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Cheek By Jowl with the Abolitionists – Feminism’s Embrace of Racial Equality

The rights of women and of black Americans are often held in comparison. This was true as far back as the early 1800s. In the North, it was rare to find a woman who supported feminism yet did not also fight for the cause of abolitionism. While there were, of course, many northern women who declined to support either movement, thousands of women started and were members of all-female abolition societies. Most of these women were also supporters of their own suffrage, and were joined by many male abolitionists.

1858 political cartoon.
1858 political cartoon.

With this kept in mind, I’d like to take a look at both sides of that argument. It stands to reason that since many abolitionists also supported equality of the sexes, those who were pro-slavery also thought that women must be kept in their more traditional roles. This was not an absolute, of course, but I believe it’s safe to draw the conclusion that those who were concerned about their own rights were also involved in abolitionism. Similarly, those who held slaves or fought for the rights to be own slaves were also against the rights of women.

To explore this, let’s take a look at two antebellum women and their views on both their own rights and slavery. First, there is the professed conservative Louisa McCord of Charleston, South Carolina. She was a fiercely strong and independent woman who nevertheless warned that the feministic “poison is spreading … and, it is but a piece with Negro emancipation….” 1Louisa McCord Political and Social Essays (University Press of Virginia, 1995) 110. The quote itself comes from her essay “Enfranchisement of Women,” written in 1852. To counter her traditionalist views, we’ll also meet Lucretia Mott, a New England Quaker who preached equality of the sexes and races.

Both women were incredibly well known for their steadfast and outspoken opinions, just as both were reviled for their actions and beliefs. Among their male peers, both McCord and Mott were respected and admired. And yet, their views on women and slavery could not be more dissimilar.

Dramatis Personæ

Louisa McCord waited until she was in her late thirties until she began writing in earnest. Though she seemed to outwardly embody a perfect example of a liberated woman, being well schooled, highly intelligent, and capable of managing on her own slave labor camp with 100 or so slaves, she was voracious in her support of the Southern social system which kept not only slaves and free blacks down, but women as well. McCord, however, willingly participated in this society, never comparing her lot as a woman to the oppression of slavery.

Unlike most Southern women writers of the time, McCord did not compose articles about manners, give flippant advice or publish dull fiction. Instead, she wrote of politics and the economy. Her pet subjects were abolition and feminism – both of which she railed against. While her opposition as an enslaver to abolition makes linear sense, that she was perhaps the only Southern female political writer makes her stance against feminism seem disingenuous. After all, wasn’t she demanding and achieving equality (if not superiority) over her male contemporaries?

Lucretia Mott, on the other hand, was in many ways the traditionalist McCord wished all women to be. As part of her married life, Mott kept house while her husband worked. Being a Quaker minister, she could not accept money for her preaching, and so had to rely upon her husband for financial support. She was a fine cook and enjoyed sewing. And unlike many women’s rights activists of her era, she took her husband’s name upon marriage.

Of course, none of this did a thing to dampen her activism. She was one of many who, in the early 1800s, boycotted any products made with slave labor. In the 1830s, she founded the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as a bi-racial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, an organization opposed not only to slavery, but also supported racial equality. She helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention, an 1848 rally for women’s rights, and was seen by many as the grandmother of the women’s suffrage movement. 2This is basic biographical stuff, but I suggest Carol Faulkner Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

Women and Women First

Louisa McCord, the anti-feminist, used her clearly superior intelligence to insist that women were not, in fact, superior at all. Men were superior, she held, and if women tried to fill that role, they were not even to be considered women, but were acting like men and opposing Nature’s law in doing so.

Louisa S. McCord (1810 – 1879)
Louisa S. McCord (1810 – 1879)

“Woman, seeking as a woman, may raise her position,” wrote McCord in 1852, “seeking as a man, we repeat, she but degrades it.” She claimed not to be an “undervaluer of women,” but instead “her advocate.” All the while, she claimed that women were indeed “the higher being,” holding a love that men could not understand. 3Louisa McCord “Enfranchisement of Women” in Political and Social Essays (University Press of Virginia, 1995) 109.

