The impact of Abolitionism on First Wave Feminism

One way of looking at the significant historical events in North America and Europe over the last few centuries is by studying and understanding the first wave feminist movement and the abolitionist movement.  Such a study will lead to the inference that the two social movements had much in common and each took strength from the success of the other.  The former, of course, would be denoted by social scientists as first wave and second wave feminist movements and the latter is more commonly referred as the anti-slavery movement.  The interconnection between the two should be understood in light of the fact that the goals of these two movements were very similar.  While the feminists fought to be liberated from the oppressive male domination of society, the colored people spoke out against discrimination on the basis of race.  The following passages will discuss how abolitionism had had a crucial impact on first wave feminism, by citing relevant reasons from Marlene LeGates’ In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society.

Another crucial reason why abolitionist and feminist movements forged together and spoke with a common voice is because of the conscious efforts made by feminist leaders to not separate the two issues.  Further, women reformers in the United States and Britain, who had fought for both anti-slavery and for women’s emancipation, saw the decision of their abolitionist allies to promote the rights of black men over those of women as a bitter betrayal.  Some, like Lucy Stone, agreed to postpone women’s suffrage, but others such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, simply refused to separate the two issues (LeGates, p.184).

The first wave feminists’ also made a conscious attempt to change the way in which feminist discourse was conducted.  In other words, they pointed to the biases and tendencies present in the English language and sought for a remedy by way of changing language usage.  This was as a result of the success tasted by abolitionists in seeking this change.  For example, it was the abolitionists who first adopted the practice of dropping their masters’ surnames.  Leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton even believed that titles such as Mr. or Mrs. Can act as chains on freedom.  Moreover, “There is a great deal in a name.  Why are the slaves nameless unless they take that of their master?…The custom of calling women Mrs. John This and Mrs. Tom That, and colored men Sambo and Zip Coon, is founded on the principle that white men are lords of all.  I cannot acknowledge this principle as just, therefore, I cannot bear the name of another” (LeGates, p.186).  As is evident from these examples, the two movements were to cross paths on during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Specifically, abolitionism had had a profound influence on and relevance for the fledgling wave of feminism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Work Cited:

Marlene LeGates, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, Published by Routledge, 2001, 406 pages