Atlantic Connections: Gender and Antislavery women in the United States and Britain
The importance of antislavery activism in the rise of feminism in the US and Great Britain has long been acknowledged by historians of women in both countries. However, the historiography of antislavery women is missing important analytical elements: the role of class and attention to the words of the women themselves. Antislavery women were the first to advocate for their own rights to speak in public, participate in political debates and to challenge the ideology of separate spheres. The way in which antislavery women negotiated the restrictions on their own behavior reshaped the class-based gender roles that were being established in the first half of the nineteenth century. The way in which the middle class defined itself in each country limited how far antislavery women could bend gender roles. American women were able to make a case for their right to speak in public and participate in mixed-gender meetings much earlier than British women, mainly due to the fact that the middle class in America constructed itself in a racial and ethnic diametric. The letters, speeches and diaries of antislavery women illuminate how the leaders of the movement were able to challenge the boundaries of proper behavior and shift the margins of separate spheres to make advocacy for the slave permissible. In doing so, they realized the inequality they and all women lived under. The turning point for this realization was the 1840 World's Antislavery Convention in London, which brought together antislavery women from both sides of the Atlantic, forging and strengthening ties between individuals and groups of women involved in antislavery work. The networks created between 1840 and 1860 aided women in their antislavery work, but also supplied a support network that allowed women to circumvent the male-dominated antislavery movement in Britain and to exchange information about women's rights as well as antislavery issues. The lessons learned in the antislavery movement provided a strong base for feminist assertions in the second half of the nineteenth century for both American and British women. Women's rights activists drew on the skills and spaces their antislavery predecessors had carved out for women.
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