Before the 1830s, women almost never delivered speeches in public. On the rare occasions when women did appear in open forums, they generally spoke only about religion and only in unorthodox religious settings. Orthodox ministers would not allow women in the pulpit.
However, the participation of women in the antislavery movement beginning in the 1830s released women’s energies from domesticity into the public realm in an irreversible process that would also give rise to the first wave of American feminism. Whether they knew it or not, they were exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. While the Christian religion did not grant that freedom to women, the Constitution did.
A little- known story about that beginning of female free speech is that of the sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke’. They were born and raised on a lush plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina, had left their home, family and inheritance after they reached the conclusion that slavery was immoral. Sarah was twelve years older than her sister and began antislavery writing and speaking. Both sisters were Hicksite Quakers, who adhered to a more strongly anti-clerical,
Sarah and Angelina sent a shock wave through southern religionists when they took the extraordinary step of speaking out against slavery before audiences that included both women and men – blacks as well as whites. For a woman to speak before mixed audiences was even more shocking than for a woman to speak in public, but the Grimkes’ had something to say that no one else could.
Because they had been raised to take their appointed places as mistresses of a slave plantation, they could speak from firsthand experience not only to the degradation of slaves but to the corruption of masters. This unique perspective drew large audiences of both men and women. From mid-May until mid-June of 1887, the sisters delivered seventeen lectures, in ten Massachusetts towns, before more than eight thousand people.
Initially, conservatives dismissed the Grimkes’ as a circus act of no importance to the established social order. A newspaper commentary maintained that there was no real reason to worry that:
“two fanatical women, forgetful of the obligations of a respected name, and indifferent to the feelings of their most worthy kinsmen, the Barnwells and the Rhetts, should by the novelty of their course, draw the meetings idle of curious women.”
But that’s not what happened. Men poured into the halls as well in order to hear the sisters speak. The clergy throughout were outraged. Church ministers issued a public condemnation, to be read as a pastoral letter from every pulpit in Massachusetts:
“Your minister is ordained of God to be your teacher. We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of women in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad; in Sabbath-schools; in leading religious inquiries to the pastors for instruction; and in all such associated effort as become the modesty of the sex, but when she assumes the place and tone of man as public reformer … her character becomes unnatural.”
A witty response was written by the feminist and abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman. Here is a part of the satirical poem. It was titled “The Times That Try Men’s Souls:
“They’ve taken a notion to speak for themselves,
And are wielding the tongue and the pen;
They’ve mounted the rostrum; the termagant elves,
And — oh horrid! – are talking to men!”
So, that was the beginning of women forcing their First Amendment free speech rights – the 1830s. During the Civil War, however, much momentum was lost in the drive for equality and free speech. There was no time. The same can be said for the Reconstruction Period. But at the turn of the century there was a reigniting as both female abolitionists and suffragettes combined for the equal right to vote. Gaining equal rights for women has always been an uphill battle. Even, today, the legacy of patriarchal God thought stands as a blockade.
After winning the right to vote — more war came upon the country and a change to war focus, a devastating economic depression and then another war. Women’s voices were silent or not heard. It would not be until the 1960s that feminists would again arise. Susan Jocaby in her book, A History of American Secularism, Freethinkers, wraps it up quite well:
“The desire of the apostles of religious correctness to recast civil rights struggle as purely religious movement is of a piece with their insistence that secularist framers of the Constitution really intended to found a Christian nation. The attempt of the religious right to sacralize the civil rights struggle has nothing to do with historical truth and everything to do with the time that has passed since those passionate days — time enough to engender the sentimentality that breeds forgetting.”
I ask: Where are we today?