This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
The setting: Jacksonian democracy – a 19th-century political philosophy led by President Andrew Jackson that would restructure a number of federal institutions. It was the early 1800s, and some whites had joined free African Americans in the call to abolish slavery.
As difficult a time it was for Black men, the plight of Black women assuredly was more problematic.
But there was Maria W. Stewart, an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, publicly denouncing sexism in the fight against racism. She stood before a group of African American abolitionists and bravely challenged the status quo.
“These things have fired my soul with a holy indignation. It compelled me thus to come forward,” she said in a speech that shredded Black men who excluded women from the ranks of abolitionism.
“Sexism denies Black women their full equality,” Stewart said. “It is a barrier to fighting for equality as a people.”
Born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, Stewart lost both her parents and was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman. She lived with that family for 10 years.
Although she received no formal education, Stewart learned as much as possible by reading books from the family library, according to an essay by Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).
After leaving the family at the age of 15, she supported herself as a domestic servant while furthering her education at Sabbath schools.
Stewart would become an essayist, lecturer, abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the earliest known American woman to lecture in public on political issues.
Stewart is known for four persuasive speeches she delivered in Boston in the early 1830s – a time when no woman, Black or white, dared to address an audience from a public platform.
In 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a veteran of the War of 1812.
With a successful career fitting out whaling and fishing vessels, the Stewarts were a part of Boston’s Black middle class.
However, three years after their marriage, James Stewart died leaving a substantial sum to his wife, only to have white estate executors steal the entire inheritance and forcing Maria Stewart to work as a domestic to support herself.
As the abolitionist movement gathered strength, the newspaper The Liberator sought contributors from Black women.
The newspaper would publish several of Stewart’s essays, including a 12-page pamphlet, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” which called upon African Americans to organize against slavery in the South and to resist racist restrictions in the North. She also called for Black economic progress and women’s rights.
In 1832, Stewart lectured to an audience of both men and women at Franklin Hall in Boston, according to Black Perspectives. In that speech, she asserted that free African Americans were hardly better off than those in slavery:
“Look at many of the most worthy and most interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen’s kitchens. Look at our young men, smart, active, and energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire; if they look forward, alas! What are their prospects? They can be nothing but the humblest laborers, on account of their dark complexions; hence many of them lose their ambition and become worthless.”
Ultimately, history shows that Stewart was the first African American woman to lecture about women’s rights and Black women’s rights.
She also counted as the first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of men and women, Black and white. Stewart also is recognized as the first known American woman to lecture in public on political issues, and the first African American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches.
Stewart died on Dec. 17, 1879.