Woman's Rights Tract no. 1: Speech by Wendell Phillips
An 1851 speech by abolitionist Wendell Phillips at the 2nd Woman's Rights Convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), perhaps the leading orator of the US abolitionist movement, was simultaneously a leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. He was deeply involved in organizing the first Woman’s Rights Convention in 1850 and for years afterwards participated in similar conventions. At the 1850 convention, Phillips was responsible for framing the first political call in the United States for legal recognition of community property that placed marriage partners on an equal footing. In his address to the convention he specifically linked achieving the rights of enslaved black women and white women. For further discussion, see Reva B. Siegel, “Home as Work: The First Woman’s Rights Claims concerning Wives’ Household Labor, 1850-1880”, Yale Law Journal 103 (March 1994) 5:1073-1217, at 1113ff.
Phillips begins his speech with an initial resolution that “we do not seek to protect woman, but rather to place her in a position to protect herself.” (1) The first topic of concern is recognition of a right of autonomous subjectivity, a common point of linkage between the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Civil equality, Phillips argues, derives from equal standing before the law and a corresponding responsibility for the enactment of these laws. Quoting the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, Phillips charges the public to recognize that at present “’life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ are the ‘inalienable rights’ of half only of the human species; and that, by ‘the governed,’…is meant that half of mankind only who, in relation to the other, have hitherto assumed the character of governors.” (2) This project of realizing the full meaning of the opening promise of the Declaration of Independence, a repeated theme of US abolitionist rhetoric, represents another important conceptual and political link between demands for emancipation of slaves and women. The first notable adoption of this rhetorical theme in the women’s movement occurred in 1848 with the Declaration of Sentiments issued at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Phillips thus borrows it here from two directions.
In his following remarks, Phillips proposes that these resolutions and the movement they represent a momentous point in human history because “Nowhere else, under any circumstances, has a demand ever yet been made for the liberties of one whole half of our race.” (3) Refusal of these liberties has led, he states, to suppression of the intellectual development of women as a class and “We deny to any portion of the species the right to prescribe to any other portion its sphere, its education, or its rights.” (6) Phillips embraces an expansionist view of human rights, one that encompasses blacks, women and all civilly disempowered groups. He argues that “No single principle of liberty has been enunciated…that does not cover the claim of woman.” (8) The political path Phillips advocates lies in the direction of activism: argument has little use of itself, he says, rather practical work, beginning with education, asserts human rights. (12-14) Education should be directed towards enabling women to participate fully in the world, not remain in the domestic realm, and civic debates provide “the education of the American citizen”. (16) He points to women as potential moral agents in the political domain, citing Elizabeth Heyrick’s campaign in Great Britain to change gradualist abolition policies into immediatist emancipation. (16-17) Many of Phillips’ ensuing remarks address the social conditions of women as class and labor issues, and he views education and civic participation as ultimately producing solutions to the oppression of women.
The appendix, containing the platform of the first Woman’s Rights Convention, held the year previous in Worcester, Massachusetts, lists 89 signatories, including both long-active leading abolitionists and new leaders of the emergent women’s movement.
Source: Woman’s Rights Tracts (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1854) 1-24.