Week 4: The Politics of Motherhood


Poem, The Negro Woman's Appeal
Transatlantic women’s antislavery movements recreated the image of the kneeling enslaved woman in print and women’s material culture; here, the kneeling woman is backed by palm trees to introduce a poem appealing to shared feelings of mothers (source: Richard Barrett, Printer, Mark Lane [London, 185?] Library of Congress). (Mouse over to zoom)


“I believe it will be found that men, in the exercise of their usurped dominion over women, have almost invariably done one of two things. They have either made slaves of the creatures whom God designed to be their companions and their coadjutors in every moral and intellectual improvement, or they have dressed them like dolls, and used them as toys to amuse their hours of recreation.”
– Women’s rights and antislavery advocate Angelina Grimke, Letter V, “Condition in Asia and Africa,”
Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman of 1838


“The work of the mothers of our race is grandly constructive. It is for us to build above the wreck and ruin of the past more stately temples of thought and action. Some races have been overthrown, dashed in pieces, and destroyed; but to-day the world is needing, fainting, for something better than the results of arrogance, aggressiveness, and indomitable power.”
– Abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “Enlightened Motherhood,” November 15, 1892


When women mobilized politically throughout the 19th century, they searched for unifying experiences upon which to build political power. For many, motherhood was a source of authority or of suffering linked to gender. At the same time, idealized motherhood was a central political trope of U.S. expansion across the continent and around the world.


Secondary Readings

Miles, Tiya. “‘Circular Reasoning’: Recentering Cherokee Women in the Antiremoval Campaigns.” America Quarterly 61, no. 2 (June 2009): 221–43.

Miles argues that Cherokee women organized to oppose the U.S. government’s attempts to move them from their homelands by drawing on the political tradition of influential “war women” and the status of mothers as stewards of the land and creators of new life. Their meetings and petitions drew on language and history, as well as political self-assertion, which Anglo-American women subsequently employed in what they saw as benevolent activism on behalf of Indigenous women. Cherokee motherhood politics therefore provided models and scripts for white women’s political activism.

Anderson, Bonnie. Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

This intellectual history of transatlantic women’s rights movements focuses on the connections—in correspondence, personal visits, and publications—among a group of women’s rights advocates from the United States and Europe. Mid-19th-century female activists used the ubiquitous image of white women as mothers to argue that women deserved equal political rights as a specifically female part of the universal family.

Shire, Laurel Clark. The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Shire argues that white domesticity was a political tool in early 19th-century U.S. national expansion through settler colonialism in Florida. She demonstrates that white women’s motherhood enabled white settlers to claim land from Indigenous people and enslave people of African descent. Settlers used the idea of white femininity as innocent or defenseless to claim innocent victimhood whenever Indigenous or enslaved people fought to claim their rights or land. Settlers also employed that idea of victimhood to gain military support from the U.S. government. The author makes the key point that as a place of overlapping colonial and Indigenous power structures, Florida opened possibilities for white women to draw upon different traditions of rights, including dynastic rights to property and individualistic rights to divorce.

Greenberg, Amy. Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Greenberg connects U.S. continental expansion to overseas empire building, pointing out that ideas of appropriate manhood were at the heart of ideologies of U.S. superiority that justified imperial ventures across the continent and in Central and South America and the Pacific during the 19th century. The book presents a “martial manhood” at odds with the restrained masculinity of the “evangelical empire” that sought to spread white Protestant domesticity, with the mother as the moral center of the home. Chapter 6 focuses on the writings of female observers, most of whom were less convinced than their male counterparts that Manifest Destiny compelled the United States into South America.

Nicholas, Kathryn A. “Reexamining Women’s Nineteenth-Century Political Agency: School Suffrage and Office-Holding.” The Journal of Policy History 30, no. 3 (2018): 452–89.

Nicholas uses state and territorial legislative records to map the development of school suffrage, which allowed women to vote on educational issues and serve in elected educational offices. The laws permitting these voting rights frequently predated the establishment of women’s suffrage organizations in western territories and states. School suffrage could encompass voting on school-related taxes, textbooks, and school discipline. Provisions varied by location, in some cases permitting specific classes of women (such as widows with children) to vote on school matters. Some women hoped school suffrage would lead to women’s suffrage, while others sought out maternal reforms for children.

Primary Sources

In response to U.S. policies expelling Cherokees from their homelands to the U.S. West, a group of powerful women petitioned the male-led Cherokee National Council to refuse to sign the removal treaty. The women drew on their authority as mothers, the preservers and cultivators of Cherokee land and the sustainers of the Cherokee population.

The Sojourner Truth Project places two different versions of Truth’s famous speech side by side to allow readers to evaluate how she deployed the language of rights, power, and motherhood—and how her words were reinterpreted by white feminist Frances Dana Gage years after the original speech.

The first white women’s club in Washington state was created by six female missionaries who believed they needed support in “the right performance of our Maternal duties” in the “heathen land” occupied by the Indigenous people they hoped to convert in what was called “Oregon Territory.” The women created a constitution, which provided for an annually elected president and an appointed secretary. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were founding mothers.

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