How Women Abolitionists Fought Enslavement

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"Abolitionist" was the word used in the 19th century for those who worked to abolish the institution of slavery. Women were quite active in the abolitionist movement, at a time when women were, in general, not active in the public sphere. The presence of women in the abolitionist movement was considered by many to be scandalous—not just because of the issue itself, which was not universally supported even in states that had abolished enslavement within their borders, but because these activists were women, and the dominant expectation of the "proper" place for women was in the domestic, not the public, sphere.

Nevertheless, the abolitionist movement attracted quite a few women to its active ranks. White women came out of their domestic sphere to work against the enslavement of others. Black women spoke from their experience, bringing their story to audiences to elicit empathy and action.

Black Women Abolitionists

The two most famous Black women abolitionists were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Both were well known in their time and are still the most famous of the Black women who worked against enslavement.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Maria W. Stewart are not as well known, but both were respected writers and activists. Harriet Jacobs wrote a memoir that was important as a story of what women went through during enslavement, and brought the conditions of enslavement to the attention of a wider audience. Sarah Mapps Douglass, part of the free African American community in Philadelphia, was an educator who also worked in the antislavery movement. Charlotte Forten Grimké was also part of the Philadelphia free African American community involved with the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. 

Other African American women who were active abolitionists included Ellen Craft, the Edmonson sisters (Mary and Emily), Sarah Harris Fayerweather, Charlotte Forten, Margaretta Forten, Susan Forten, Elizabeth Freeman (Mumbet), Eliza Ann Garner, Harriet Ann Jacobs, Mary Meachum, Anna Murray-Douglass (first wife of Frederick Douglass), Susan Paul, Harriet Forten Purvis, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Caroline Remond Putnam, Sarah Parker Remond, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Mary Ann Shadd.

White Women Abolitionists

More white women than Black women were prominent in the abolitionist movement, for a variety of reasons:

  • Although the movement of all women was restricted by social convention, White women had more freedom than Black women to move about.
  • White women were more likely to have the income to support themselves while doing abolitionist work.
  • Black women were, after the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, at risk of capture and transport to the South if someone alleged (rightly or wrongly) that they were freedom-seeking enslaved people.
  • White women were generally better-educated than Black women were (even though not at all on a par with the education of white men), including in formal oratory skills popular as a topic in education at the time.

White women abolitionists were often connected with liberal religions like the Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists, which taught the spiritual equality of all souls. Many white women who were abolitionists were married to (White) male abolitionists or came from abolitionist families, though some, like the Grimke sisters, rejected the ideas of their families. Key White women who worked for the abolition of enslavement, helping African American women navigate an unjust system (in alphabetical order, with links to find more about each):



More White women abolitionists include: Elizabeth Buffum Chace, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Maria Weston Chapman, Hannah Tracy Cutler, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, Eliza Farnham, Elizabeth Lee Cabot Follen, Abby Kelley Foster, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Josephine White Griffing, Laura Smith Haviland, Emily Howland, Jane Elizabeth Jones, Graceanna Lewis, Maria White Lowell, Abigail Mott, Ann Preston, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, Elizabeth Smith Miller, Caroline Severance, Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith, Angeline Stickney, Eliza Sproat Turner, Martha Coffin Wright.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "How Women Abolitionists Fought Enslavement." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). How Women Abolitionists Fought Enslavement. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "How Women Abolitionists Fought Enslavement." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 30, 2023).