Teaching Maria Stewart and Antebellum Black Public Spheres

I find that students intuitively understand the concept of the black public sphere as a “safe space” for the expression of various forms of identity and community. However, undergraduate understanding slows when we begin to discuss various kinds of black public spheres as historical formations. We discuss Eddie Glaude’s article on black public spheres because it introduces students to conceptual discussions about definitions of the public sphere coming from Jürgen Habermas and John Dewey, and because the article gives an historical introduction to the development of black publics at the turn of the nineteenth century.1 Although students knowingly engage in different kinds of contemporary publics, they have done little reflecting on the nature and variety of publicity. Moreover, when we examine the complexity of historical black publics, students do not easily grasp black publics as realms of safety but also of hierarchy, authority, and marginalization. I have recently thought that teaching Maria Stewart might provide a good example to help students think about the complexities of black public spheres in the antebellum north.

I briefly mentioned Stewart in my previous blog about black intellectuals, and as I study her writings I think she might be very useful in illustrating to undergraduates the complexities of black publics, black print culture, and the politics of gender and respectability in antebellum northern America. As a Boston resident, between 1831 and 1832, Maria gave several public addresses and had several pamphlets published in the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. In her speeches and her printed work, Stewart protested the colonization movement and slavery, argued for equal education, and expressed deeply held feminist and Christian perspectives.2 Stewart’s public assertiveness stood out as anomalous within black institutions that emerged from assumptions grounded in the idea of separate spheres. Her actions and the content of her speeches put into relief the complex dimensions of newly developing black discursive and institutional spaces.

The material and cultural barriers that limited acceptable public expression for black women grew in the nineteenth century. Moreover, although freedom allowed African American men limited access to legal forms of gendered division, like male property ownership, established social norms allowed black women no such gains. Among those few black male Bostonians who owned property at the turn of the nineteenth century, Suffolk county probate records do not include any women as owners of real estate except for those women who became the executrixes of their deceased husbands probated property. For example, Sylvia Hall, the wife of Prince Hall, the first leader of African American Freemasons, took over his estate; however, she, herself, did not leave any record of probate after her death.3

It was not just the law or men that proscribed women’s public behavior. Catherine Beecher, ardent advocate of female education and step-sister to the famous author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote derisively of the Scottish-born Frances Wright’s American lecture tour:

Who can look without disgust and abhorrence upon such an one as Fanny Wright, with her great masculine person, her loud voice, her untasteful attire, going about unprotected, and feeling no need of protection, mingling with men in stormy debate, and standing up with bare-faced impudence, to lecture to a public assembly…. I cannot conceive of any thing in the shape of woman, more intolerably offensive and disgusting.4

Other antebellum women, like Priscilla Mason and Deborah Sampson also spoke publicly and in contrivance to accepted norms.

African American woman did assert themselves publicly in print even if most were not as outspoken as Stewart. The Afric American Female Intelligence Society first announced itself in 1832 in The Liberator. The newspaper dedicated a section of its pages to a “Ladies Department,” that consisted of several articles and essays devoted not just to the problem of slavery but more specifically to the “fact that one million of the female sex are reduced, by the slave system, to the most deplorable condition – compelled to perform the most laborious and unseemly tasks – liable to be whipped to an unmerciful degree – exposed to all the violence of lust and passion – and treated with more indelicacy an cruelty than cattle.” 5 Publishers acknowledged that women helped form public print culture even if prescribed gender roles meant that women should comport themselves in ways deemed respectable and private.

Stewart pushed against masculine social boundaries while simultaneously expressing gendered understandings of public and private. In The Liberator, 8 October 1831, Stewart published, Religion And The Pure Principles Of Morality, The Sure Foundation On Which We Must Build. In addition to criticizing the colonizationist movement, she referenced the uplift of women in particular when she asked, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?”6 Later in the piece, she acknowledged herself as a public leader, a novel statement for a woman:

“I am sensible, my brethren and friends, that many of you have been deprived of advantages, kept in utter ignorance, and that your minds are now darkened; and if any one of you have attempted to aspire after high and noble enterprises, you have met with so much opposition that your souls have become discouraged. For this very cause, a few of us have ventured to expose our lives in your behalf, to plead your cause against the great; and it will be of no use, unless you feel for yourselves and then your little ones, and exhibit the spirits of men.”7

Stewart announced that she was one of those “who have ventured to expose our lives” in behalf of the masses of oppressed and enslaved African Americans, and also on behalf of black women. Yet, despite her determined address, Stewart also expressed an apologetics for her behavior. In The Liberator of 18 April 1832, Stewart published a recent speech, An Address Delivered Before the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of America, where she began by explaining that “The only motive that has prompted me to raise my voice in your behalf, my friends, is because I have discovered that religion is held in low repute among some of us; and purely to promote the cause of Christ, and the good of souls, in the hope that others more experienced, more able and talented than myself, might go forward and do likewise.” 8 This evangelical insistence on her conversion via God’s grace gave sacred sanction to Stewart’s transgression as a female public speaker. Stewart needed to justify herself because as she explained, “A lady of high distinction among us, observed to me that I might never expect your homage.”9 In her farewell address to Bostonians the following September, Stewart made public a criticism of her, “But some of have said, ‘do not talk so much about religion, the people do not wish to hear you. We know these things, tell us something we do not know.”10 The matter at heart was not that Stewart’s audience wanted her to be original, it was that her originality as a female speaker itself was a problem.

That Stewart could address audiences and have her work published illustrated the resolute action of blacks to insert themselves into public spaces of exhortation and print. Yet, these novel realms of black expression undermined Stewart even as they supported her. This was reflected in Stewart’s apologetics and her gendered tone. In an address given at Boston’s black Masonic Hall, Stewart never referred to women although she had done so explicitly in several other of her orations and published pieces. She recognized the proscriptive nature of black publics even as she labored to have her voice heard. I am hoping that having students explore the contexts for Stewart’s oral and printed addresses and contrasting her varied tones in different speeches will better illustrate for students the complexities and tensions that developed as part of the emergence of black publics.

  1. Eddie S. Glaude Jr “Of the Black Church and the Making of a Black Public,” eds. Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 338-366.
  2. Marilyn Richardson, ed. Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
  3. Suffolk County Registry of Probate, Massachusetts State Archives, vol.106, no. 394.
  4. Quoted in Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version),” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88, no. 4 (2002): 413-425.
  5. The Liberator, January 7, 1832.
  6. Richardson, Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Political Writer, 38.
  7. Maria Stewart, 41.
  8. Maria Stewart, 50.
  9. Maria Stewart, 54.
  10. Maria Stewart, 71.
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Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.

Comments on “Teaching Maria Stewart and Antebellum Black Public Spheres

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    Always delighted to see Stewart discussed with such insight and context.

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    thanks for this! i’ll be teaching MS next week, and this was inspiring. it always struck me that Stewart’s *message* seemed completely in line with that of the establish black “leadership” (as defined by clergymen, editors, and conventioneers). what was so radical was the medium: her female body.

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    Marilyn, thank you for your great work and for making Maria accessible.

    Patrick, I am constantly referring back to your work as I write about early Freemasonry; thank you. I am currently writing about Maria, not for what she tells us about evangelical black feminism, as others have usefully done, but for what she tells us about the emergence of black masculinity. I am struck by how she outlines masculine proscriptions by adjusting her tone and even her use of gender specific language to speak for but also against established black leadership.

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    I’d like to find out more? I’d love to find out more details.

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