While unfamiliar to many Americans, Maria W. Stewart merits a distinct place in our history. Combining the moral zeal of a born-again Christian with the defiant radicalism of a feminist and abolitionist, Stewart was an inspiring speaker, teacher, and writer. The first American woman on record to speak before an audience of men and women (five years before the Grimké sisters did so), Stewart was probably also the first black American woman to lecture on women's rights. In her speeches and writings, she exhorted black Americans to wrest their freedom from oppression and advocated moral, social, economic, and spiritual responsibility.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Maria Miller was orphaned at age five and subsequently "bound out" as a servant in a clergyman's house, where she "had the seeds of piety and virtue early sown in [her] mind; but was deprived of the advantages of education" (Productions 3). There she lived for the next formative decade of her life, attending Sunday school and reading when she could. In 1826 she married James W. Stewart (at his suggestion, she took his middle initial), and they settled into a middle-class neighborhood in Boston.
But just a few years later came harrowing times. First, Stewart's young husband died from an illness in 1829. ("O God," she lamented, "was not my soul torn with anguish, and did not my heart bleed. . . . Come all ye that pass by, and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow" [40-41].) A year later, her friend and mentor David Walker, the fiery abolitionist, was killed. Then, after a two-year litigation, Stewart, like other widowed black women, was conned by lawyers out of her legal inheritance.
The result of the grief, sudden poverty, and soul searching of these anguished