Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America
Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America
By Beth A. Salerno (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. 243 pp. Cloth $38.00, ISBN 0-87580-338-5).
Reviewed by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.
In recent years, several thoughtful and intriguing works on antebellum women and antislavery work have appeared. The exciting scholarship of historians such as Linda Kerber, Nancy Isenberg, Debra Gold Hansen, Anne Boylan, Julie Roy Jeffrey, Shirley Yee, and Lori Ginzburg widens our knowledge of female antislavery organizations during the antebellum period. These works, including Beth Salerno's Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America, continue to help historians recognize a more complex and nuanced understanding of organizational life, politics, race, and gender in the decades preceding the Civil War. Salerno demonstrates the large impact of women's antislavery work as antebellum women, both white and black, established over two hundred such societies between 1832 and 1855. (3) The earliest organizations to emerge appeared in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states and helped to spread an active antislavery movement to the west throughout the antebellum era. The monograph ends with the complicated splintering of these groups and eventual demise of women's antislavery societies during the 1850s.
Sister Societies begins with an exploration of the period from 1760 to 1831, discussing how women's involvement in reform work, literary societies, the American Colonization Society and free-produce organizations provided the groundwork for the first independent women's antislavery societies. Chapter one is appropriately titled Antecedents, allowing Salerno to build on the work of other historians. "Women's antislavery activism came into its own, beginning in the mid-1820s, as the result of religious ferment, economic change, and cultural developments." (11) Women's society building was a common practice by the early nineteenth century. Both white and African-American women had by the American Revolution, established a precedent for social and benevolent organizing.[Note 1]
It was not, however, until the period of radical abolition that women found an open door to political organizing and activity at the national level. Nineteenth century male reformers constructed ways in which women could enter the political arena through "spontaneous conventions." These conventions, such as the female anti-slavery conventions hosted by female abolitionists throughout the 1830s and 1840s, were seen as "efficient manufactories of public opinion" and were not connected to the state or party system. The constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and the right to petition the government provided female anti-slavery societies and conventions with opportunities originally created for men. [Note 2]
The female auxiliary movement of the antebellum era served many purposes for both men and women. Women used the anti-slavery circles to gain a foothold within formal politics. Structural organization such as the protocol behind minute taking, the election of officers, formal correspondence, and the official recording of society finances were learned and perfected by black and white female reformers during the early years of the nineteenth century. The organizational skills learned in reform work during the early republic helped women to transform their collective work into functioning antebellum political organizations. Although this chapter is a bit general, Salerno's inclusion of African-American women as central figures is refreshing and necessary.
Chapters two and three examine the activities and leaders of antislavery societies of the 1830s. Salerno focuses on different female antislavery societies throughout the Northeast demonstrating the diversity of women's organizational activities and the importance of mentoring and networking. Drawing from the work of Susan Zaeske, Salerno provides a solid understanding of how women used petition campaigns, antislavery fairs, sewing circles, and national conventions to gather momentum and to challenge traditional assumptions. Salerno argues that women's antislavery work blurred the lines between moral and political action and that antislavery organizations pushed Americans to rethink and redefine their concepts of citizenship, politics, and the domestic sphere. Salerno's analysis contributes to the work of other historians who suggest that women's antislavery work forced men to recognize women as political activists in their own right, bringing "women together across geography and race, [and] drawing more women into the movement and more women into the public sphere." (78)
Salerno also demonstrates that the involvement of women in antislavery work created an angry and often violent backlash in antebellum America. The mob violence in Philadelphia in May 1838 depicts this, as female abolitionists were harassed and bombarded with stones when they convened in the newly opened Pennsylvania Hall. Salerno makes clear that not only did antislavery women force Americans to think differently about the institution of slavery and the role and rights of women, but also risked their lives doing so. The heroism of these women is clear, and their work to end slavery and improve the life conditions of African Americans helped move the country to end the "peculiar institution." Yet the internal divisions that plagued these women's societies brought about eventual dismantlement.
The first controversial issue that fractured the women's anti-slavery movement hinged upon women's appropriate role in the movement. In 1840 the American Anti-Slavery Society invited women to join their organization as equal members, yet this caused great divisiveness. Women felt as though they had to choose: dismantle their organizations and join the national one, or remain in their separate societies. This decision ripped societies apart and charted a new path for anti-slavery agitation for the latter decades of the antebellum era. Other concerns such as African-American membership within white women's antislavery societies and increasing mob violence also shook the very core of these organizations. In her closing chapter, Salerno focuses on the emergence of numerous women's antislavery societies in the West during the 1840s and 1850s. Unfortunately the same issues that had divided women's organizations in the Northeast fractured those out West.
Sister Societies is a well-researched book, but on occasion leaves the reader wanting to know more about the differences and nuances between varying anti-slavery societies across New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Societies in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere were also representative of local issues and at times, this is hard to extract. Issues such as race and membership clearly fractured some groups more than others, as did the "woman question" following the split in 1840. Nonetheless, Beth Salerno has made a significant contribution to the study of antebellum anti-slavery organizations.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar teaches nineteenth-century African American and Women's History at the University of Delaware. She received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2000. She has recently completed her first book, "Sweet Buds of Promise": African-American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (forthcoming, Yale University Press).
[page [NA], note 1] 1 Anne M. Boylan's The Origins of Women's Activism, New York and Boston, 1797-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002) sheds tremendous light upon the earliest political, religious, and social organizations founded by women during the early republic and antebellum eras. [return to text]
[page [NA], note 2] 2 Nancy Isenberg, Sex & Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), pp. 15-17. [return to text]