Chapter One: Female Influence Is Powerful: Respectability, Responsibility, and Setting the Terms of the Woman Question Debate
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23 1 Female Influence Is Powerful Respectability, Responsibility, and Setting the Terms of the Woman Question Debate Maria Stewart need not have posed the woman question; she was its embodiment. In September 1832, Stewart spoke at Boston’s Franklin Hall on the prejudice to which African Americans were subjected. She shattered long-standing proscriptions against women speaking on politics. Stewart is often cited by historians as one of the first American women to address a ‘‘promiscuous’’ audience comprised of both men and women. It is of no small significance that Stewart was black. Yet what drew her to the podium were as much concerns about womanhood as about blackness. She queried her audience: ‘‘Who shall go forward, and take o√ the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?’’∞ With this, Stewart provoked a new debate, asking forthrightly what many African American activists only quietly pondered. What was the nature of female influence on public life? Was it defined by duties or rights, by restraint or innovation? Did it respect a public-private divide, and what was its relationship to movements to abolish slavery and earn civil rights? For Stewart, the future of black Americans was all bound up with the woman question. While based in Boston, Stewart was never a merely local figure. Her ideas assumed national proportions with relevance for black communities throughout the free states and territories. Her primary audience was Boston’s free black community, numbering just under 1,900 people in 1830.≤ They existed largely on the city’s economic edges yet supported a flourishing public culture that included a primary school, five churches, and various mutual aid societies, fraternal orders, and lyceums. Through this associational life, black Bostonians challenged their economic marginalization, their segregation in schools and places of public accommodation, and the institution of slavery.≥ Print culture was essential to community building and contestation. By tracts and newspapers Stewart lobbed her earliest volleys. Her Religion and the Pure 24 Female Influence Is Powerful Principles of Morality, published in 1831, was a collaboration born out of radical abolitionism’s early cross-racial alliances. Among Stewart’s allies was William Lloyd Garrison. She likely knew him through their mutual association with David Walker, author of the incendiary tract Walker’s Appeal . . . To the Coloured Citizens of the World. Garrison published Stewart’s writings and advertised them in the Liberator, the antislavery weekly and paper of record for free African Americans in the early 1830s. Stewart garnered some favorable notice, with ‘‘a highly respectable clergyman’’ deeming her ‘‘practical’’ and ‘‘truly eloquent’’ while also praising her ‘‘sterling wit.’’∂ By 1832, Stewart was delivering public lectures.∑ Local audiences, comprised of black and white people of both sexes, were eager to hear her speak, and Stewart filled popular venues.∏ Her topics included the evils of intemperance, the need for education, the degradations of proposals to colonize black Americans in Africa, and the capacity of moral suasion to abolish slavery. Garrison continued to support Stewart’s ambitions. Notices of her speaking engagements, along with excerpts from her pamphlets and speeches, were printed for the readers of the Liberator and thereby reached the newspaper’s broad-based readership. A skilled rhetorician, Stewart crafted her message such that her provocations were muted by reassurances. Seemingly aware that some might question her right to speak in public, Stewart attempted to deflect overt criticism. It was God who had called upon her to ameliorate the community’s ills, Stewart explained. She celebrated female domesticity, urging women to influence husbands, children, and circles of ‘‘acquaintance.’’π Piety, ‘‘delicacy of manners ,’’ ‘‘gentleness and dignity,’’ contempt for the vulgar and vile, prudence, and economy were qualities to which she advised women to aspire.∫ When espoused by an African American woman, these strictures, which also circulated in white middle-class circles, took on distinct meaning.Ω Respectability marked the di√erence between slavery and freedom far more than it did that between private and public for women like Stewart. When she recommended that her sisters embrace domesticity, she was not urging their retreat to a separate female realm. Stewart well knew that most of the women whom she addressed moved daily between their homes, the streets, and their places of work. Not only would piety, manners, dignity, and the roles of mother and wife help protect African American women as they traversed crowded streets and entered places of work; they were ideals intended to distance them from...