Bacon, Jacqueline. “What If I Am a Woman?: The Rhetoric of African American Female Abolitionists.” The Humblest May Stand Forth. Chapter 5.


Jacqueline Bacon outlined the struggles that African American Female Abolitionists experienced when championing the abolishment of slavery in the United States.  Not only does Bacon recognize the dual forces of racism and sexism which are at play against the African American female abolitionist, but she identifies the internal and external, public and private factors that mark the differences of the African American and white female abolitionists’ rhetorical interests as well as the distinctions between the African American male and female abolitionists’ rhetorical approaches for change.  It is through these many balancing acts that the African American female abolitionist embraces and, at times, demands her roles as crusader, mother, sister, and American.


Bacon illustrates the African American female’s antislavery rhetorical approaches by presenting the public and private practices of black women such as Sarah Remond, Barbara Ann Steward, Maria Stewart, Sarah Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Jacobs, who found avenues of activism through their writing and public addresses.  In addition to challenging the traditional antebellum gendered roles, African American females realized that they were not equal to their “fairer” sisters in the struggle.  While both white and black female abolitionists argued for their right to speak out against slavery in American, their aims and motives were different.


African American females spoke out against slavery with the understanding that black people must help their own though “self-help” practices.  Slavery was not only harmful to the one in bondage but threatened the safety of all free blacks, by hovering like a shadow waiting to take back liberties already fought for and won.  Black female abolitionists demanded the salvation of a people because slaves were no more than disposable cattle.


Even with this realization, Bacon suggested that white females opposed slavery not for its shameful practices against lesser humans and rights but, first, for its harmful representation of southern white women.  The Southern white female’s acceptance of slavery reflected negatively on the white female standard of True Womanhood, a racial and social measurement which African American women never measured up to, causing society to question the African American female’s right to speak and to be heard.  By applying the “muted group theory,” “the Burkeian model,” and the “outsider-within” perspective, Bacon claimed that African American female abolitionists were able to “reshape” the notion of the True Womanhood and their public identities as voices for a people.


Privately, African American female abolitionists received very little support from African American males.  Black male rhetoricians took offense to black females speaking in public, infringing upon the black male’s public identities as the speakers of the race and his social standing and environments.  Furthermore, white men publicly rebuked and questioned the African American abolitionists’ gender, suggesting they were less than women and had more speaking qualities and physical features of men.  Still, the African American female abolitionist gained strength through biblical interpretation and practices, allowing others to evaluate their own actions through higher moral purposes.


From this rhetorical evolutions and standpoints, the African American female abolitionists’ finally applied the notion of the “True Born Americans,” compelling others to question the God-given rights of the individual, as stated by Founding Fathers, and the country’s position on slavery.  No longer was the aim of African Americans to seek acceptance of the larger white populace and to acquire huge financial gains.  African American female abolitionists preached for “colored” community building.  Blacks were no longer asking for equal treatment, but they were demanding equal treatment granted to all American citizens by birthright.  Through rhetorical strategies, Bacon illustrated the maze of language usage and understanding that had to be navigated by the African American female abolitionists, while demanding the immediate end to slavery in the United States.



From Maria Stewart’s farewell address (Boston 1833) as she presents biblical examples of females of action.  She was addressing the “relevance” of biblical practices and “its validation of her public speaking”:


“What if I am a woman; is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days?  Did he not raise up Deborah, to be a mother, and a judge in Israel [Judg. 4:4]?  Did not queen Esther save the lives of the Jews?  And Mary Magdalene first declare the resurrection of Christ from the dead?  Come, said the woman of Samaria, and see a man that hath told me all things that ever I did, is not this the Christ?” (MWS, 68).


3 Responses to Bacon, Jacqueline. “What If I Am a Woman?: The Rhetoric of African American Female Abolitionists.” The Humblest May Stand Forth. Chapter 5.

  1. Eileen E. Schell says:

    Reva, I really like how you have discussed the “maze of language” that African American women abolitionists had to navigate (as discussed in Bacon). I think that metaphor is a good one because there were so many conflicting expectations, harmful myths, and cultural assumptions that African American women rhetors confronted. I’m particularly interested, too, in the rhetoric of biblical justification for speaking that appears across a broad cross-section of women’s rhetorics from the past. This is a line of rhetorical strategy present in African American women’s rhetorics, in white women’s rhetorics (the Grimkes, for instance who were Quakers), in Quaker women’s rhetorics as well–Margaret Fell’s “Women’s Speaking Justified.” I’m interested in what it means to signify from sacred texts and what particular rhetorical strengths and challenges are presented when sacred texts are invoked. Any thoughts on that?

  2. zstuckey says:

    rhetorical accretion (layering–not sure i’m spelling or using the word correctly) through biblical tropes propels the rhetor into an indisputably strong virtuousness and ethos. is citing the bible a move towards a “synthesis” where no antithesis can thus be offered. In other words, a move towards closure (in the way Connors uses “closure” in Octalog?? How else can we complicate use of biblical signifying?

    i would want to delve more into the issue of the rhetoric of humility. the rhetoric of humility is discussed in this book more through its use by African American men. I wondered why humility specifically didn’t come up for Bacon in her discussion of A.A. women? She does speak of prophet tropes when discussing the rhetoric of A.A. women, but not humility specifically. Why?

  3. bjbailie says:

    I’d say the central strength made available by signifying from sacred texts was the ability to gain the floor, and that this ability allowed them to take on the persona of a prophet. Once these rhetors had that rhetorical position, they could then speak in direct, scathing terms about the evils of slavery and what would befall the nation if the institution was allowed to stand.

    The challenge would be the protection of this prophet ethos. I’m sure none of the women involved could stand any type of scandal that might effect their respective reputations; and then there’s the issue of what was considered “appropriate” discourse for a Christian woman of the antebellum period. Nothing concerning sex or the body could be spoken of, and yet these are key issues that if brought into the public eye could have enraged many fence sitters to oppose the continuation of American slavery. (On a side note, I think it’s strange that a system that trafficked in human bodies and relied on those bodies to procreate to continue said system could not be discussed in those key terms.)

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