On September 21, 1832, Maria Miller Stewart, a young free African American woman, addressed a crowd of men and women in Boston’s Franklin Hall, becoming the first woman in America to address mixed gender and race audiences on the topic of abolition. Though very little is known about her life aside from her writings and speeches, Stewart’s contributions to the political and social debate of her time are invaluable.
Maria Miller was born in 1803 in Hartford, Conn., to two African-born parents. Orphaned at the age of five, she was “bonded out” to work as a servant for a local minister. At sixteen, she began her education in “Sabbath Schools” and eventually moved to Boston. When she was twenty-three, she married James W. Stewart, a Boston shipping agent twenty-four years her senior. His prestigious career brought the family some wealth and earned the couple a place among Boston’s black middle class. Through these connections, Stewart made acquaintances who would greatly inform her political thoughts and eventually inspire her actions.
After just three years of marriage, James Stewart died of heart disease. Though he had provided generously for his wife in his will, Maria Miller Stewart was denied her inheritance because of the dishonest practices of some white businessmen. Just eight months later, in 1830, her close family friend David Walker also died. Walker had been Stewart’s political role model and had introduced her to what became known as black nationalism. Though she was already politically conscious, these tragic events seemed to compel Stewart to speak out against racial and gender discrimination with a renewed sense of faith in the possibility for change.
In 1831, Stewart responded to William Lloyd Garrison’s call for women to support the abolitionist cause. She brought him Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, a collection of political tracts she had written. Garrison responded positively and even published her work in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Her first speech in September of 1832 at Boston’s Franklin Hall came at a time when “Negro speakers” were virtually unknown and it was considered unseemly for women to address audiences that included men. Evangelical in style, and soon known as a bold and militant orator, Stewart called on all black Americans to develop racial pride, unity, and self-improvement through the expansion of educational and occupational rights. She went on to give three other addresses before withdrawing from public speaking, if not from advocacy and social justice activism. Garrison remained one of Stewart’s supporters, and he showcased transcripts of her speeches in The Liberator. Several decades later, he even helped Stewart win the pension to which she was entitled as the widow of a soldier from the War of 1812. With this money, she was able to publish her collected speeches and writings in Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.
Despite Stewart’s early success as a lecturer on behalf of abolition and the need for education for African American men and women, she was criticized for the boldness of her speeches and for violating the taboo prohibiting women from appearing on public platforms to address men. In 1833, she moved to New York City where she joined the Female Literacy Society and later taught black children, though at a fraction of the salary paid white teachers. She also continued to speak out eloquently on behalf of education. “Let our money be appropriated for schools and seminaries of learning for our children,” she wrote, for “our young men and maidens are fainting and drooping by the way-side for the want of knowledge.”
Stewart spent her last years in Washington, D.C. In 1871, she founded a Sunday School, not far from the Freedman’s Hospital where she died just eight years later. She left behind no photographs or other documentation of her life other than her writings.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.