Women played a vital role in the campaign to abolish slavery, although they themselves lacked even the right to vote. Their campaign techniques were employed to great effect in the struggle for suffrage.
Abolishing the slave trade: 1787-1823
Although slavery was effectively illegal in England from 1772 and in Scotland from 1778, campaigns to abolish both the trade and the institution have continued ever since. Women participated in the campaign from its beginning and were gradually able to move from the private into the political arena as strategies changed.
Similar strategies were employed and developed during the 1866-1928 women’s suffrage campaign, with the same individuals and families active in both campaigns.
In the early years, women influenced the campaign to abolish slavery, but they were not direct activists. This accorded with the prevalent view of women as a moral not a political force. As the campaign gained popularity, many women – ranging from the Whig aristocrat, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, to the Bristol milk-woman Ann Yearsley – published anti-slavery poems and stories.
Yearsley’s patron, Hannah More, publicised the campaign with ‘Slavery, a Poem’ (1788), which dramatically depicted the predicament of an enslaved woman, ill-used and separated from her children. This theme was repeatedly emphasised by women campaigners.
More was a member of a group of evangelicals associated with the anti-slavery campaign. Her friend, Lady Margaret Middleton, is credited with encouraging both the group’s leaders, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, to take up the cause. Although, because she was a woman, Lady Middleton had no direct political power she was able to cajole her influential friends.
Ironically, it was against the necessity for women to exercise such wiles that Mary Wollstonecraft railed in ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), writing ‘When therefore I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense; for, indirectly they obtain too much power and are debased by the exertions to obtain illicit sway.’
Influenced by the anti-slavery debate, she repeatedly likened men’s domination of women to the planters’ domination of slaves: ‘Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalise them…only to sweeten the cup of men.’
This last reference was to sugar, grown on plantations that were dependent on the labour of enslaved people. Working- and middle-class families were encouraged by appeals to women to buy sugar produced in the East Indies using free labour. More than 300,000 people joined this boycott of sugar grown on plantations using slave labour.
Objects such as Wedgwood’s cameos featuring the image of a kneeling, chained, black slave were bought by women to be used in bracelets and hairpins to publicise their support for the cause.
As well as these indirect contributions, in 1788 the Abolition Society and its provincial committees had 206 female subscribers. They were mainly of the ‘middling sort’ – wives and daughters of merchants, professionals, manufacturers and shopkeepers – drawn from Quaker, Unitarian and Evangelical families.
But women were not officers of these committees and were generally not invited to sign the thousands of petitions organised by the Abolition Society.
Women continued to be involved in the popular campaign until its collapse in 1792. The radicalism it inspired was no longer acceptable as France was ravaged by revolution. A decade and a half later, when national interests coincided with those of the abolitionists, smart parliamentary tactics ensured the Abolition Act was passed in 1807.
Abolishing slavery in the British colonies: 1823-1838
After Britain ended its direct involvement in the slave trade, there was no immediate clamour to end slavery in its colonies. However, when Wilberforce and Clarkson formed the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823 to end slavery in Britain’s colonies, women once more took a direct part in the campaign, contributing to a change in strategy for the organisation.
In 1824, Elizabeth Heyrick, a Leicester Quaker, published ‘Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition’, which proposed the immediate emancipation of slaves in the British colonies rather than the gradual abolition suggested by the Anti-Slavery Society. Women’s societies took up the call and in 1830, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to the change.
The first women-only society was formed in Birmingham in 1825. Others followed, representing the campaign’s major organisational development. There was opposition, however, to women’s growing public participation in these societies.
Wilberforce commented: ‘I fear its tendency would be to mix them in all the multiform warfare of political life.’ His fear was well-grounded. A slight cultural change now permitted women to sign petitions and so make their views known to parliament.
In 1833 anti-slavery petitions bore the signatures of 298,785 women, nearly a quarter of the total presented that year. Campaigners built on previous experience. The women of the Birmingham society adopted an original Wedgwood cameo image as their logo. It featured a kneeling female slave and was captioned ‘Am I not a Woman and a Sister’. Many groups now reject these passive, supplicant images produced by Wedgwood.
Women were still keen to boycott sugar produced on plantations using slave labour and, now they were organised, they were more able to promote local campaigns.
Many women were also involved with Chartists in the campaign for parliamentary reform and to repeal the Corn Laws. The resulting synergy strengthened each campaign, and created the cultural climate that allowed the reformed parliament to pass the act to end slavery in the British colonies in 1833.