Lucretia Mott, the feminist, saw things differently. “I have long wished to see women occupying a more elevated position than that which custom for ages has allotted to her,” she spoke in 1848. Though it’s unlikely that Mott ever heard McCord speak, she addressed such a lecture that McCord might have given – one that was “replete with intellectual beauty, and containing much that was true and excellent.” And yet, she was troubled as it was “fraught with sentiments calculated to retard the progress of women to the high elevation destined by her Creator. I regretted the more that these sentiments should be presented with such intellectual vigor and beauty, because they would be likely to ensnare the young.” 4Lucretia Mott “Discourse on Women” given on December 14, 1849 (Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson, 1850) 3. It’s sort of wonderful to note that Mott, as an older lady, saw the young as they were – seekers of intellectual vigor and beauty.

The Political – All Hands on the Bad One

According to McCord, women were not supposed to be, as she was herself, political. “[S]he has no need to make her influence felt by a stump speech, or a vote at the polls; she has no need for the exercise of her intellect (and woman, we grant, may have a great, a longing, a hungering intellect, equal to man’s) to be gratified with a seat in Congress, or a scuffle for the ambiguous honour of the Presidency.” 5McCord, 110.

Curiously, when it came to the vote, for a long time Mott agreed with McCord, though for different reasons. She had once believed the political system too corrupt to allow any change at all. But by 1849, she had reconsidered. “Far be it from me to encourage women to vote, or to take an active part in politics, in the present state of government,” said Mott, seeming at first to agree with the traditionalist McCord. “Her right to the elective franchise however, is the same, and should be yielded to her, whether she exercise that right or not. I can see no good reason why woman should not participate in such an assemblage, taking part equally with man.” 6Mott, 15.

A Woman’s Place – True Self Revealed

Pleasures, no matter how much the woman would rather be doing something else, according to the conservative Louisa McCord, were to be “at her own fireside,” where she may “find duties enough, cares enough, troubles enough, thought enough, wisdom enough, to fit a martyr for the stake, a philosopher for life, or a saint for heaven.”

Lucretia Mott (1793 - 1880)
Lucretia Mott (1793 – 1880)

McCord worried that the majority of women “throw themselves away upon follies.” Men were also responsible for this, but only because “woman is the mother of the man.” She lamented that “woman has allowed herself to be, alternately, made the toy and the slave of man; but this rather through her folly than her nature.” She blamed women and men for this equally. This was as close as she would wander toward equality of the sexes. 7McCord, 110-119.

The progressive Lucretia Mott was also concerned about this, but did not blame it upon the folly of her sex. She too wished for a woman to “become a ‘true woman.'” Her thoughts on this were curiously similar to McCord’s. She was fine with a woman’s desire to “cultivate all the graces and proper accomplishments of her sex,” but cautioned that they not be allowed to “degenerate into a kind of effeminacy, in which she is satisfied to be the mere plaything or toy of society, content with her outward adornings, and with the tone of flattery and fulsome adulation too often addressed to her.” 8Mott, 7-8.

The traditionalist McCord continued her own thought, now departing from Mott. She believed that being an activist for abolition or women’s rights was a man’s role. If a woman wished to fill that role, she was simply trying to be a man. She understood that women could reach “the greatest height of which she is capable… not by becoming man, but by becoming, more than ever, woman.” 9McCord, 119.

Being more radical, Mott traversed a different path. These flattering “appeals to her mere fancy and imagination, are giving place to a more extended recognition of her rights, her important duties and responsibilities in life. The increasing attention to female education, the improvement in the literature of the age, especially in what is called the ‘Ladies’ Department,’ in the periodicals of the day, are among the proofs of a higher estimate of woman in society at large.” To Mott, this pursuit, this movement was the point of true womanhood. 10Mott, 3-4.

The Feminism Movement – Be Mine, Rebel Girl

Louisa McCord, in her mind, a true Southern lady, had no use at all for the women’s equality movement. It was, she held, “entirely a Yankee notion.” The activism was simply “mad pranks… being enacted by these petticoated despisers of their sex – these would-be men – these things that puzzle us to name.”

feminism lm-mott2

McCord could not see feminists as women at all – a point she made continuously in her writing, as beautifully written as it was. “Moral monsters they are; things which Nature disclaims. In ceasing to be women, they yet have failed to make themselves men. Unsexed things, they are, we trust – like the poor bat in the fable, who complains, ‘neither mouse nor bird will play with me’ – destined to flit their twilight course, alone and unimitated.” 11McCord, 110-111. Seriously, that is some amazing writing. McCord was gifted with the pen.

