Journalist and Abolitionist
The African-American abolitionist Maria Stewart’s extraordinary career made her a woman of firsts. Widely considered the first American woman to lecture before a mixed-gender audience, she was also one of the first to speak publicly on the role of women in society. Decades before the Civil War, and long before the term ‘intersectionality’, Stewart was one of the first to speak about the lived experience of African-American women.
Stewart was an unlikely public figure. Orphaned as a child and an indentured servant from the age of five, she received almost no formal education. Yet she was passionate about civil rights and social reform. In 1831, as a young widow, she sought out the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who quickly published an essay of hers on race and religion in his newspaper, The Liberator. After this, Stewart’s popularity grew, and she gave four high-profile anti-slavery lectures in Boston, until, facing increasing criticism, she swore off public speaking in 1833 and retired to life as an educator.
In her ‘Farewell Address’, Stewart namechecks powerful women who came before her (she found their stories in an old history book, Sketches of the Fair Sex, from 1790). Deeply religious, she is confident that St. Paul, if only given the chance to consider her life, would understand her need to speak in public. She asks a simple question: ‘What if I am a woman?’.
Farewell Address 1833
What if I am a woman; is not the God of ancient times the God to these modern days? Did he not raise up Deborah to be a mother and judge in Israel? Did not Queen Esther save the lives of the Jews? And Mary Magdalene first declare the resurrection of Christ from the dead?… St. Paul declared that it was a shame for a woman to speak in public, yet our great High Priest and Advocate did not condemn the woman for a more notorious offense than this; neither will he condemn this worthless worm. The bruised reed he will not break, and the smoking flax he will not quench till he send forth judgment unto victory. Did St. Paul but know of our wrongs and deprivations, I presume he would make no objection to our pleading in public for our rights.
… If such women as are here described have once existed, be no longer astonished, then, my brethren and friends, that God at this eventful period should raise up your own females to strive by their example, both in public and private, to assist those who are endeavoring to stop the strong current of prejudice that flows so profusely against us at present. No longer ridicule their efforts, it will be counted for sin. For God makes use of feeble means sometimes to bring about his most exalted purposes.
In the fifteenth century, the general spirit of this period is worthy of observation. We might then have seen women preaching and mixing themselves in controversies. Women occupying the chairs of Philosophy and Justice; women haranguing in Latin before the Pope; women writing in Greek and studying in Hebrew; nuns were poetesses and women of quality divines; and young girls who had studied eloquence would, with the sweetest countenances and the most plaintiff voices, pathetically exhort the Pope and the Christian princes to declare war against the Turks. Women in those days devoted their leisure hours to contemplation and study. The religious spirit which has animated women in all ages showed itself at this time. It has made them, by turns, martyrs, apostles, warriors, and concluded in making them divines and scholars.
Why cannot a religious spirit animate us now? Why cannot we become divines and scholars?…
What if such women as are here described should rise among our sable race? And it is not impossible; for it is not the color of the skin that makes the man or the woman, but the principle formed in the soul. Brilliant wit will shine, come from whence it will; and genius and talent will not hide the brightness of its lustre.
…it is not the color of the skin that makes the man or the woman, but the principle formed in the soul.