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The Forgotten Women of Abolitionism

The Forgotten Women of Abolitionism

In 2018, one of the 25 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship — better known as the MacArthur “genius” grant — was an artist named Titus Kaphar. Kaphar’s work seeks to re-center those who have been ignored, marginalized, or erased by conventional renderings of the past. In one well-known work, “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” a famous nineteenth-century portrait of Thomas Jefferson hangs in haphazard folds over its frame and a black woman peeks out from behind, representing not just Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman forced to bear Jefferson’s children, but also “many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.” In “Shadows of Liberty,” a portrait of George Washington is almost entirely covered by nailed canvas strips, each containing the name of one of Washington’s slaves; in “Enough About You,” a portrait of Elihu Yale is crumpled up, so that only the enslaved black boy present in the background remains unscathed, now suddenly in the foreground. In his TED talk, Kaphar took a copy of a Dutch Golden Age portrait of aristocrats and painted over the wealthy white figures, so that the black servant could finally take center stage.

Much as Kaphar uses art to bring cultural attention to those most erased by history, so too have historians been using books to spotlight previously ignored individuals. Indeed, much of what modern Americans know about Sally Hemmings is due to the determined historical investigations of Annette Gordon-Reed. Other scholars have painstakingly reconstructed the lives of Jack the Ripper’s five victims, the exploited black convict who may have formed the basis of the John Henry legend, and Margaret Garner, the real-life enslaved woman who slit the throat of her daughter rather than have her endure slavery, and whose story was memorably fictionalized in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

This essay considers three such works. More specifically, it considers three recent books that attempt to re-center important female abolitionists whose contributions have been entirely erased by the subsequent focus on famous male abolitionists: Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, by Lea VanderVelde; The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism, by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz; and, counterintuitive though it may seem, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.

The women in these books are different from other female abolitionists, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, who, while undoubtedly marginalized, have nonetheless received some amount of attention and credit over the decades. Instead, these women have been so effectively sidelined that few scholars would even think that they were activists in their own right.

Stories like these are often the hardest to recover. But stories like these often have the most to teach us.


It is hard to think of a recent book that was more rapturously received than Yale historian David Blight’s door-stopping, 912-page biography of Frederick Douglass. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, to say nothing of the Bancroft, Parkman, Los Angeles Times, Lincoln, Plutarch, and Christopher Awards, Frederick Douglass was also named one of the top books of the year by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and half a dozen others. Digging through two centuries of primary and secondary sources — some of them never seen before, some of them already mined to the point of seeming exhaustion — Blight portrays the “old fugitive slave” as a stunning orator and brilliant activist, as well as a canny tactician and sometimes catty squabbler, paying especial attention to Douglass’ oft-neglected later years.

But it is Blight’s persistent and persistently probing approach to several of Douglass’ female collaborators that makes this biography truly shine. Over hundreds of pages, Blight explores how Douglass could “cling to some of the female relationships in his life.” From his escape from bondage to his travels spreading his message around the world, Douglass relied on female abolitionists for wisdom and insight, as well as connections and psychic support. “He had always needed help,” Blight reminds us, “especially from skilled, loving, educated women.”

In 1838, Douglass married Anna Murray, “a young, dark-skinned free woman who liked music.” Murray was working as a laundress on the Baltimore docks when she met the 19- or 20-year-old shipyard laborer who would soon be the most famous black man in the world. From their first meeting, Murray would help the still enslaved Douglass “imagine a new life.” It was Murray who gave Douglass the money that was what he called his “fare” for “the underground railroad”; it was Murray who bore Douglass five children and buried one, who hosted runaway slaves when he asked and acquiesced, apparently with great trepidation, to move South with him during the Civil War; it was Murray who stoically persevered through widespread rumors of Douglass’ adulterous affairs.

What little we know of Murray comes mostly from Douglass’ own writings, as she was “largely illiterate.” Yet she “was a good deal more than what we think we know, and far more than her husband ever told us.” To his tremendous credit, Blight enables Murray’s own understated brand of activism to peek through from behind Douglass’ voluminous canvas.

