The “Woman Question” and Garrison

A view by the author / researcher / collector, Horace Seldon

One “moment” in the story of Garrison’s life which is frequently cited for its significance, came when he led a silent protest against the exclusion of women delegates at the 1840 London convention.

The setting is the first international convention of anti-slavery forces, called by the British and Foreign Antislavery Society, to gather in London. It had become evident to leaders of the British Antislavery Society that slavery was going to be almost impossible to end in the British colonies in the Indies so long as it flourished in the nearby American states. Realizing the necessity for a coalition with American anti-slavery forces, they created the new British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The call to the 1840 gathering went across the ocean to American anti-slavery societies.

The American Anti-Slavery Society, at its annual meeting, prior to the scheduled London Convention, had been the scene of vitriol and division over the issue of electing women to its Board. Abby Kelley had been elected to the business committee, but her election enflamed an already conflicting issue. The conflict was carried across the ocean, and in early sessions at the London convention, before Garrison’s late arrival, an action denied women of the American delegation any voice or representation on the floor of the convention.

Garrison refused to participate in the proceedings, because of the exclusion of the women. Joining him in a small gallery overlooking the convention floor were Charles Lenox Remond, Nathaniel P. Rogers, and William Adams. The group created attention, and as leader of the American delegation, it was sometimes said that Garrison dominated the convention without saying a word.

The issue of women’s rights was much influenced and motivated by the action of the convention. Historian Claire Midgley indicates that it was the first time that the “woman question” was debated in London during a public meeting. Lucretia Mott recorded in her diary that she and Cady Stanton, at the meeting, “resolved to hold a convention to advocate the rights of women”. Lucretia also had a conversation at the Convention, with the Irish liberator, Daniel O’Connell. We know from his own words, that he was doubtful about the importance of the question, but in that conversation was converted to support the rights of women. The English Quaker, Anne Knight’s feminist consciousness was enflamed, and she later raised the issue in France. William and Mary Howitt, English reformers, moved by the London decision, took similar concerns into their anti-slavery work as they continued in Germany. Sarah Pugh, became active in Philadelphia. This only hints at the importance of that London Convention in the history of both anti-slavery and women’s rights. Garrison rejoiced that the question was broadened into a larger vision of “human rights”.

The articulation by Garrison of a “human rights” vision, is an indication of the broadness of vision which enabled the editor to absorb into the anti-slavery movement
other issues of oppression. Inclusion of “ancillary” issues became the source of constant division among anti-slavery advocates. Some claimed that the inclusion of other issues strengthened the possibility of coalitions; others saw only a division which weakened the antislavery effort. Historians will forever debate the wisdom or foolishness of Garrison’s organizing efforts in regard to this expansion of concern.

Understanding Garrison’s view of the “woman question”, can provide insight into the debate he faced, and over which historians continue in disagreement. This essay seeks to outline some of the origins of Garrison’s choice, as life led him to give priority to work for the rights and role of women in the movement. It will also give indication of the strength of his continued commitment to those issues throughout his life.

While she was convalescing in Baltimore, Garrison’s Mother wrote to him lovingly about the colored woman who waited on her: she was “..although a Slave to Man, yet a free born soul, by the Grace of God.” To the fifteen year old son, this must have been a word both about slavery, and about a woman who was a “free born soul”.

As editor of the Philanthropist, Garrison published a series of three articles on “Female Influence”, and in them he urged enlistment of women “in promoting the temperance cause”. That call is echoed later in the abolition movement.

A cursory review of the Liberator will produce abundance of evidence of an early concern about the place and role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Inclusion in an early edition of a letter from Anna Elizabeth, from Philadelphia, followed closely by a “Call to Women”, from an unnamed female, and then a letter from a “colored lady”, from Middletown. These must have gathered attention from readers. Then the creation in the newspaper of a “Ladies Department”, and the inclusion of words from the amazing Maria Stewart. Stewart hurled questions: “…how long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles….how long shall a mean set of men flatter us with their smiles, and enrich themselves with our hard earnings ….” Her call for women to “possess the power of men”, would equal the strength of any feminist summons of a later century. Stewart’s strong words at the African Masonic Hall, criticizing those men for lack of effort in the antislavery movement, excited enmity from them, and gratitude from Garrison.

Arthur Tappan wrote to Garrison about an essay by a young “colored lady”, taught by Prudence Crandall, raising a voice among young women of color. Crandall herself consulted with Garrison and gained his support for her efforts to include young females of color in her school, in Canterbury, Connecticut.

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, exercised strong leadership in the local movement; its Constitution was published in the Liberator. At one time Garrison indicated that women were the “backbone” of the movement, an echo of what his friend George Thompson said about the role of women in the United Kingdom.

News of the Grimke sisters often appeared in the Liberator. Responding to Angelina, Garrison commented that it is “duty to break sinful law”, and if doing so “causes me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly.”

It is in the Liberator that one can read of two black women who were rescued from a boat in Boston harbor. The two had sent a distress signal from on board, and were rescued by two men of color. A Judge declared them to be free.

Women from Female Societies wrote to the Liberator often; they wrote from Concord, New Hampshire, from Nantucket, Mass., from the London Sun, from a Womens Anti-Slavery Conference, and about Women in France.

In 1840 there is a LIBERATOR EXTRA, four pages all devoted to a report of the sixth annual meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. !!!!!!!!!

Articles in the Liberator included a variety of ways of expressing concern for women’s rights. They admonished churches for publishing a warning to women, to discourage their participation in “reform” movements. They told of “brutality” to women in police offices and prisons. They called for the circulation of petitions to the state legislature, advocating the enfranchisement of women. One article insisted that women were taxed, and should be able to vote! When one million women signed a petition by Loyal Women of the Republic, calling on Congress for total emancipation of all persons in involuntary servitude, the news appeared in the Liberator. When “bloomers” became a style, the Liberator noted it, and included an article about Reform of Dress for Women.

Education for women was a subject of reports in the Liberator. A note appeared from the University of New York, urging that the soon-to-be-opened, Tufts College, must enroll women. When the Vassar Female College was incorporated, it was the subject of report. When there was discussion of the possibility of creating a New England School of Design for Women, the editor encouraged subscriptions to support the effort. When the American Medical Education Society established a course in midwifery, for women, it was applauded, and a welcome note was devoted to the second anniversary of the Boston Female Medical School, in 1850.

A more detailed look at the Liberator, and at Garrison’s many letters will reveal an even more substantial volume of support, for his progressive view of the role of “woman” in society.

Sept, 1853 – “I have been derisively called a ‘Woman Rights Man’.
I know no such distinction. I claim to be a HUMAN RIGHTS Man;
and wherever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent
in that being, whatever may be the sex or complexion.” 1

1 Vol 3, 1841-1860 William Lloyd Garrison, by his sons, Wendell Phillips Garrison, and
Francis Jackson Garrison