As already shown, the radical Lucretia Mott was at the center of the movement, and praised it highly. She hoped that the women’s rights organizations and conventions she helped create would “give encouragement to the steps of advancement.” Speaking to the “young women of America,” she wanted them to make themselves “acquainted with the history of the Woman’s Rights movement, from the days of Mary Wollstonecraft … I want to note the progress of this cause, and know now that Woman’s redemption is at hand, yea, even at the doors.” 12The first quote comes from 1854, and the second from 1866. Both can be found in Karlyn Kohrs Campbell Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-critical Sourcebook (Greenwood Press, 1993) 130.

Abolitionists – These Monsters Are Real

McCord, ever the bearer of traditional ways, could see the women’s rights activists for what they were – “the advocates of this movement class themselves exactly where they should be, cheek by jowl with the abolitionists. We thank them, at least, for saving us the trouble of proving this position.” And though she rarely called upon religion to prove her point, this combination of equality alone caused her to exclaim “Oh! women, thou the ministering angel of God’s earth, to what devil’s work art thou degrading thyself!” 13McCord, 113.

Like McCord, Mott, the Quaker, also referenced God and the devil in her speeches. “Do justice to the colored man,” she pleaded in an 1858 speech. “Do away with your infernal prejudices; they are infernal. This impure spirit, this wrong that ye indulge in, is not from above; it is earthly, sensual, devilish. A grave charge rests upon you who countenance the wickedness of American slavery.” 14Mott “Sermon Delivered at Yardleyville, Bucks Co., Pa., Ninth Mo. 26th, 1858” in James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters ed. Anna Davis Hallowell (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890) 520.

Of God and Equality – Poison Arrows Shot At Heroes

Though McCord equated the evils of abolitionism with the evils of feminism, she did not quite equal being a black American with being a woman, she admitted that God “had given the distinctions of race and sex, not accidentally (with Omniscience there is no accident), but distinctively, to mark the unchanging order of His creation – certain being to certain ends.”

Louisa McCord
Louisa McCord

This was the point, then. God had created the sexes and races to play different roles – a very common argument, though one hardly ever made so publicly by an antebellum woman. Since being made for different ends, “it is impossible to consider in them the point of equality.”

To Mott, however, God was the very source of equality. “The first announcement, on the day of Pentecost,” she reasoned in 1848, “was the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, that God’s spirit should be poured out upon daughters as well as sons, and they should prophesy.” 15Mott, 6. Speaking a decade later, she focused upon slavery. “It has been said that ‘no one in his inmost heart ever believed slavery to be right.’ We know there is this instinct in man, else it would never have been proclaimed that all men are born equal, and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 16Hallowell, ed., 524.

Violence as the Source of Inequality – Oh Bondage Up Yours

For the feminist Quaker, Lucretia Mott, the supposed physical limitations of women were of no issue at all. “True, nature has made a difference in her configuration, her physical strength, her voice, &c,” she admitted. “But how has neglect and mismanagement increased this difference!” And though she might not have the brute strength of a man “what she lacked in physical strength, she made up in constancy of labor and toil, day and evening.” 17Mott, 8, 17.

The conservative McCord, often so logical, had a very strange way of explaining not only the physical differences, but how these differences were the determining factor for inequality:

“As, for instance, the man, as animal, is superior to the beast, whose subordinate intellect makes him, as colabourer of the soil, or as rival candidate for its benefits, inferior to man. The white man is, for the same reason, superior to the negro. The woman, classed as man, must also be inferior, if only (we waive for the moment the question of intellect) because she is inferior in corporeal strength. A female-man must necessarily be inferior to a male-man, so long as the latter has the power to knock her down.” 18McCord, 114.

 Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, c. 1921
Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, c. 1921

Since McCord’s argument that women were inferior was one based upon assumed violence, this could also hold true for the slave. The master had the whip, therefore he was superior. She reinforces this argument by pitting feminists such as Paulina Davis, Angelina Grimké Weld and even Lucretia Mott herself against politicians such as Henry Stuart Foote, Thomas Hart Benton, and Sam Houston. “We do not doubt their feminine power,” wrote McCord of these feminists, “in the war of words – and again we beg to defer a little the question of intellect – but are the ladies ready for a boxing match? Such things happen sometimes; and though it is not impossible that the fair Paulina, Angelina, and Lucretia might have the courage to face a pistol, have they the strength to resist a blow?” 19McCord, 116.

Did it all really come down to bodily strength? Because McCord held women as weaker, did she really believe that they were inferior? This seems to be the case. For paragraph upon paragraph, she preaches this philosophy, stating and restating, wording and rewording her point.

