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Antislavery and Women's Rights
Digital History ID 298

Author:   Abigail Kelley Foster


A public debate over the proper role of women in the antislavery movement led to the first organized movement in history for women's rights. By the mid-1830s, more than a hundred female antislavery societies had been created, and women abolitionists were circulating petitions, editing abolitionist tracts, and organizing antislavery conventions. At the 1840 annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, abolitionists split partly over the question of whether women abolitionists could participate in the leadership of the antislavery organization. Moderates, including Arthur and Lewis Tappan (1788-1873), two wealthy antislavery philanthropists, withdrew from organization and formed the American and Foreign Antislavery Society.

The American Anti-Slavery Society proceeded to elect Abigail Kelly Foster (1810?-1887) to its business committee and named three women delegates (Foster, Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)) as delegates to a World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. These women were then relegated to seats in a balcony on the grounds that their participation would offend British public opinion.

Responding to queries from Harriet Robinson (1825-1911), who was writing a book on Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, Foster recalled the split in the American Anti-Slavery Society over the role of women.


It was the American Anti-Slavery [Society] that was divided when women were put among its officers, tho' it was not divided till a year after the first appointment which was that of a woman on a committee to examine and report on the publications of the American A.S. Society in 1839 at its annual meeting in May. In 1840 a woman [Foster herself] was elected on the business committee, and then a minority of the Society withdrew and formed another society.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Abigail Kelley Foster to Harriet Robinson

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