WHAT WERE THE WOMEN DOING?

OPINION: UMD's Carla Peterson weighs in on black women's activism in New York as the Civil War unfolded.

By Carla Peterson, The New York Times

When my great-grand-aunt Maritcha Lyons recalled in her memoir that the backroom of James McCune Smith’s store served as a “rallying centre” for public-minded black New Yorkers, she was quite specific about those who came and went. Smith’s room, she wrote advisedly, was “visited daily by men, young and old.” It was these men, she continued, who constituted the “constructive force that molded public sentiment which had much to do in bringing about a more favorable state of things affecting the colored people of the State.”

Why were women not among those who visited Smith’s backroom? After all, women had been activists since the founding of the Republic. Whether white or black, northern or southern, upper or lower class, inhabitants of urban or rural communities, women had banded together from the 1790s on to form benevolent associations, mutual aid societies and church organizations. In the early decades of the 19th century, the Second Great Awakening gave further impetus to their public work: convinced of the sinfulness of humankind, this evangelical revival preached individual repentance and surrender to God; but it also insisted that redeemed sinners engage in moral action and so convert the world. It became the motivating force behind the antislavery movement, providing women with a justification for becoming involved.

Societal gender norms, however, restricted the activism of middle-class women, both white and black. Complaining about the constraints imposed on her because of her sex, white feminist-abolitionist Angelina Grimké famously lamented that “the investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own. Human beings have rights,” she proclaimed, “because they are moral beings. Now if rights are founded in the nature of our moral being, then the mere circumstance of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to women.” Women — white and black — chose to ignore these constraints and pushed their way into public activism.

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