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

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

which diminished her self-assertion, she embodied the virtue of submissiveness, a primary tenet of True Womanhood. The following passage is representative of her humility in taking to the platform: "I am but as a drop in the bucket-- as one particle of the small dust of the earth. God will surely raise up those among us who will plead the cause of virtue and the pure principles of morality more eloquently than I am able to do so" ( MH:70-71).

The act of public expression directly challenged women's prescribed roles. Miller Stewart's public expression, however, came from divine inspiration. Even though she boldly violated the norms of feminine behavior, she characterized this violation as a submissive and Christian act. She repeatedly reinforced her identity as a prophet touched by God. For instance:

Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation--"Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?" And my heart made this reply--"If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!" ( FH:51)

She located the virtues of submissiveness and piety within her Christian morality. By following God's call, she adhered to a higher authority. She recast her acts of interpreting God's will and becoming God's prophet--decidedly masculine behaviors for her time--as Christian piety and feminine submission.

The final strategy Miller Stewart used to handle the obstacles she faced was to withdraw from the public platform altogether. As a prophet, not only did she prophesy the collapse of the United States in her resounding jeremiads, but she also predicted the death of her own public character by equating death with silence in juxtaposed images. Beginning with the introduction to her pamphlet, where she associated herself with the martyred image of David Walker, she repeatedly foreshadowed her withdrawal from the platform:

Many will suffer for pleading the cause of oppressed Africa, and I shall glory in being one of her martyrs; for I am firmly persuaded, that the God in whom I trust . . . is able to protect me . . . and if there is no other way for me to escape, he is able to take me to himself, as he did the most noble, fearless, and undaunted David Walker. ( RP:5)

Aware of the constraints that gender placed on her character as a speaker, Miller Stewart constructed a paradoxical persona that was militant and modest. She sought to maintain her femininity by crafting a public character consonant with the piety and deference of a true woman. Yet her piety and deference to God, as she constructed it, required militant activism. As a result, she assumed a persona antithetical to the true woman persona she sought to embody ( Sells, 1991:88).


CONCLUSION

The contradictions in Miller Stewart's rhetoric make sense in light of her unique historical position, the philosophy she espoused, and the considerable

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