaps Jeffrey's most important contribution, she explores women's participation in areas traditionally assumed to exclude them--religion and politics. Carefully employing diverse female voices, Jeffrey reveals that women played an important role in local religious debates, using their large numbers and the gendered assumption of their moral superiority to affect church politics toward antislavery. Women, like men, sometimes decided to "come out" from their churches and joined antislavery breakaway groups, like the Wesleyan Methodists. They even sometimes openly challenged male ministers, as did Maria French, who was eventually carried out of Salem...