Garrison and Woman’s Suffrage

Woman Suffrage

Garrison Villard, Fanny


March 1, 1912

The invitation given me to contribute an article to the Woman Suffrage Number of The Crisis, and in it refer to the part that my father, William Lloyd Garrison played in the movement, brings to mind the fact that there are many people who are ignorant of the close relation that existed between the anti-slavery agitation and the one for “woman’s rights,” in both of which my father bore his share of the burdens. The very first lesson that I learned was one of sympathy for the poor little slave child who was torn away from its mother’s arms, and the second was the need of the help of women in the struggle to free the cruelly oppressed colored people from bondage.

At that time custom did not permit women to address audiences of both men and women; the only exception being that of the Society of Friends. Thus, when two women who had an intimate knowledge of the horrors of slavery desired to speak in churches, in order to reach a larger number of people and win adherents to the abolition cause, they were sternly rebuked for their temerity. These women were Sarah and Angelina Grimké, daughters of a distinguished judge of Charleston, S. C., both remarkably gifted speakers and able writers on this all-absorbing topic. Thereupon, the General Association of Massachusetts, having the Orthodox Congregational Churches under its care, issued in July, 1837, a pastoral letter. Its aim was to close the doors of churches to anti-slavery lecturers, and to diminish the audiences of the Grimké sisters, who during the month of June had aroused intense interest in Eastern Massachusetts by their eloquent appeals on behalf of the slaves. Attention was called to dangers now seeming “to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury.” The New Testament clearly defines “the appropriate duties and influences of women.” “The power of woman is in her dependence. … When she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer our care and protection of her seem unnecessary; we put ourselves in self-defense against her; she yields the power which God has given for her protection and her character becomes unnatural.” The conduct of those, the letter continued, is sadly mistaken “who encourage females to bear an obstrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and preachers.”

The Grimké sisters then asked for permission to speak on the anti-slavery platform and were warmly welcomed by my father, who said that he owed a greater duty to women who were half the human race than he did to the slaves who were, happily, only a small part of it, and that he must be true to both. Some of the few adherents he had won left him, saying that he could free the slaves alone if he intended to allow women to speak at anti-slavery meetings.

Miss Catherine Beecher’s newly published “Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females,” addressed to Miss A. E. Grimké, was really the beginning of the woman’s rights agitation in America. Sarah Grimké said in a letter to H. C. Wright: “The Lord … has very unexpectedly made us the means of bringing up the discussion of the question of woman’s preaching and all we have to do is to do our duty.” Angelina Grimké’s forceful reply to Miss Beecher was published in thirteen articles in the Liberator. My father said: “Are we enough to make a revolution? No, but we are enough to begin one, and once begun it never can be turned back.” This seems peculiarly applicable in the case of these devoted sisters.

He had an opportunity presented to him in London in 1840 to serve the woman’s rights cause which he did not fail to embrace. He had journeyed there for the express purpose of attending a world’s anti-slavery convention, which met or Friday, June 12, with about 500 delegates. His ship had been delayed by fog and adverse gales, and he arrived five days too late. The convention had but three days more to sit, and having learned that his women codelegates sent by the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Societies were denied admission to it because of their sex, my father took his seat with them in the gallery and refused to take part in the proceedings in order to do so.

He was in the company of such women as Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Wendell Phillips, Mrs. Maria Weston Chapman, Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Miss Abby Kelley, afterward Mrs. Stephen Foster, Miss Emily Winslow, Miss Abby Southwick, Mrs. Lucretia Mott, and still others; certainly with his peers. This act, says N. P. Rogers, was decisive in its effect, “Haman never looked more blank on seeing Mordecai sitting in the king’s gate with his hat on than did this ‘committee in conference’ on seeing us take the position we did. Garrison was besought to come down. They tried every means in their power to seduce him down. Every time he was mentioned that whole conference would applaud as if they thought they could clap him down. … But they might as well have expected to remove the pillars upon which the gallery stood.” It was, indeed, a singular world’s convention from which the leader of the greatest antislavery movement of the age had to abstain from taking part in order to vindicate the principle of human equality. By so doing he called attention in a remarkable way to the disabilities under which women labored even when devoting themselves to so noble a cause as that of the abolition of slavery—and the convention marks an important era in the woman question rather than that of abolition.

It will ever be instructive and interesting to dwell upon the steady progress of the woman’s cause, in spite of deep-seated prejudice, ridicule and ostracism. Democracy itself is but a name where women have no part in it. Can it be that it is expedient to shut out from its benefits any part of the human race? Most assuredly not. Negro women need the franchise, all foreign women need it, and no one of us can afford to be deprived of it any more than men. What more forcibly points the moral of the imperative necessity of the franchise for each and every human being than the heartbreaking conditions existing to-day in the South among the oppressed colored people? Largely deprived, as they are, of the franchise in the South, who cares for their rights? In truth, they can only be safeguarded when the ballot is theirs; without helpless.

In conclusion, let me again quote my father’s words: “The people may err—they often do; they may be badly deceived—they often are; but the people as such are never wilfully deceived, nor are they hostile to their own interests. They may be deceived, but they will by and by understand the deceptions and deal with the deceivers; but you cannot possibly have a broader basis for any government than that which includes all the people, with all their rights in their hands, and with an equal power to maintain their rights.”


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Villard, Fanny, Garrison. 1912. “Garrison and Woman’s Suffrage.” The Crisis 4 (5): 240–42.