Favorite Feminist Heroes, Part 1: Maria Miller Stewart

It is Women’s History Month, and so time for a miniseries here on the SIUE Women’s Studies Blog!  In previous years, we have had a miniseries on gender and media and of course our most successful miniseries: our 15-day series on Feminist Songs with individual entries written by feminists from all over North America about songs from all over the world. It began with Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”, included Peggy Seeger and Nancy Sinatra and Laura Mvula and Ani DiFranco and Beyonce and Palestinian rap group DAM, and ended with a SNL comedy song-sketch . Today, we kick off this year’s Women’s History Month miniseries on Favorite Feminist Heroes with an entry by SIUE Assistant Professor of Sociology Kiana Cox.

Kiana Cox

Dr. Kiana Cox

My favorite feminist is Maria Miller Stewart.  She is important to me for several reasons.  Often, feminism is viewed within various aspects of black nationalist ideology as a white invention; as something that is foreign and inconsistent with black freedom movements.  Likewise, popular stories of women’s political history in the U.S. often start with the “first wave” at the end of the 19th century.  However, Maria Miller Stewart was a free black woman living in Boston in the 1830s and the first American woman to give a public lecture on social justice issues to mixed race and mixed gender audiences.  This is important, given that elite black women of her day were consigned to literary or temperance societies if they wanted to do political work.  Stewart is important because she becomes a forerunner of the black feminist tradition that we usually locate in the 1960s and 70s.  In 1831, she published “Pure Principles of Morality” in the ladies section of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator”.  (Note that Stewart knew and worked with Garrison in the abolitionist movement a full decade before Frederick Douglass met him).  In “Pure Principles”, Miller speaks directly to black women of her day, imploring them about the need for them to be leaders. She stated, 

Maria Stewart Miller

Maria Miller Stewart

Possess the spirit of independence. The Americans do, and why should not you? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted…  

She continues a year later in her “Lecture at Franklin Hall”,

Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman? If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!” 

Stewart was so bold and searing in her critiques of black male leaders who she viewed as lazy that her growing unpopularity forced her to leave Boston in 1833. During her farewell speech at the African Masonic Temple, the mostly male crowd jeered and threw rotten tomatoes at her.  What could she have said to anger them so much? 

Had those men amongst us, who have had an opportunity, turned their attention as assiduously to mental and moral improvement as they have to gambling and dancing, I might have remained quietly at home, and they stood contending in my place.

Stewart basically claps back at these leaders, arguing that if you all were about your business you could be on the lecture circuit advocating for the race and I could have been at home!  She pulled no punches, she critiqued ineffective male leadership, and fiercely advocated for black women to recognize their ability to lead.  And she did it while many of the men whom we hail as great abolitionists were still toiling on plantations.  She did it a full 130 years before we typically introduce the topic of black feminism into our reading lists and courses on black politics. She is an unsung feminist hero.

Want to read more about Dr. Cox’s favorite feminist, Maria Miller Stewart?  Check out this page about Miller at the Connecticut Hall of Fame!

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Filed under Favorite Feminists, Gender, Race, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Women Leaders

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