“We know her because of forty-four years of marriage to Douglass,” Blight writes. “The heart of her story, though, is not only that she was crucial in his liberation from slavery, but that she too, perhaps even more than he, understood the meaning of holding together and protecting a black family in racist, hostile America. Her garden for self-sufficiency, mothering skills, and stern personality made ‘the hill’ on South Avenue possible as much as her husband’s speaking fees and book royalties.” Blight reminds us that helping individual slaves buy or escape to their freedom, or raising self-reliant black children (and, eventually, 21 grandchildren) in the midst of a white supremacist society, can be a revolutionary act.

Blight refuses to denigrate Murray’s “role as homemaker,” which is more than can be said of another of Douglass’ female collaborators, Ottilie Assing, who often attacked Murray as uneducated and unrefined in writing and, presumably, in intimate conversations with Douglass himself. Assing, a radical German journalist who moved to the United States in her early 30s and quickly became an influential abolitionist, transmitted many of the evilest realities of American slavery to European readers and eventually translated Douglass’ work for them as well. Blight describes Assing’s decades-long love for Douglass and her efforts to get him to leave Murray for her. But she was far more than his probable mistress. When Douglass was fleeing conspiracy charges, fearing execution, after John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Assing spirited him to safety in the dead of night; she introduced him to a “salon of radical thinkers” and organized his lecture circuit; later, she provided financial support for him and his family.

But Assing was also far more than Douglass’ helpmeet; though Blight occasionally seems exasperated with Assing and characterizes her as paranoid and obsessive, he also makes clear that she was an important intellectual. It is a shame that her dramatic suicide in Paris upon learning that a recently widowed Douglass would not choose her, as well as her demand that her correspondence with him be burned, cemented her historical reputation as a hysteric obsessed with another woman’s husband. She was, in fact, a pioneering journalist whose hundreds of articles on slavery and abolitionism had a tremendous impact.

Another important abolitionist who has been wrongly neglected by history is Julia Griffiths. She met Douglass when he was on a speaking tour in London and soon sent him a large collection of abolitionist literature, which aided “him on his journey to journalism”; later, as Douglass was founding his newspaper, the North Star, Griffiths moved to Rochester, New York, to help him. When Douglass struggled to support his family, Griffiths raised money for his business and his household and even purchased the mortgage of his house. Blight speculates that Griffiths loved Douglass. But, again, she was no mere assistant or patron or starry-eyed lover. She managed and edited the North Star herself, taking a blue pencil to sloppy phrases and almost singlehandedly saving the paper from a quick death; later in life, she was a leader in anti-slavery organizations in England. Griffith’s “devotion to radical abolitionism provided what the movement desperately needed — astute organization, financial foundation, and an apparently pure commitment to help Douglass go out and be Douglass.”

In devoting so much space to reconstructing the importance of Murray, Assing, and Griffiths, Blight builds on the recent work of Leigh Fought, who wrote a groundbreaking study of the women who shaped Douglass at every point in his life, from his birth in slavery to his death as a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., and the older work of Maria Diedrich, a German historian who broke new ground in her reconstruction of Assing’s life. Blight’s work adds nuance and details to the thesis that man who was the most important of all the abolitionists stood on the shoulders of women.


Even as Ottilie Assing was secreting Frederick Douglass to New Jersey in the wake of John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry, several other women were sitting anxiously at home, awaiting news of the fate of their husband and father, sons and brothers. These women were John Brown’s wife, Mary, his four daughters, Ruth, Annie, Sarah, and Ellen, and his daughters-in-law, Bell and Martha.

“In the days that followed Brown’s raid, many Americans professed interest in the Brown women,” writes Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, a historian at Eastern Illinois University, in The Tie That Bound Us. “Yet the women are missing from the prevailing popular narrative about John Brown.” By ignoring these women, our picture of Brown’s radical action — and the radical abolitionist movement — is incomplete.

“The Brown family culture was formed against the backdrop of poverty and life in rural antebellum America,” writes Laughlin-Schultz early in the book. The story of the Brown women began in the summer of 1833, when 17-year-old Mary married the recently widowed John Brown, becoming stepmother to his five children. Mary would eventually give birth to thirteen children of her own and lose six: “one at birth, four to an outbreak of illness, and one to a household accident” — scalded by a falling pot of boiling water. “In the face of these sorrows — or because of them — John Brown became more entrenched in antislavery sentiment and ever-bolder work on behalf of the antislavery cause.”

