Maria Stewart spoke first


Maria Stewart spoke first


Did you know that the first American woman to speak for equal rights in public, in front of men, was a Black woman? And that she made sure her speeches were published and circulated? When? More than 15 years before Seneca Falls. Who? 👇🧵

Maria W. Stewart gave her first public lecture in Boston in 1832. She explained her unexpected female presence, but didn’t apologize for it. She quoted Hebrew Bible and New Testament fluently, especially prophetic texts like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. 

She addressed the shared fate of enslaved people and free People of Color like her, and advocated a multi-pronged strategy for resisting white supremacy: sue for your rights, boycott white businesses, and do not discount the threat of violence.

In the 1830s, many abolitionists thought “colonization” -exile to Africa- would follow slavery. Maria rejected that: “Now that we have enriched their soil and filled their coffers...they would drive us to a strange land. But before I go, the bayonet shall pierce me through.”

Her speeches were published because she marched into the small office of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison & Isaac Knapp’s fledgling newspaper, and told them they should publish her writing. So many later women’s words were lost, but Maria Stewart made sure hers were not.

We don’t have an image of young Maria Stewart, but she was described as very beautiful. She was orphaned at 5 and indentured until 15 in the home of a minister. She found brief happiness in her marriage to James Stewart, but he died three years after their wedding.

Her husband left her what should have been a comfortable inheritance but it was denied her. The injustices, though typical for the widow of a Black man with property, affronted even the Massachusetts court. “For several years,” Stewart wrote, “my heart was in continual sorrow.”

What made her so bold, so unusual? No woman had sought to speak in public, on politics. Religious conviction was the source of her confidence. She underwent a religious conversion after her husband’s died - and God compelled her to deliver a divinely inspired message of justice.

"Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color?" asked a voice from within, "Shall it be a woman?" And my heart made this reply--"If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!"

She persevered for two years before relentless criticism pushed her to give up public speaking. She remained an activist, a teacher, and a devout Christian. She also worked constantly, ultimately as the matron - head of housekeeping - at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington.

In 1879 she came into a bit of money - her late husband’s pension from the War of 1812. She used it to underwrite publication of a second edition of her speeches, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.

#suffrage100 #vanguard #BlackSuffragists 

Adding her contemporary editor, Marilyn Richardson, @MarilynElaine - read Maria's writing and Richardson's wonderful essays for context, interpretation, and biographical detail.


Daily Suffragist


Original thread


Sept 21, 2020


Maria Stewart thread.png


Daily Suffragist, “Maria Stewart spoke first,” Daily Suffragist, accessed December 4, 2023,

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