My optimism about finding politically active female abolitionists like Mary Davis in the Old Northwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, was not motivated by the secondary literature. Historians of Western antislavery mostly assumed that the reigning third-party abolitionism in this region precluded women’s participation. I read books, articles, dissertations, and theses on the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Republican Party in the Old Northwest, but my efforts were not rewarded with information about women’s participation. Moreover, the burgeoning literature on women abolitionists, rich with gender analysis and nuanced cultural insights, tended to focus on Eastern Garrisonian women, who rejected third-party politics. Western women abolitionists in general have either been subsumed in larger studies of Eastern female antislavery societies or ignored altogether.
My research for this paper, therefore, began at a foundational level. I wanted to know the extent and nature of women abolitionists’ participation in third parties. But I also wanted to explore how these women understood their political activity; did they see it as challenging the male-dominated system or simply as an expression of their “moral” concern with slavery? I also hoped to discern male abolitionists’ attitude toward women’s political activism. I scrutinized a variety of mostly Liberty-party newspapers, and supplemented this with material excavated from various Midwestern archives. While my research failed to turn up a plethora of politically outspoken and active women like Mary Davis, and almost no African American women, I did find that many Western women abolitionists were politically knowledgeable and interested in third-party politics. This interest was, in part, connected to the “the feminizing of the public sphere” described by Mary Ryan. Women entered politics through pageantry and symbolism, but impacted this masculine sphere nonetheless. I also discovered that the unique regional character of the Old Northwest, with its blend of Southern, Northern, and immigrant populations and its frontier roots, impacted the magnitude of women’s political participation. The debate over discriminatory legislation aimed at African Americans, known as Black Laws, for example, forced abolitionists in the West to confront political processes directly and vociferously, thus enticing women into the public arena in new ways. The West also seemed to develop more mixed-sex antislavery societies, often informally linked to the Liberty party, that resulted in increased female participation in politics. Finally, and most important, less conflict between political and non-political abolitionists allowed women to participate in third parties without directly challenging the political status quo or publicly associating themselves with women’s rights.