Quaker, abolitionist, and feminist Angelina Grimké said: “I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters, of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are gravely mistaken.” Grimké directly addresses women during that time, asserting that despite their lack of political power and social standing, they can still nevertheless contribute to the abolitionist cause by privately influencing men’s morals.
This early feminist idea of women and dominance in the domestic sphere of the household is particularly demonstrated in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she defends Grimké’s stance with multiple morally influential women characters in order to empower and encourage women during her time to participate in social change for the oppression of not only blacks, but eventually also themselves.
The women of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though unique enough to be set apart, all ultimately follow a basic characterization of a morally righteous mother or wife. They have all, in some way, attempted to appeal to the morals of and convince their husbands of the evils of slavery to ensure the safety of the main slave characters. For instance, in the very first chapters of the novel, when Mr. Shelby reveals to Mrs. Shelby that he has sold Tom and Harry, the latter is appalled and passionately declares “This is God’s curse on slavery!—a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!—a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours”.
Here, Mrs. Shelby is portrayed as the voice of morality and presents a much more virtuous and pious case against slavery compared to her husband, who seems to simply tolerate and perpetuate it despite his complaints. Thus, while Mr. Shelby’s circumstances depict him as another slave owner compliant with the institution, Mrs. Shelby’s contrasting attitude introduces an almost radical perspective to the stereotypic timid, domestic housewife at the time. This relationship is also evident between Senator Bird and his wife. Mrs. Bird chastises her husband for voting in favor of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Stowe’s characterizations of Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird allow her to appeal to and encourage her female readers to identify with these wronged women, realize the evils of slavery, and be empowered to take action. Stowe’s message is prevalent not only in this instance, but throughout the novel. In fact, the Shelbys reappear later in the novel.
- History.com: Abolitionist Movement
- CivilWar.org: Women and the Abolition Movement
- People Magazine: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- College Board: AP United States History Exam Practice – Essay Prompt
- Britannica: Feminism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Feminist Perspectives on Liberalism