"I Am as a Bell That Cannot Ring": Antebellum Women Oratory
Mattina, Anne, Women and Language
As our understanding of women's position in American history grows, so too, does our knowledge of their role as orators. Within the last decade, much research has been done on women rhetors but an area deserving greater scrutiny is antebellum rhetoric. Noted as the "Golden Age of Oratory'" in American history, little scholastic inquiry has focused on women in the period. Most has focused (understandably) upon woman's rights advocates and abolitionists. This paper explores existing and potential sources and opportunities for study of a wider variety of women within this time. I wish to challenge the notion that these women are easily categorized. Even though women were publicly vilified and privately chastised for speaking out, literally hundreds regularly took the platform.
While the texts of women's speeches from this period are difficult to locate, their legacy is important for a more complete study of the role of women in American rhetoric. From these speakers we can learn much about social movement genesis and the strategies employed to deal with public and religious sanctions against taking to the platform. Three sections follow: a brief review of the literature of the history of rhetoric; suggestions for additional sources; a list of over 80 female speakers from this era as potential subjects of study.
Review of the Literature
That women spoke at all in the antebellum period is surprising, considering the strength of societal prohibitions against such an act. However, inspired by numerous motives, not the least of which was compassion, many female orators faced hostile crowds during this period, their very presence challenging the notion of a "woman's sphere." Doris Yoakum provided a first look at these women in 1937 when "Women Orators of America" first appeared. She focused primarily on abolitionists and woman's rights activists speaking in the antebellum period. Yoakum begins by noting that both men and women adhered to Paul's biblical injunction that "women should keep silent in the church," and extended it to include all public gatherings. Yoakum pointed out how difficult such speech often was:
The Pioneer Women Orator's meetings were fre-
quently broken up, they experienced riots and mob-
bings, and they dodged flying missiles, the favorites
among which seem to have been rotten and fresh
eggs, dried apples, beans ... They tried to speak
above the din of hissing, stamping, groaning, shout-
ing, whistling and other demonstrations of disap-
proval. They endeavored to keep audiences quiet
and attentive in the face of threats of fires, the extin-
guishing of lights, the locking of outside doors, the
breaking of windows and disturbances outside the
Six years later, in an expanded version of the paper, Yoakum credits these early speakers with establishing the base from which the "Woman Movement" was established. A similar claim is made in almost all remaining articles dealing with antebellum women orators (1943). Yoakum's two articles represent the first published contributions to rhetorical history regarding antebellum women speakers.
Crediting Yoakum with inspiring her interest in this area, Lillian O'Connor wrote Pioneer Women Orators (1954). O'Connor took as her subjects 27 female orators who worked publicly for the causes of temperance, women's rights, abolition, free inquiry, and other topics between the years of 1828--1869. She described the historical setting in which women spoke, gave biographic sketches of her subjects, excerpts from their speeches and analyses of extant texts. Unfortunately, she didn't reproduce the texts themselves within the book. She did, however, give detailed bibliographic references. Questioning the extent to which the women of the antebellum period practiced "sound" rhetorical principles, O'Connor used as criteria both the Aristotelian ideal and mid-nineteenth century expectations as found in Blair, Whatley and Campbell's treatises on rhetoric, concluding that the women exemplified the standards of their time. …