At SIUE, I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology, but I am also affiliated with our wonderful (and FUN) Women's Studies program. Recently, the program started a blog series on faculty's "Favorite Feminist Heroes". The blog post below is my entry from that series. To follow the blog, visit: https://siuewmst.wordpress.com/wmst-blog/
My favorite feminist is Maria Miller Stewart. Often, feminism is viewed within various aspects of black nationalist ideology as a white invention; as something that is foreign and inconsistent with black freedom movements. Likewise, popular stories of women’s political history in the U.S. often start with the “first wave” at the end of the 19th century. However, Maria Miller Stewart was a free black woman living in Boston in the 1830s and the first American woman to give a public lecture on social justice issues to mixed race and mixed gender audiences.
This is important, given that elite black women of her day were consigned to literary or temperance societies if they wanted to do political work. Stewart is important because she becomes a forerunner of the black feminist tradition that we usually locate in the 1960s and 70s. In 1831, she published “Pure Principles of Morality” in the ladies section of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator”. (Note that Stewart knew and worked with Garrison in the abolitionist movement a full decade before Frederick Douglass met him). In “Pure Principles”, Miller speaks directly to black women of her day, imploring them about the need for them to be leaders. She stated,
Possess the spirit of independence. The Americans do, and why should not you? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted…
She continues a year later in her “Lecture at Franklin Hall”,
Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman? If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!”
Stewart was so bold and searing in her critiques of black male leaders (many of whom she viewed as lazy) that her growing unpopularity forced her to leave Boston in 1833. During her farewell speech at the African Masonic Temple, the mostly male crowd jeered and threw rotten tomatoes at her. What could she have said to anger them so much?
Had those men amongst us, who have had an opportunity, turned their attention as assiduously to mental and moral improvement as they have to gambling and dancing, I might have remained quietly at home, and they stood contending in my place.
Stewart basically claps back at these leaders, arguing that if you all were about your business you could be on the lecture circuit advocating for the race and I could have been at home! As the popular saying goes, she had time that day! She pulled no punches, she critiqued ineffective male leadership, and fiercely advocated for black women to recognize their ability to lead. And she did it while many of the men whom we hail as great abolitionists were still toiling on plantations. She did it a full 130 years before the dates in history where we typically introduce the topic of black feminism into our reading lists and courses on black politics. She is an unsung feminist hero.
Want to read more about Dr. Cox’s favorite feminist, Maria Miller Stewart? Check out this page about Miller at the Connecticut Hall of Fame!