by Roberta McCutcheon

Background

Women always played a significant role in the struggle against slavery and discrimination. White and black Quaker women and female slaves took a strong moral stand against slavery. As abolitionists, they circulated petitions, wrote letters and poems, and published articles in the leading anti-slavery periodicals such as the Liberator. Some of these women educated blacks, both free and enslaved, and some of them joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and founded their own biracial organization, the Philadelphia Women’s Anti-Slavery Society.

The little-known history of most of these women is a fragmented one. While several of the most well-known activists are mentioned in accounts of the abolitionist movement, there is scant reference to most other female abolitionists. Some brief biographies make reference to the births and deaths of the lesser-known women but offer only limited mention of their work. Through research and analysis in the classroom, students will learn about the diversity of women who participated in anti-slavery activities, the variety of activities and goals they pursued, and the barriers they faced as women.
 

Objectives

Students will:

  1. Examine primary documents, essays, and biographies in order to gather information on woman abolitionists.
  2. Be able to identify the race and class of the activist women.
  3. Analyze the historical information to determine gender expectations and constraints of the nineteenth century.
  4. Gain an understanding of the implications of the intersection of race, class, and gender in the abolitionist movement.
  5. Be able to bring fragmented pieces of history together to see if it is possible to develop a more cohesive picture of the women’s abolitionist movement by “creating” (developing ideas and materials for) a simulated national women’s anti-slavery organization.

 

Lesson

Exercise One

Divide the class into groups of two or three. Have each group review the biographies, papers, and essays from the websites listed below to compile a list of abolitionist women that the group will focus on, or assign each group a list of women. The students should gather information about the women’s race and class, and each group should record its conclusions and observations from their research about race, class, and gender.

Websites about each woman will give the students a place to begin research.

Students should record the following about each woman:

  • her race
  • her class
  • the nature of her abolitionist work
  • the expectations and constraints she faced as a woman

Here are some websites that provide general historical information on the topic of women abolitionists:

Other general sites that might be of help include:

Bring the entire class together to examine the research results. Using the board or butcher paper, post the factual information that the groups have gathered, as well as the key observations and conclusions that have emerged from each group.

 

Exercise Two

Discussion: Use the following questions to analyze the results of the class research:

  • What forms did the work of woman abolitionists take?
  • Why do you think that women used protest methods and activities that were different from the ones used by men?
  • Why was education important to woman reformers?
  • How did the activism of black and white women differ?
  • What constraints were faced by black women? By white women?
  • What social classes did woman abolitionists come from? Did the different classes of the women alter their goals or activities?
  • How does the abolitionist movement help us understand the relationship between race and class in people’s lives and their actions?

 

Exercise Three

Essay: To what extent were women in the abolitionist movement able to influence the politics of abolitionism in the nineteenth century?

 

Exercise Four

Have the class create a fictional women’s anti-slavery society based on their research. They can take a look at real-life societies such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, to gather ideas—although the organizations that the students create will differ from the Philadelphia group in that the simulated student groups will be national, not local. The following websites provide some information about these organizations:

  1. Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Each group will design a biracial women’s national anti-slavery society by:
    1. Adopting a name.
    2. Writing a mission statement, which should include both long-term and short-term goals. Groups will have to keep in mind that women from different regions of the nation may disagree on goals. If there is dissension, the group will have to come to a consensus on how to handle the differences.
    3. Compiling a list of activities to achieve each goal. Again, the group will have to accommodate any differences in visions among women from diverse regions of the country.
    4. Designing the organization’s publication. The newspaper should have a name and a motto. (For example, the publication of the American Anti-Slavery Society was called the Liberator.)
  2. Ask each group to design and produce one edition of its organization’s newspaper. The edition might include:
    1. articles
    2. cartoons
    3. progress reports
    4. discussions of challenges faced by the organization
  3. Ask each group to introduce its organization to the class and to present the publication that it has developed to fellow students.

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