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Honoring Maria W. Stewart

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) was a freeborn Black woman credited as the first American woman to speak publicly on a political issue. Here are some sources of information about the life and work of Maria W. Stewart, including the texts of her speeches:

BlackPast.org is an "online reference center" that includes, among many types of materials, an encyclopedia with over 4,000 entries. Four posts are devoted to Stewart and her speeches. Here is BlackPast’s biography of Maria W. Stewart:

Stewart gave her first public speech in September 1832, advocating for the education of African American women, in Boston’s Franklin Hall. Later that month, she gave a second speech in the same location, in which she said that free Black women in the northern states were treated almost as slaves. In 1833, she gave yet another speech in Boston, this time at the African Masonic Hall. In this speech, she alternated between condemnation of the conditions of life for free northern Blacks and disappointment in the level of courage and leadership to be found among Black men at that time.

More information about Maria Stewart and her speeches is available at The Women’s Print History Project, a site which offers “a comprehensive bibliographical database of women’s contributions to print” in the eighteenth century.

Stewart’s life and work are honored in art and history. Stewart is one of the women represented by a place setting in Judy Chicago’s famous installation, The Dinner Party.  She was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001, in the category Reformers.

The United States National Park Service offers a brief biography of Maria W. Stewart as well as an overview of Black women who fought for suffrage.

About this Subcomiittee

The history of the League of Women Voters is rooted in the history of the struggle for women’s rights. You may well have learned as a high school student that the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and that those leading the movement were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But the work had begun years before, carried forward by a legion of women less celebrated by history, including many Black women.

After the Civil War, opposition among white women to Black men gaining the vote before they did split the movement. White and Black women built separate organizations to pursue women’s rights, although some continued to work together.

The League of Women Voters has recognized that “our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence.” It has pledged, and is now working, to build a more diverse and inclusive organization. For more information, read Facing Hard Truths About the League’s Origin.

Along with other work to advance Racial Justice, LWV Edina will be publishing a series of posts about the history of the fight for suffrage, with a particular focus on women leaders who were Black, Indigenous, or people of color. This first post celebrates the work of Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879), a freeborn Black woman credited as the first American woman to speak publicly on a political issue.