A vote on the “woman question”

I’m re-reading The Freethinkers. It’s a terrific book. I want to share a passage with you, from the chapter “Lost Connections: Anticlericalism, Abolitionism, and Feminism”:

The tension came to a head in New York City in May 1840, at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society (of which Garrison had been a found member in 1833). In a Machiavellian Parliamentary maneuver, Garrison forced a vote on the “woman question” by appointing Abby Kelley, a Quaker and a great admirer of the Grimké sisters, to a post on the organization’s powerful business committee. Kelley’s appointment was confirmed by a close vote, but several hundred members – a minority, but a highly influential one – pronounced it a violation of the Scriptures to serve on a committee with a woman, walked out, and announced plans to form a breakaway antislavery organization. [p 83]

Does that sound familiar to you? It certainly does to me. It sounds like the New Left, for instance, which splintered and splintered again over “the woman question” in the late 60s and early 70s. It sounds like every political movement ever, because there are always people who want to work for these rights but not those, and/or people who say yes but we must not confuse the fight for these rights by adding the fight for those, and/or people who say what do those rights have to do with these rights, look it up in the dictionary. There are always people who say women’s rights can wait, or are completely different, or have already been achieved, or are a good idea but don’t require anyone to actually change anything.



  1. Hj Hornbeck says

    Yep, “Second-Wave” feminism went through much the same thing. One article I’d read (and unable to track down, sadly) talked of a group of lesbians and LBT people who stormed the mic at a feminist conference and wouldn’t let go until they’d said their piece. The feminist movement was divided between exclusionaries, who complained of mission creep and priorities and the “hijacking” of their movement by these minorities, and the inclusionaries who called out the racism, classism, and even sexism of feminist leaders.

    Forty years on, we know which side won that debate.

  2. says

    I’ve been saying for years that I found Freethinkers far more persuasive and informative than that other book, The God Delusion. That’s not to say I thought Delusion was at all bad…just that it was more a confirmation of what I already thought, while Jacoby gave me a lot more information to think about.

  3. Athywren says

    Man, I’m such a bad follower. I’ve only read God Deulsion, God Is Not Great, and Why Are You Atheists So Angry?. I’ll have to stick Freethinkers on my to-read list.

    What baffles me most about that particular line of thinking is that, after being told that their own issues aren’t worth considering, or that, in the case of atheism, since atheists and Christians are actually being killed in other countries, we should concentrate on those problems instead of those problems in our own countries, they go ahead and tell feminists that our issues aren’t worth considering, or that, since women are actually being killed in other countries, we should concentrate on those problems instead of those problems in our own countries. It’s practically word for word. I don’t want to believe that they really are opposed to gender equality, but how can any skeptic have such cognitive dissonance without noticing it?

  4. johnwoodford says

    There was an article that Ta-Nehisi Coates had linked to on Twitter a few months ago that pointed up similar behavior by abolitionist groups (like not allowing women to speak at a convention, and in fact putting a delegation of women behind curtains in the meetings so no men would have to see them), and tied that to why suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton got so racist in later years. (All IIRC, of course, since I don’t have the article in front of me.)

  5. says

    ^ Yes, Jacoby tells that story on the next page, and Henry Maier tells it at much more length in his fantastic biography of Garrison. It was the World Anti-Slavery conference (like many other putative “world” conferences it was really US & UK plus a couple of French delegates) in London. The conference refused to seat the women, and relegated them to a side chamber so that they could listen but not participate. (It wasn’t curtained though.) Garrison didn’t arrive until after all this was decided but when he did he boycotted the conference and instead sat in the upstairs gallery with other “inferiors.”

    Garrison was one amazing guy.

    The split that turned Stanton came with the passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave the franchise to male former slaves but to no women. Garrison, however reluctantly, supported it, and that made some – not all – of his feminist-abolitionist allies and friends angry.

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