Let Freedom ReignMeet America’s First Feminists

Book Reviews{ Feminist Press }
Released: May 16, 2017

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This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!

In her latest book, author Helen LaKelly Hunt makes the case that the official beginning of the women’s rights movement was not, in fact, the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Instead, she credits a group of interracial, intersectional women who organized 11 years earlier, defying threats and violence to push for an end to slavery in the south and its support systems in the north. Almost a century before white women were given the vote, these early activists began to seek power as women in order to have power as abolitionists.

Many of these women were Quakers, others were “Spiritualists,” and still others were evangelical Christians who rejected the silencing of women as well as the justifications of slavery made by the churches of the time. Hunt makes it clear that elevating the “Christian bedrock” of these early feminists is both her goal and her primary connection personally to the women she depicts: “We can revive the holy alliance of faith and feminism in today’s activism.”

“In sisterhood, they started a revolution, and they refused to listen to those who believed they had no right to join this fight,” she writes. “Their mission was too important to wait for society to grant them permission.” Or, as convention organizer Angelina Grimké put it: “If persecution is the means which God has ordained for…emancipation, then…let it come.”

The organizers of the 1837 convention were warned not to assemble—even by other abolitionists. Foreshadowing today’s scourge of mediocre white men on the internet, the responses to their premeeting efforts included articles printed with ALL CAPS phrases and laden with condescending misogyny. John Greenleaf Whittier, a good friend to Angelina and her sister Sarah, wrote to the women imploring them to set aside any talk of suffrage or other gender equality issues until later, when “it will be an easy matter.” Second- and third-wave feminists will relate to being told that we must not try to walk and chew gum at the same time, that our rights will be tended to at some TBD date.

As a secular feminist who has been supported over the years by faith-based organizations and people within the movement, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a recovered history of those whose faith compelled them to action. The construction of the book—as well as the inclusion of Hunt’s narrative recollection of finding out about the three-day 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women—makes this a powerful and pleasurable read. Ultimately, these early organizers were responsible for the first public assertions of American women’s right to civic engagement. It was from their ranks and due to their influence that early suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were inspired and mentored; Hunt has done the feminist movement a service by breathing new life into the memory of its earliest days.

This article was published in Invisibility Issue #75 | Summer 2017
by Katie Klabusich
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Katie Klabusich is writer and host of The Katie Speak Show. Follow her on Twitter: @katie_speak

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