Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

MARIA W. MILLER STEWART
(1803-1879), first African-American woman to lecture in public

LAURA R. SELLS

When scholars of rhetoric and history map women's emergence on the public platform, they mark abolitionism as a seedbed of women's public speaking. In general, early women abolitionists, especially the famous Grimké sisters, represent a vanguard that opened the public sphere to women speakers ( Hersh, 1979; Melder, 1977).

When Maria W. Miller Stewart addressed Boston's African-American abolitionist community between 1831 and 1833, six years prior to the Grimkés' acclaimed success, she became an important forerunner for many key abolitionists and woman's rights activists. She is considered "the first Black feminist- abolitionist in America" ( Andrews, 1986:22). She prefigures the major African- American activists of the nineteenth century, including Frederick Douglass, SOJOURNER TRUTH, Frances Harper, and Henry Highland Garnet. In an introduction to an edited collection of Miller Stewart's work, historian Marilyn Richardson writes: "In both the formulation and the articulation of the ideas central to the emerging struggle for Black freedom and human rights, Stewart was a clear forerunner to generations of the best known and most influential champions of Black activism" ( 1987:xiv; also Flexner, 1974:44; Giddings, 1985:46-55; Lerner, 1971:4). As the first U.S.-born woman and the first Black woman known to address mixed-sex and mixed-race audiences on political issues, she is a significant figure in the U. S. rhetorical tradition and in the history of women's oratory.

Miller Stewart was concerned primarily with reviving the waning spirit of militant activism among African-Americans in Boston ( Giddings, 1985:52). She encouraged her listeners to improve their oppressed condition by participating in abolition and moral reform movements. Although the exact composition of her audience is unknown, her discourse indicates she directed her message to the men and women of her own community. Her immediate audience was probably entirely African-American, predominantly laborers, and probably involved in "the politically dynamic" atmosphere of the Black abolitionist movement ( Lintin, 1989:3-5; Richardson, 1987:xvi).

Two events in Miller Stewart's life led her to the public sphere. After only three years of marriage, her husband died, leaving her an inheritance that was stolen from her by white lawyers. Soon thereafter, her political and intellectual mentor, David Walker, also died. Walker had been Boston's most militant Black abolitionist and was the author of the incendiary pamphlet "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World." In her grief over these deaths, she experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity, which proved central to her political ideology and her rhetorical style. She wrote that her fears of assuming a public role were tempered by her faith in God:

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