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Women/ Women's Groups


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Womaen had no vote and little influence on the political scene; despite this they played an important role in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British colonies. In the early years, women were not direct activists and not expected to take part in politics. Lady Margaret Middleton, for example, encouraged both Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, to take up the cause but she could only do so by cajoling through her influential friends. Despite this women found their own ways to campaign. They wrote imaginative literature on slavery, such as Hannah More's publications (see write up): in 1792 Mary Birkett Card wrote 'A Poem on the African Slave Trade' and as the campaign gained popularity, many women from all walks of life (including Georgina, the Duchess of Devonshire and Bristol milk-woman Ann Yearsley) published anti-slavery poems and stories. These were aimed at a wide readership. Former slaves such as Phyllis Wheatley wrote their own poems and accounts that were extremely influential. Women also bought and wore the anti-slavery cameos produced by Wedgwood to publicise their support. By 1788 the Abolition Society and its provincial committees had 206 female subscribers. They were mainly the wives and daughters of merchants, professionals, manufacturers and shopkeepers - drawn from Quaker, Unitarian and Evangelical families. As the main food purchasers, women played an important role in organising the sugar boycotts of the 1790s, after the bill for the abolition of the slave trade was defeated in parliament in 1791. Over 300,000 people joined a boycott of sugar grown on plantations using slave labour. The Abolition Act passed in 1807 abolished the slave trade but not slavery. A child born to an enslaved person was still a slave. It was abolitionist women who played an important role in keeping the anti-slavery movement alive in the 1820s. It was also the women's groups who pushed for total abolition in the British Empire, women like Elizabeth Heyrick (see write-up). Another important campaigner was Anne Knight. She was born into a Quaker family in Essex and took active roles in the Anti-Slavery campaigns. Knight formed the Chelmsford Female Anti-Slavery Society. She also toured France, giving lectures on the immorality of slavery. The women's societies were almost always bolder than those of the men. In the 1820's and 30's they once again stopped buying slave-grown sugar and also refused to use bakers or shopkeepers who sold it. This was the first time that the sugar boycott had been used this way, making it a much sharper political tool. They also played an active role in gaining public support for the campaign. In Birmingham women's groups visited more than 80% of homes, persuading people to support the cause. They also paid for lecturers to give public speeches around the city. Encouraged by Heyrick, the Birmingham women declared that they would only give their annual £50 donation to the National Society when they gave up the word ‘gradual' in their title, others soon followed from the 70 odd women's groups that sprung up across the country.

17th Nov 2007 by Diane Earl


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