“How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their mind and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles? Until union, knowledge, and love begin to flow among us. How long shall a mean set of men flatter us with their smiles, and enrich themselves with our hard earnings . . . Until we begin to promote and patronize each other . . . Do you ask the disposition I would have you [possess]? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted. Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason that you cannot attain them. Weary them with your importunities. You can but die, if you make the attempt; and we shall certainly die if you do not.” Maria W. Stewart, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, 1831, Boston, MA
By the time she was twenty-six years old, Maria W. Stewart (born Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, CT) was a newly Christian young, black widow whose faith stirred a new social consciousness in her, a black feminist consciousness. Although she was born free at a time that slavery was a fact of life for so many other women who shared her skin color, life was never easy for Maria because of the combined challenges of being black and female in antebellum (pre-Emancipation) America. In the pamphlet cited above, Maria explains that she was orphaned at the age of five and left to live with a clergyman’s family until she was fifteen years old. As an older teen and young woman, Maria supported herself by working as a domestic servant. She learned basic reading and gained religious education along the way. At twenty-three, Maria married her husband, James W. Stewart in Boston, where there was a significant population of free black people at the time. She adopted Stewart’s last name and middle initial as her own. Stewart was a mulatto (mixed race) man who was a veteran of the War of 1812 and was working as a businessman (the shipping business) in Boston. No doubt, Maria felt when she married her husband that life was on the up-and-up for her. For the first time in her life, Maria had a stable home and some sense of financial security. She also would have begun to learn about black liberationist thought as she and her husband were part of Boston’s abolitionist community. They became friendly with the well-known black liberationist David Walker; her husband was probably one of the shipping agents who helped Walker disperse his pamphlets to the enslaved folks living in the American South. But, that sense of security did not last long. Three years into her marriage, Maria’s husband died. To make matters worse, her spiritual mentor was also dead, and so was David Walker. For a nineteenth-century free woman to be without male protection or companionship was a terrible thing.
Before I continue, I want to pause to note an issue that American Religious Historian Catherine Brekus has aptly pointed out in her work, that is, the problem with assigning last names to the women of history. I call Maria by her first name because she belongs to herself and God. Her father, whose name was presumably Miller, influenced fewer than five years of her life, and her union with her husband was three short years due to his death. So, I call her Maria to honor that reality. I also want to note that there are no pictures of Maria. Her contemporaries like Jarena Lee whom I will discuss next week, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, all boast at least one picture or artistic rendering of themselves. Maria has left behind nothing but transcripts of five public speeches in Boston, the pamphlet I have cited above, and a brief memoir written after the Civil War. The sparse references to her public addresses in the newspapers of the time and the absence of pictures of her reveal that even during her lifetime, this remarkable woman was rendered invisible like so many other black and brown women have been throughout the history of this nation.
Maria is remarkable because the experiences of loss she had in her childhood and early twenties, coupled with the racism and sexism that threatened to completely dismantle her life instead motivated her activism. She writes in her pamphlet that she came to a full knowledge of Jesus in 1830 (the year after her husband’s death) and made a public profession of faith in 1831. After her conversion, she explains that she felt “a strong desire, with the help and assistance of God, to devote the remainder of [her] days to piety and virtue.” She proceeds to say that if “called upon, [she] would willingly sacrifice her life for the cause of God and [her] brethren.”
Maria made a series of five public speeches in Boston over the course of the next three years. She is the first American woman of any race that made public speeches before “promiscuous” audiences, that is, audiences of both men and women. Maria felt compelled to deploy her political beliefs in the public square because she believed that it was what her faith demanded of her. She thought if her black sisters would work hard, be righteous and pious, be good mothers, stand together, and demand their rights, nothing could hold them back. She was, at least in my lineage of black feminist thought in the United States, the first woman in American history to articulate a black feminist agenda.
What do I mean when I use the term black feminist? I appropriate the concept from the renowned black sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins. In her 2000 book, Black Feminist Thought, Collins explained that black feminism is an activist response to the subordination of black women within the intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation. A challenge of the term “feminist” in general and “black feminist” in particular is that it “encompasses diverse and often contradictory meanings.” So, Collins recommends that instead of arguing over definitions and naming practices (i.e. Black feminist, womanist, Afro-centric feminist, etc.) we ought to revisit why we need black feminist thought in the first place.
Maria W. Stewart embodied the black feminist through and through. As she was the subject of my Master’s Thesis, I have read just about everything written about her in addition to doing a close reading of her work. I have spent the past eight hundred words extolling her virtues (which were many), but Maria was also a messy and flawed actor. She often condemned black women for the ways they chose to parent although she was not a mother. She critiqued black women who lacked education although as a free black woman, she had access to resources that allowed her to improve her quality of life in ways that other black women (free or enslaved) often did not have. She condemned those who were not faithful to religion although our adherence to religion is determined by our educational opportunities and the inclinations of our souls. Her myopic vision at times points to the challenges of intersectionality, even within the black feminist community where elitism, classism, ageism, homophobia, and transphobia remain as roadblocks to our progress.
However, even with her blind spots, I treasure Maria and her contributions to American history because her political ideology was far ahead of its time. She understood that women are stronger together, that we must practice self-improvement, and that we have an obligation to defend our rights. Maria was a prophet, a visionary, a theologian, an intellectual, a political scientist, and an abolitionist. Maria was also an orphaned, widowed, black woman living in conditions that were built to destroy her. In addition to her embodiment of the black feminist, Maria also embodies the category I have called the free agent. She was a woman of great faith and strength who used her faith and intellect to creatively resist systems of oppression.
So my incredible Free Agents, how does Maria’s story move you? Will you use your voice to dismantle systems of oppression? Will you demand your rights? Will you support black women? We are weaving a beautiful tapestry of resistance, and I can’t wait to see what you do next. We will thrive. See you next Monday!