The impact of abolitionism on first wave feminism

An interesting perspective on the history of North America and Europe over the last few centuries is attained by relating the women’s movement and the anti-slavery movement. The former, of course, would be denoted by historians as first wave and second wave feminist movements and the latter is termed the abolitionist movement. This connection makes sense considering the fact that the goals of these two movements are essentially the same. While the feminists fought to be liberated from the strangle hold of patriarchal organization of society, the colored people agitated to be freed from subordination on the basis of skin color.

Hence, it is easy to conceive how the two movements progressed hand in hand toward their similar goals and fed off one other’s success. Further, as Marlene LeGates points out,

“One impetus for a self-conscious feminism in the United States thus came from within the abolition movement, as women like the Grimkes were drawn to defend women’s rights in the course of defending their own right to speak in public. For them abolition was what later feminists would call a consciousness raising experience…British women also played a key role in writing petitions and raising funds for their anti-slavery cause”. (LeGates, p.184)

The first wave feminists encouraged fellow women to make strong statements with use of language and demeanor. At church gatherings, prayers would be ended by uttering “A-women” instead of “A-men”. The first wave feminists’ conscious attempts to tinker language were meant to change the patriarchal arrangement of society from below, through small increments of meaningful changes. They took inspiration from the success of the abolitionists in 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. For instance,

“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).

The above examples illustrate the efforts made by both movements to change thoughts of people by changing the use of language. This is just one of numerous examples where both these historical movements converged. Hence, it is easy to see why the abolitionist movement encouraged and inspired feminists to greater direct action.

Works Cited:

Marlene LeGates, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, Published by Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0415930987, 9780415930987, 406 pages