Their Right to Speak: Women's Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates
Their Right to Speak: Women's Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates
By Alisse Portnoy. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. 290 pp. Cloth, $49.95, ISBN 0-674-01922-9)
Reviewed by Bruce Mills, Kalamazoo College
Every history poses an argument. In narratives of women's activism during the volatile period of the 1830s, the debate between Catharine Beecher and Angelina Grimké typically serves as an emblematic starting point in the timeline of American women's social movements. Through Beecher's An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females (1837) and Grimké's Letters to Cath[a]rine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Addressed to A. E. Grimké (1838), teachers and scholars succinctly trace and effectively frame the conflict between a conservative domestic ideology and a proto-feminist position. Alisse Portnoy's Their Right to Speak returns to this decade and debate and, in doing so, fosters a richer understanding of women's activism. Portnoy argues that a "study of women's political activism in this period structured dominantly by gender…is simply insufficient for understanding the dynamics of women's emergent national rhetorical activism in the United States." Thus, a fuller understanding of "women's earliest, collective, national political activism must occur inside broader studies of the Indian removal, African colonization, and second-wave abolition movements." (4)
A fundamental question centers Portnoy's book and establishes the narrative momentum behind its argument: How can we understand Beecher's opposition to Grimké's abolitionist stance and women's antislavery petitions to Congress in light of her own earlier support for petitioning on behalf of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek Indians? In short, how can we explain Beecher's assertion to Grimké that "petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES,[Note 1] to fall entirely without the sphere of female duty?" To work toward an answer, Their Right to Speak considers why Indian removal became the initial site for women's demand to speak and how this assertion must be understand in the context of advancing print technology and literacy as well as increasing nationalism and religious reform (Chapters 1-2); how differences between the "imaginings" of Native Americans and African Americans supported antiremoval sentiment and prevented widespread abolitionist sympathies (Chapters 3-4); and how the public debate between colonizationists and abolitionists shaped reform strategies and, ultimately, deeply affected the positions, methods, and rhetoric of Beecher and Grimké (Chapters 5-6).
In locating the Beecher-Grimké exchange as a culminating moment in evolving rhetoric on the Indian and Slavery Questions rather than the symbolic starting point in the broader expression of women's rights, Portnoy broadens the vista on women's activism. In her examination of the early petitioning against Indian removal, for instance, she turns to Jeremiah Evarts's "William Penn" essays, a series of nationally published pieces that urged readers to see the antiremoval debate as a moral and religious issue. In offering an exhaustive reading of Evarts's appeal to public benevolence, Portnoy convincingly demonstrates how a national audience had been prepared for the women's claim to be heard in relation to moral concerns. One of the book's most suggestive insights surrounds the contention that Beecher's early "Circular Addressed to the Benevolent Ladies of the U. States" and women's petitions "function as constitutive rhetorics by creating exigencies for women's political activism and by crafting identities that used traditional gender roles while transcending them." (78-79) (See document 35 [make hard link] in the document project, "How Did the Removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia Shape Women's Activism in the North, 1817-1838?" also in this website.) In addition, Their Right to Speak attends fully to how colonizationist principles-and the contentions and competition between key figures supporting colonization and immediate abolition-offer the necessary material with which to examine Beecher's and Grimké's positions and the terms of their debate. While certainly addressing issues of women's place in public activism, Portnoy depicts their public exchange as "one of the only sustained conversations between adherents of intensely competitive, antagonistic rival organizations." (205)
But do Portnoy's claims minimize the role of gender in Beecher's apparent reversal of position? According to reviewer Michael D. Pierson, "[s]cholars who would like to keep gender a central causal factor in the story can argue that Beecher reversed herself because gender ideologies remained in flux during the 1830s." Moreover, he suggests that Portnoy's idea that "Beecher remained consistent regarding gender is hurt by the fact that in 1837 Beecher condemned women's petitioning 'IN ALL CASES.'" While Pierson's reflections delineate an important point of debate in relation to Beecher's 1837 response, his assertion need not diminish the book's contribution to extending the storylines of a familiar scholarly narrative-and certainly did not have the intention of doing so. Portnoy does underscore and consider the gendered nature of Beecher's argument. She does so, however, within the particular exigencies associated with both antiremoval and antislavery. In underscoring Beecher's training as a teacher of rhetoric, the book points toward the way that "context and expedience" may in fact have led Beecher to question abolitionist principles and rhetoric in achieving desired ends-and thus to see women's role as doing more evil than good in the cause of working toward the end of slavery. It is a position that we can lament; given the colonization arguments noted in the book, however, it is an understandable one for the period.
In the end, then, Portnoy distinguishes the gendered nature of Beecher's argument within a complex dynamic and thus gives a nuanced rendering of a critical exchange in the history of women's activism. Perhaps the most troubling dimension of Beecher's position in relation to slavery is that she could not imagine the humanity of the slaves in such a way as to ameliorate her later view toward women's roles. As Grimké asserted, "Perhaps on a dying bed … thou mayest vainly wish that 'Miss Beecher on the Slave Question' might perish with the mouldering hand which penned its cold and heartless pages" (211)-an assertion that, the book reveals, Beecher would have seen as evidence of the incivility undermining a Christian democracy. It is to Portnoy's credit that the center of the book addresses "imaginings" concerning race. Though the third chapter presents a much too lean consideration of literary representations of "Native and African Americans as Objects of Advocacy," the ensuing chapter offers a more robust look into how slave advertisements perpetuated images of "Negroes" as property and how key abolitionist texts intentionally countered these pervasive representations.
Their Right to Speak marks a meaningful addition to the scholarship of the period. In persuasively positioning women's activism within the context of Indian removal, colonization efforts, and the antislavery movement, Portnoy enables readers to understand with even greater depth the national role of Beecher and Grimké -and how their use of gendered arguments can be seen in light of broader motivations and ongoing rhetorical strategies.
Bruce Mills is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College. His publications include Cultural Reformations: Lydia Maria Child and the Literature of Reform (1994) and Poe, Fuller, and the Mesmeric Arts: Transition States in the American Renaissance (2005). He is also the editor of Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New-York (1998).
[page [NA], note 1] 1 Michael D. Pierson, review in Journal of the Early Republic 26:3 (2006): 504. [return to text]