The Brown household was centered on their resolute Calvinist faith in improvement and the Golden Rule. Because of the firm belief in what son Salmon described as “equity” — the notion that all people were equal in God’s eyes — John Brown grew ever more radically anti-slavery. He also demanded equity in his children’s indoor chores (even if their farm chores were still segregated on the basis of sex). Later, after the Brown family moved to the interracial community of North Elba, New York, John charged all of his family members — female as well as male — with resisting slave-catchers if they came to town.

Mary Brown was not a gifted or prolific writer, so her inner thoughts regarding her increasingly radical husband are hard to parse. Much of her life was devoted to keeping his household and raising his children amid wretched poverty, even as he was off chasing his destiny. Without her labor, his would have been impossible, but her labor was and is nearly invisible. Many of John’s biographers have dismissed her as a rustic or have “delighted” in pointing out her plainness. And though John supported women’s rights, “demanding equality for his daughters in the public sphere,” he did not seek to subvert traditional gender roles terribly far at home.

“Brown does not stand out as extraordinary in his beliefs about gender; instead he seems almost common,” writes Laughlin-Schultz. “Mary does as well.”

Even after years of searching, Laughlin-Schultz is not entirely sure what Mary believed about slavery; she “remains an enigma.” Nonetheless, at critical points in their marriage, Mary defied John — first by going to a water cure in Massachusetts (where she heard the female abolitionist Lucy Stone lecture on women’s rights — the “first time I ever heard a Woman speak”) and, later, by ignoring his dying wishes and moving the family out west. Laughlin-Schultz argues convincingly that Brown’s daughters “came into radical antislavery” in their own way, “after decades of commitment to the religious faith, equity, and self-sacrifice that undergirded the Brown family culture.”

Even as John Brown, wielding a sword, led his sons and followers to massacre pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas, in 1856, and began preparing for his 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, his daughters grew increasingly radical. Ruth, whose religious convictions were probably the closest to her father’s, took to exhorting her brothers to maintain proper orthodoxy; she “asserted that the Brown women would fight slave catchers even if their only weapon was hot water”; in 1858, she begged her father to be allowed to join his forces. (He refused.) Her sister, Annie, did join her father and his troops as they were training in a Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1859, cooking and sewing but also keeping watch and diverting the neighbors, at great personal risk.

Annie departed shortly before the legendary raid on Harpers Ferry, and the Brown women had no news of its outcome for a full week. Soon after they learned of his failure, the Brown women became national celebrities, with newspapers trailing them and crowds angling for a glimpse of them. Wealthy abolitionists raised money for the Brown women, depicting them as analogous to “suffering slaves” and labeling them as “rustics” unable to care for themselves. In accordance with this condescension, the abolitionist elite controlled the money, “determining who got what and when,” and later sought to dictate Annie and Sarah’s schooling. Fed up, Mary eventually moved her daughters to the California frontier.

Laughlin-Schultz devotes the rest of her book to tracing the after-effects of John’s actions on his wife and daughters, and to trying to make sense of their beliefs and actions. The Brown women battled over decades to safeguard John’s legacy, but this legacy followed them wherever they went, sometimes placing them in great danger or forcing them to relocate, even years after the fact. The extent to which they saw themselves as activists in later years is unclear; they did participate in local temperance societies, but they never took the “bold leap” from antislavery to women’s rights, or even took on temperance “in the John-Brown-esque manner of someone such as Carrie Nation.” In many ways, they remained “ordinary.” As Laughlin-Schultz writes, “the tension between their ordinary class-bound roles and the extraordinary dimensions of their existence shaped their lives. This juxtaposition is at the heart of this book.”

Yet even in their “ordinary” domestic lives, the Browns thrived in spite of crushing poverty and eventual notoriety. This too is activism. If the personal truly is political, then we must take the personal seriously.


