This post was written by AHMC cataloger Miranda Schwartz.
The correspondence of three women in the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC) provides an enlightening look at political and public engagement by nineteenth-century American women activists.
On July 3, 1841, abolitionist, pacifist, and women’s rights advocate Abby Kelley Foster wrote a lengthy and impassioned letter to Nathaniel P. Rogers about the evils of slavery and the efforts to be made by abolitionists to speed slavery to an end. She speaks in particular of anti- and pro-slavery churches and their parishioners: “The time is fast approaching when a pro-slavery church will be regarded with loathing and abhorrence.” Foster also bemoaned the use of the English language itself to paint over slavery:
But the English language is not adequate to the task. It was not framed to describe this inutterable system. . . . On the contrary it has been studiously covered up or glazed over, to present a picture being given.”
Foster lectured widely against slavery in the 1830s and 1840s, working as an agent and fund-raiser for the American Anti-Slavery Society and for women’s suffrage and equal rights. She was condemned by some for speaking to male groups, and criticized by her fellow Quakers for joining the American Anti-Slavery Society. She left the Friends as a result.
Rev. Lydia Ann Jenkins wrote to the editor of the New-York Tribune on October 18, 1858, to correct some errors in an article about her. Despite what was reported, her appearance in the pulpit and at the Woman’s Rights Convention last May were not her introduction to the ministry or to the public. She had lectured on “temperance and kindred reforms in New York City and State, and in the West. For more than a year past I have been constantly laboring in the ministry of Universalism.” She also corrected a misquoted conclusion from her discourse of the night before, in which she had stated:
As in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female; so the privileges of understanding and promulgation of the Gospel are not partially bestowed, any more than the grace of God is partial in its operation upon human hearts.”
Jenkins was active in the women’s rights movement, and was possibly the first woman ordained as a Universalist minister.
Included in a collection of letters by author and activist Lydia Maria Child to friends and business associates is one written in 1844 to Rev. R. C. Waterston thanking him for pamphlets he had sent, and sharing some of her political views:
I am strongly inclined to think that the re-construction of society on a new basis is the only thing that can arrest the frightful increase of pauperism and crime. If it be true that you cannot change the outward structure of society till men are morally and intellectually improved, on the other hand, the masses cannot be morally and intellectually improved, until they are placed in a more comfortable physical condition.”
Child was a prolific writer on behalf of the many causes that interested her, most notably the abolition of slavery and the rights of women, as well as rights for Native peoples and religious tolerance. She served in the early 1840s as the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the journal published by the American Anti-Slavery Society, and as an executive member of the organization’s board. She was an advocate of total emancipation of enslaved people without compensation for slave owners. Child edited the first edition of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl for publication in 1861.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.