The act became law in 1834 and imposed a period of ‘apprenticeship’ on slaves that finished in 1838. A national women’s petition was organised on behalf of the apprentices and addressed to Queen Victoria. The petition carried 700,000 signatures of women, which was described as ‘unprecedented in the annals of petitioning’.
Worldwide abolition: 1838-1870
When the ‘apprenticeship’ system ended, women joined the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) to fight slavery throughout the world. At this point they were still not accepted as officials of the national society, and they could not speak at mixed public meetings.
In 1840, the BFASS organised the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London and among the American delegates were several women who had made their interest in other causes, such as women’s rights, clear. Their subsequent exclusion from the convention led to the birth of the women’s suffrage campaign in the US.
By the 1850s, there were more women’s anti-slavery societies than men’s. Now that the aim was to exert pressure on other countries, the ability of men to influence parliament was not as important. Moral pressure, considered particularly the realm of women, was required.
That pressure was mainly exercised as support for the American abolitionist campaign, with the bazaar becoming the women’s way of raising money. Women made the goods, many of which were sent for sale at US societies’ bazaars, and were the main purchasers.
They also continued to write for the cause. Harriet Martineau, who witnessed slavery in the US, published ‘The Martyr Age of the United States’ (1838), which linked the status of women and slaves.
American women were invited by women’s societies to lecture in Britain. In 1853, the Glasgow society sponsored a tour by Harriet Beecher Stowe whose novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ had already sold 1.5 million copies in Britain. Several African-American women, including former slaves, also lectured.
The first African-American woman to address mass mixed audiences was Sarah Remond. Her lectures covered both anti-slavery and women’s rights. She was very popular and wrote: ‘I have been received here as the sister of the white woman.’
Women’s suffrage campaign: 1866-1903
Sarah Remond stayed at the home of the honorary secretary of the Ladies’ London Emancipation Society when she was in London. It was there that a women-only petition requesting the right of women to vote was prepared in 1866, with Remond’s among its 1,500 signatures.
The leading organisers of this petition were influenced by the involvement of their fellow abolitionist campaigners in the US women’s rights movement.
On their behalf, John Stuart Mill, philosopher, member of parliament and prominent abolitionist, moved an amendment to the 1866 Reform Bill calling for the inclusion of women on the same terms as men.
Although his bid was unsuccessful, women now started to set up societies to campaign for female enfranchisement. In London and the provinces, societies drew their activists from members of families who had been involved in the anti-slavery campaigns.
Until 1903, the suffrage campaigners employed and developed strategies used in the anti-slavery campaign: presenting petitions; holding meetings in private houses and public halls; raising money; and disseminating propaganda.
They were also increasingly able to move into the political arena. They set up national offices in Westminster and became adept at lobbying MPs.
Votes for women: 1903-1928
In 1903, the suffrage campaign entered a new phase with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by Emmeline Pankhurst.
Pankhurst was raised in a home that supported the emancipation of slaves and she had long been involved in the suffrage campaign. Despondent at the lack of success with respect to female emancipation, she felt campaigning methods had to change.
The WSPU advocated direct action. Its policy of ‘militancy’ escalated into arson and window-breaking, with its members enduring imprisonment and being force-fed. Such private acts alternated with spectacular public processions that helped to capture the popular imagination.
At the same time, suffrage societies still used methods developed during the anti-slavery campaign, producing propaganda articles for sale in their shops, organising bazaars and encouraging consumer boycotts to persuade shopkeepers to vote against the government.
Although the WSPU abandoned its suffrage campaign when war broke out in 1914, the older organisation, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which had always employed ‘constitutional’ methods, continued to lobby discreetly. In 1918, it managed to secure the vote for women over the age of 30.
After a further ten years of campaigning, in 1928 the vote was finally given to women on the same terms as men. Using experience initially gained in working to emancipate slaves, British women had eventually managed to emancipate themselves.
Find out more
African History: a Very Short Introduction by John Parker and Richard Rathbone (Oxford, 2007)
Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery, 1660-1810, edited by James G Basker (Yale University Press, 2002)
Votes for Women, 1860-1928, by Paula Bartley (Hodder Murray, 2nd ed 2003)
Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834, by Moira Ferguson (Routledge, 1992)
Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns 1780-1870, by Clare Midgley (Routledge, 1992)
Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800-1914, edited by Jane Rendall (Basil Blackwell, 1987)
About the author
Elizabeth Crawford is the author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide (Routledge, 1999) and The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey (Routledge, 2005).