It is clear that Anna Murray and Mary Brown’s limited literacy has, in turn, limited the ability of scholars and readers to understand their activism; this is even truer of Harriet Robinson Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, who could not read or write at all. Indeed, Harriet’s words were only captured on paper a single time, in a brief, suspicious exchange with a pair of white journalists in 1857. Entire years of her life are not documented at all. Nonetheless, in a remarkable piece of historical detective work, Lea VanderVelde reconstructs the rough outline of Harriet’s existence. In so doing, VanderVelde, an esteemed law professor at the University of Iowa, rescues Harriet’s reputation from almost complete obscurity.

VanderVelde is candid about the tremendous formal difficulties she faced in writing Mrs. Dred Scott. “The lives of subordinate people are consistently erased by time and memory,” she writes. “Servants, such as Dred and Harriet Scott…are partially hidden in history because they could not leave letters and writings….[This] is especially true of slaves, who were legally forbidden from learning to read.” And Harriet is even more marginalized by history than her husband has been. Harriet “was considered merely as a procedural paragraph in the notorious opinion, and her distinctive experiences were so deeply buried in the procedural technicalities of the case to have been lost from view.” Even the foremost history of Dred’s life story and case, Walter Ehrlich’s classic They Have No Rights, omits mention of her almost entirely. All of this makes VanderVelde’s achievement all the more heroic.

The historian is aided considerably by the diarist, and VanderVelde has a savior in Harriet’s longtime owner, the federal Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro, whose meticulous journals and letters “have been overlooked by every previous historian of the Dred Scott case.” Indeed, the first half of Mrs. Dred Scott could almost pass for a biography of Taliaferro himself. Taliaferro, who painstakingly mediated the squabbles of various Native American nations and eventually helped to craft the “tumultuous Ojibwa treaty of 1837,” may not have been the first white man to teach Harriet racial hierarchy, but, writes VanderVelde, he probably “was Harriet’s first tutor in the expectation of fairness, prudence, and the limits of law” — lessons that would prove to be formative.

Because so little of Harriet’s birth in Virginia or “short time” in Pennsylvania is known, VanderVelde begins her book with 14-year-old Harriet’s arrival by steamboat at St. Peter’s Agency, a compound within a fort in what was then Indian Territory and what is now Minnesota. Wolves sometimes circled the fort, and the climate in the agency was exceptionally harsh and unforgiving: in the summers it could reach 100 degrees, but in the winters the sun barely came out and it grew so cold that “[a]nything washed between December and March would never dry but simply freeze stiff.” Interestingly, this relieved the slaves’ responsibility to wash laundry, “thereby relaxing one of the community’s primary markers of social standing” and rendering Harriet’s chores “not significantly different from those done by most ordinary settlement people.” For much of the winter, then, Harriet lived with her master and mistress in desperately intimate proximity.

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For the rest of the year, her days were consumed by grooming her mistress, cooking and washing and cleaning and caring for guests. She also served as an occasional eyewitness to history, as Taliaferro negotiated with the various tribal nations in the area. She witnessed many notable diplomatic customs — including Taliaferro’s obligation to exchange “an affectionate smooch” with visiting Native Americans, a “custom carried over from the region’s previous French occupants.” She eventually interacted with many notable people, including Dorothea Dix and future president Zachary Taylor, though neither would remember her. And, in the spring of 1836, she met an Army surgeon named John Emerson, and his black servant, Etheldred.

Shortly thereafter, 17-year-old Harriet married Etheldred — also known as “Dred” — in a ceremony apparently performed by Taliaferro. In so doing, Taliaferro “relinquished claim to her services,” though it is unclear if he formally sold Harriet to Emerson. In any event, both Harriet and Dred should have been free simply by residing in free territory — slavery was banned in the Northwest Territory and on both banks of the Upper Mississippi River. Yet it appears that this legal prescription went unenforced. “The evidence that exists seems to suggest that at the time Harriet was a free person, [but] married to a man whose own household master still regarded him as a slave.”

