Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

Speak Freely: Remembering Maria W. Stewart


I have often heard the sentiment that times of historical, cultural, and social recognition, such as African American History Month, are unnecessary. While I wish we lived in a world where that was actually true, as a scholar and a teacher I know that such events force us to remember those forgotten because of their race, gender, sexuality, or any other identity marker that placed them out of national historical memory. In an effort to spark this memory in the last days of African American History Month, I’d like to discuss a woman who wrote a little later than the normal designation of the long eighteenth-century would allow, but one who achieved so much that is forgotten today.

Maria W. Stewart (Miller) was born a free African American in Boston in 1803. She was orphaned as a young child, leaving her a domestic servant in a minister’s home where she was not educated. As a young adult, she was taught at a Sabbath School, and educational rights and access soon became a favorite cause for her. She was married, widowed, and robbed of her husband’s war pension all in her mid-twenties. Inspired by the activism and death of abolitionist David Walker, she began a writing and speaking career that, however short-lived, was both controversial and influential.

Stewart wrote two small pamphlets: Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation which We Build (1831) and The Meditation from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart (1832). During her time as a public lecturer, which was only from 1832 to 1833, Stewart delivered four speeches. All of these speeches were later published by another, far more-often recognized political and literary figure, William Lloyd Garrison, in his famed abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. She was the first American woman to speak publicly in front of a mixed crowd, as her audiences consisted of both men and women, white and black members. This achievement has often historically been attributed to the white, middle-class Grimké sisters; fellow abolitionists who began lecturing years after Stewart.

In her pamphlets and her speeches, Stewart artfully wove together the issues of religion, abolitionism, educational access, and women’s rights. Her social position, and this subject matter, made her a lightning rod for criticism from both the pro- and anti-slavery movements. Facing a mountain of public backlash for the audacity of speaking on such subjects to mixed crowds, she left behind public speaking in 1833 to become a teacher – a career which aligned practice with her political and social concerns. Up to her death in 1879, Stewart lived a life exemplifying the belief that education was the most effective tool for social and political liberation. In her speech, “Lecture Delivered at the Franklin Hall” (1832), she asserted “Yet, after all, me thinks there are no chains so galling as the chains of ignorance – no fetters so binding as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge” (110 Available Means). As an educator, I can appreciate such a sentiment.

Also as an educator, I can lament the fact that such a trailblazer has been largely forgotten. In the many (many) general literary and rhetorical anthologies I own, she appears in only one (the ever-useful and enlightening Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s), co-edited by a favorite educator from my own past, Kate Ronald). She did appear in the 2004 PBS series Slavery and the Making of America, which garnered a small amount of recognition for a woman who broke down racial and gender barriers in nineteenth-century America.

Maria W. Stewart as represented in the PBS series.

Maria W. Stewart as represented in the PBS series.

The lack of discussion surrounding Stewart is, sadly, not an isolated incident. It is really just one of many examples why forcing ourselves to remember those who have been forgotten is continually important on an intellectual, social, and political level. Thinking of the voices and faces erased from historical memory because of their social position or identity is something that staggers me, and an issue that, even in blog form, deserves a little more attention.

Further Reading about Maria W. Stewart:

1) Cooper, Valerie C. Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2011.

2) Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds. Eds. Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway. Burlington, VT/Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 2007. (This is a wonderful collection all around and features a good number of essays specifically about Stewart)

3) Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s). Eds. Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2001.

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This entry was posted on February 27, 2014 by .

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