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

October 3, 2007


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).