Lucretia Mott, on this subject, had nothing really to say, so foreign was it to her way of thinking. In her 1848 speech, however, she quoted Catharine Beecher, saying, “Woman has been but little aware of the high incitements which should stimulate to the cultivation of her noblest powers. The world is no longer to be governed by physical force, but by the influence which mind exerts over mind.” 20Mott, 8.

    The age of brass: Or the triumphs of woman's rights, 1869.
The age of brass: Or the triumphs of woman’s rights, 1869.

And What of Intellect? – American Double Standard

If it was not within the physical that equality might be found, then what of intellect? McCord pays some small lip service, saying only that “the differences of mind between the sexes we are, ourselves, inclined to regard rather as differences than inequalities.” She chalks these differences up to “such habits of mind” that have existed as long as man. To her, it simply came down to society. “Who ever hopes to see a woman Shakespeare? And yet greater then Shakespeare may she be.” 21McCord, 118.

Mott, however, understood that a woman Shakespeare – or scholar, or scientist – wasn’t just something for which to hope, but something which a progressive society desperately needed. “A new generation of women is now upon the stage,” she wrote, “improving the increased opportunities furnished for the acquirement of knowledge. Public education is coming to be regarded the right of the children of a republic. The hill of science is not so difficult of ascent as formerly represented by poets and painters; but by fact and demonstration smoothed down, so as to be accessible to the assumed weak capacity of women.”

She went on to mention such subjects as physiology and lecturing as being even “more attractive than the theatre and the ball room.” Mott was looking far beyond a woman Shakespeare. She looked forward to the day that “we hear of Mrs. President so and so.” 22Mott, 9, 12.

How Could She Not?

Still, there was something of the feminist within Louisa McCord. Though she utterly refused to see men and women as equal, she honestly wished that men “could, in his relations with her, ‘throw aside his instruments of torture,’ and aid rather than oppress her.” 23McCord, 124.

In this, Lucretia Mott would more than likely have agreed. It is here that we shall give her the final word. For both the slave and the woman, she wrote in 1848, “they may be so degraded by the crushing influences around them, that they may not be sensible of the blessing of Freedom. Liberty is not less a blessing, because oppression has so long darkened the mind that it cannot appreciate it. I would therefore urge, that woman be placed in such a situation in society, by the yielding of her rights, and have such opportunities for growth and development, as shall raise her from this low, enervated and paralyzed condition, to a full appreciation of the blessing of entire freedom of mind.” 24Mott, 14.

William Waud's Civilians entering a theater, 1858.
William Waud’s Civilians entering a theater, 1858.

Note: As an interesting aside, it’s quite possible that Louisa McCord invented the word “feminist” in 1852 when describing Oakes Smith, an advocate of women’s rights. The dissertation by Cindy A. McLeod, entitled “Louisa S. McCord and the “Feminist” Debate” is available here, and is well worth the read.

This post was originally published on November 23, 2015.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “Cheek By Jowl with the Abolitionists – Feminism’s Embrace of Racial Equality

  1. Alas, this is an excellent explanation of the inherent weakness of the women’s movement, at whatever point in its history it may be. Women have never stood on their own, politically. They always seemed to hitch their proverbial wagon to a male star,and when that star waned or imploded, so did the Cause. After Abolition was a done deal, women were left without a vehicle until Prohibition. Once again, the right of women to vote was coupled with another cause. This particular one was a bad idea from the beginning, and the rights of women suffered accordingly.

    Even today, reproductive rights, for example, have been co-opted by both Liberals and Conservatives as a stand-in for political correctness. When are my peers going to realize that our issues can stand alone, on their own worth, because WE are worthy? I have no idea.

    1. Hmm.. I’m not sure I’m fully convinced here. I don’t see it as hitching to a male star. These women saw similarities between their position as noncitizen-citizens and that of slaves. They were pretty sincere about this. After abolition, they didn’t stop their protests, and I’m not sure there’s evidence to suggest that the male abolitionists abandoned them after the 1860s. There just weren’t enough males involved from the start (and since only males held political power, that was important). Susan B. Anthony is a fine example of this. Garrison is also, for the male side of the movement.

      Many if these same women and men were tetotalers from the 1840s, and that just grew with time until you had Carry Nation smashing up your favorite Midwestern bars.

      I’m not convinced that women’s rights suffered due to the activists also supporting abolitionism. Especially on the state level, they made fantastic strides in the later 1800s and early 1900s. There were splits here and there, but I don’t see evidence of them losing ground for supporting either abolitionism or even prohibition.

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