Women’s Advocacy against Slavery and the Changing Nature of Citizenship

by John Rountree

Graduate Assistant in Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University

As we mark this Constitution Day and specifically remember the Thirteenth Amendment, I am reminded of the decades of activism and political transformation that led up to the abolition of slavery in the United States. Many political communication scholars study “the public sphere,” which is a fancy term for the spaces of political activity where citizens debate political issues. To appreciate our nation’s history, it is important to understand how otherwise marginalized citizens have fought for inclusion in the public sphere throughout the years.

The buildup to the Thirteenth Amendment was such a time of contestation and transformation. In particular, women renegotiated their role in the public sphere starting in the 1830s, and this negotiation was most evident in female abolitionist movements. These women defied the norms relegating them to the domain of the household (the “private” sphere). Susan Zaeske has a wonderful book documenting the way that women during this time circulated anti-slavery petitions to Congress, and anyone at Penn State can access it through e-book on the library’s website!  Women imprinted their “signatures of citizenship” on elaborately argued documents and laid claim to their First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Three million women’s signatures affixed anti-slavery petitions to Congress between 1831 and 1863. In an effort to silence the women abolitionists, the House of Representatives started passing “gag rules” in 1836 that did not allow the petitions to be discussed or considered. Rather than be discouraged, petitioners used it as a catalyst to get even more women to protest the injustice of slavery and to assert their rights as citizens in political spaces. Even though women nationwide did not achieve the right to vote until 1920, the abolition movement set an important precedent for women’s entry into the public sphere.