In 1840, Harriet and Dred traveled with Emerson to Missouri, a slave state. “No one needed to kidnap them or force them aboard the ship.” They depended on Emerson, and he had been kind to them — once almost fighting a duel to get them a stove for the winter — and, besides, they had nowhere else to go. After Emerson’s death in 1843, ostensible ownership of the Scotts passed to his widow, Irene. During these years, we know virtually nothing of Harriet’s life, except that she resided for much of it in St. Louis, a place where race relations were marked by “sheer brutality,” “mobs and lawless violence,” and “a major national slave market.” Yet VanderVelde argues that it was likely in St. Louis, along the banks of the Mississippi River, that Harriet first interacted with “the sisterhood of other black laundresses,” some of whom had successfully sued for their freedom. Especially as Harriet gave birth to one daughter, then another, the “laundresses’ stories brought hope.” A baby’s slave status drew from her mother, and so if Harriet were actually free, then so were her daughters, regardless of their place of birth.

“On those days that she washed at the river, standing on the shore with tubs full of…laundry, Harriet could see the green bank of the free state of Illinois on the far side, just a mile away.” She must have begun contemplating her freedom, but escape with two young children was impossible. In 1846, Dred tried to purchase their freedom, but Irene refused. (VanderVelde notes that most of the family’s value “lay in Harriet and her daughters.”) Shortly thereafter, “Dred Scott” and “Harriet, of Color” sued for their freedom.

“Most historians have focused on Dred as a single actor,” writes VanderVelde, “as if he were the lawsuit’s only protagonist. But viewing the case solely as Dred’s misses the point of Harriet’s agency and participation.” Indeed, at one point the trial judge forgot to submit Harriet’s claim to the jury, since she was so thoroughly considered “just an appendage to her husband.” Yet Harriet “fit the profile of freedom litigants better than did Dred, since most freedom suits filed in St. Louis courts were initiated by women,” and “Harriet also had more reasons to believe herself free than Dred did,” considering her longtime residence in Pennsylvania and then the northern Indian territories.

Filing a lawsuit like this was dangerous, and Harriet’s family lost their home, which led to them spending time in jail. Nonetheless, “[b]y dint of considerable legal precedent, the Scotts should have won their freedom, and relatively easily.” And they did. But Irene appealed, and the Scotts’ lawyers agreed that only Dred’s case would be advanced, “for the sake of expediency.” Yet this was no mere technicality. While Harriet’s was “the messier case” — since it was less clear who owned her, and a black person had to establish freedom against a particular individual — her claim to freedom was also stronger. And, after two years, amid mounting national animus toward blacks, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision granting Harriet and Dred their freedom, deciding it would no longer honor the Missouri Compromise. “The opinion rendered its ruling using only a single set of facts — Dred’s,” which allowed the justices to rule on the basis of only the factually weaker claim.

The rest, as they say, is history. Five years later, the Supreme Court affirmed the Scotts’ slave status, holding all blacks effectively subhuman as a matter of law. Through a series of complicated legal technicalities, ownership of the Scotts passed to an anti-slavery Massachusetts congressman, who, embarrassed, quickly set them free.

Harriet may not resemble what we conventionally think of as an abolitionist — she did not edit a newspaper or write essays, as Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing did, nor did she serve as a lookout or assistant to antislavery shock troops, as the Brown daughters did. She did not even house escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, as Anna Murray did. Yet she was an abolitionist nonetheless — an activist for freedom. “She sustained her spirit when many others gave up,” writes VanderVelde. “Her persistence in her quest for independent — the act of filing and maintaining such a momentous lawsuit, particularly given the conditions of her life — reveals heroism.”


Historians are bound by what survives in the archive. In shaping their own legacies, the literate are thus at a huge advantage. One can only imagine the stories that have died with those who could not, or were not allowed to, record anything of their own lives.

Sometimes, through extraordinary detective work and no small amount of luck, historians like Blight, Laughlin-Schultz, and VanderVelde can tell a story that defies the limitations imposed by racism, sexism, and capitalism. Such an occurrence is valuable. But it is rare.


Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier
by Lea VanderVelde
Oxford University Press
Published February 17, 2009

The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism
by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz
Cornell University Press
Published November 21, 2013

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight
Simon & Schuster
Published October 16, 2018

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