The Female Antislavery Petition Campaign of 1831-32

Article excerpt

IN the winter of 1831-32, three female petitions were written urging the Virginia legislature to begin a program to emancipate and colonize the state's black population. These extraordinary petitions-the Augusta Petition, which was submitted to the House of Delegates; the Fluvanna Petition, which was published in several newspapers; and the Fredericksburg Petition, which was eventually withheld by its author-established a high water mark for direct female political action in antebellum Virginia. These petitions would have been remarkable examples of women's political activity anywhere in America. At the time they were written, the best precedent in the nation's history for such female legislative petitions was the 1829 petition drive to Congress organized by Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister, Catharine Beecher, to protest the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia. The earliest female antislavery petition to Congress, organized in Philadelphia by Lucretia Mott, was contemporaneous with these petitions; Mott's petition was not submitted to Congress until more than a month after two of these petitions had been written.1

The story of these path-breaking petitions also suggests that a reappraisal of the implications of direct female political involvement is in order. One history of the women's rights movement, for instance, insists that "When a small cadre of women, supported by sympathetic male supporters, laid claim to the right to use political language, they both challenged male political and social hegemony and exposed the tenuousness of the mid-nineteenth century definitions of maleness."2 In this case, at least, the history is radically different. The first two petitions-from Fluvanna and Augusta counties-were part of a petition campaign organized by John Hartwell Cocke. Inspired by these remarkable documents, Mary Minor Blackford, a staunch opponent of slavery, wrote her own plea to the legislature but later lost her nerve and quashed her petition. Moreover, the documents themselves were far from bold challenges to existing gender relationships. Instead they assured their audiences that the unprecedented female petitions were meant to safeguard the social conventions of the day. For example, all three authors implied that the petitions were in part motivated by the fear of what the Augusta Petition labeled the "recent tragical deeds," a reference to Nat Turner's Rebellion of August 1831, in which rebels killed about five dozen whites, mostly women and children.

Several historians have begun to reappraise the contributions of women to the political debates of their day, recognizing that many politically active women worked within, rather than to overturn, conventional gender roles.3 In Virginia, the women involved in the petition campaign supported gradual emancipation and colonization, but none went so far as to suggest that women should regularly participate in public debates. The tension between female activism and an acceptance of separate spheres is best seen in the case of Virginia Cary. Three years before the female petition campaign, Cary wrote a popular book on women's roles in which she forthrightly addressed the issue of female involvement in public politics. Reviewing the history of the French Revolution, she described how "[w]omen fors[ook] their homes, for the strange and unhallowed pursuit of politics and intrigues of state." Her opinion of these women was unambiguous: "May the world never again behold such an example of perverted talents, and misguided energy."4

One might dismiss Cary as a hypocrite or an opportunist three years later, when she composed the Fluvanna petition urging Virginia's legislature to end slavery slowly in the Old Dominion. Cary herself recognized the tension between her actions and her earlier position. She resolved the problem by embracing the idea of deference. In Letters on Female Character, Cary "venture[d] unequivocally to recommend the doctrine of conjugal obedience. …