Women Sculptors and the Antislavery and Woman’s Rights Movements: Teaching strategy

Women Sculptors and the Antislavery and Woman's Rights Movements

Based on document project "How Did Women Sculptors Contribute to and Draw Support from the Antislavery and Woman's Rights Movement, 1855-1875?" by Laura R. Prieto. 2008.

Link to document project.

Jessica Derleth
Binghamton University


As social, moral, and political reform movements grew in the mid-nineteenth century, a small cadre of female artists pushed professional and artistic boundaries by using their work for social commentary. In particular, through the media of poetry and sculpture, artists such as Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, and Edmonia Lewis garnered attention not only for their skill but also their appraisal of gender and race politics. While these artists often embraced neoclassicalism that venerated ancient Greek and Roman art, they also believed that art ought to have a moral message; placing this understanding of the high purpose of art within the context of abolitionist and feminist reform requires a critical evaluation of the purpose and impact of their work.


  • Gain a greater understanding of reform movements such as abolition and women's rights.
  • Consider the complex racial and gender politics of the era.
  • Examine sculpture as a historical source and consider the role it played in social movements and political debates.

Lesson Ideas

1. Documents: 9, 19, 21, 27. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison argued that those fighting against slavery ought to focus on moral suasion—convincing others that slavery was a sin—rather than political strategies. How did Hosmer, Whitney, and Lewis embrace or reject Garrison's approach in their work?

2. See Documents 9, 27, and 31. Also consider documents 19 and 21, which depict slavery without including chains. How does the image of the bound person unite or divide these images? What role do shackles and chains play? Do the artists use images of enslavement in the same way? Do they advocate antislavery ideas? Women's rights? Or both? Is there ever a tension between antislavery and women's rights?

3. Document 1 is an emblem created by The English Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade in 1787. Briefly consider the lives, works, and politics of the three female artists. If you did not know where document 1 came from would you say that Edmonia Lewis could have created it? Why or why not?

4. Whitney grew up in a progressive political environment and supported abolition before working as a sculptor. Use her poem "The Fugitive Slave Bill" (document 13A) to analyze her later sculptures (documents 17, 19, 20). What is the relationship between her poem and her sculptures? Does the poem help you better understand the sculptures, or vice versa?

5. In document 17 radical abolitionist and minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson urges Whitney to "finally accept the African type of feature as your mode." Document 19 shows the final sculpture she created, partially in response to this advice. Consider also document 21. What is the relationship between slavery and race in these sculptures created by Whitney? What do you think was the author's message about race?


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