Liberty Matters

Keep Stirring, Ladies!


In 1867, Sojourner Truth delivered a speech to the American Equal Rights Association in which she observed that “[t]here is a great stir” about Black men getting the right to vote, but precious little discussion of the enfranchisement of Black women.[1] Black women must have access to the ballot as much as Black men to secure their rights. Without it, the work of ending slavery, understood by Truth as mastery of one group over another, is incomplete. Truth recognizes that now is the opportune moment “for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.” 
Building on Abigail Adams’s admonishment to “remember the ladies,” Truth’s advice is to “keep stirring”! 
Women’s History Month presents not only an occasion to honor the courageous efforts of women to advance equality and liberty, but to take stock and evaluate what remains to be done. As these essays illustrate, remembering the ladies and the struggle for equality requires further “stirring.” 
In her essay “The Woman Question: The Fight for Higher Education and Economic Independence,” Giandomenica Becchio picks up on an under-appreciated thread in women’s thought that education was the best strategy to gain economic independence from (usually) male relatives. In so doing, women thinkers were drawn into broader considerations of political economy and made significant contributions in their own right often linking, rightly so, the economic independence of women to the prosperity of a nation.
My summer reading list has grown as a result of Becchio’s essay. Becchio highlights the economic arguments in lesser well-known thinkers (to me) such as Sophie de Grouchy and Jane Haldimand Marcet.
Economic independence is, certainly, a means of freeing women from the material conditions that held them dependent on their male relatives. But economic independence must be coupled with political liberty so that women are able to defend by the ballot their property. Moreover, deciding how to gain, use, or preserve property and the economic resources in one’s care is one of the chief ways in which individuals exercise their liberty and so choose how they want to live their lives.
Melissa Matthes’ essay “Remember the Ladies: The Grimké Sisters” begins with two observations. First, these remarkable sisters were key players in three major social and political movements in their day—abolition, women’s rights, and the Second Great Awakening. Matthes’ essay ably weaves together an account of how their religious faith animated their unshakable conviction in human equality. Second, given their beginnings on a South Carolina plantation, they were “unlikely” to be norm-breakers and precedent-setters. 
Yet, as Matthes discerns, the Grimkés sisters’ accounts of how they came to realize the injustice of slavery came from observing the effects of slavery at home. They saw the violence and cruelty of slavery as children and never forgot it. Given that they had perceived the injustice of slavery in the heart of slave-holding society, the Grimkés understood more clearly than their primarily Northern audience that their fellow southern women were closing their eyes to it. Support of slavery was a choice. Angelina’s famous “An Appeal to Christian Women of the South” recognizes that southern women are culpable for perpetuating slavery, but invites them to change their course. Since women are equals to men, the Grimkés pressed for women to accept their responsibility for the policies of their political communities. 
The example of the Grimkés is a powerful antidote to the slacktivism one often encounters on college campuses. They endured discomfort as they aimed to live out their principles. They left their home, broke relations with family and friends, endured ridicule and jeers (the press called Angelina “Devil-ina”), violated social and class norms, and faced violent mobs.[2] The wedding of Angelina Grimké and Theodore Weld illustrates how they practiced their principles such as inviting Black and white guests and providing sweets made with “free sugar.” 
In her essay “A Seat at the Table, but Only One,” Sarah Skwire argues that it is no longer sufficient to point to Jane Austen (or a favored few other women thinkers) as the exemplar of the woman’s perspective on human liberty. The fault, Skwire argues, can no longer be blamed on the vagaries of fortune regarding access to works by women. Texts once out of print and forgotten have been painstakingly rediscovered by scholars and, today, are often easily found online.
As an admirer of Edith Wharton, I’d like for Wharton to be read and evaluated on her own without inevitable comparisons to Henry James, who, to continue Skwire’s metaphor, is always seated next to her.
Skwire is right that we should take the time to acquaint ourselves with these “new to us” voices, but not only on “‘gendered’ or ‘minority’ concerns and issues.” These women thought deeply and carefully about matters of perennial and permanent human concern. Here, I think, Skwire points the way forward. The task is to bring less well-known women writers into the conversation in ways that recognize their perspective as women but takes seriously their thought on life and liberty.
[1] Sojourner Truth, “Address to the First Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association” in American Women’s Suffrage: Voices from the Long Struggle for the Vote 1776-1965, ed. Susan Ware (New York: Library of America, 2020), 116-18.
[2] Gerda Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 7.