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Author: Julie L. Holcomb
Title: Beth Salerno's Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2006
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Source: Beth Salerno's Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America
Julie L. Holcomb


vol. 9, no. 1, April 2006
Article Type: Book Review
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0009.107

Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America

Julie Holcomb

JAHC Column Editor
Pearce Collections at Navarro College

Salerno, Beth. Sister Societies: Women’s Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. x + 233 pp. 0-87580-338-5. $38.00.

Building on the work of Julie Roy Jeffrey, Nancy Hewitt, and Debra Gold Hansen among others, Beth Salerno brings new insights to the increasingly familiar story of women’s antislavery activism. Salerno employs a comprehensive chronological framework by tracing women’s work from its earliest beginnings in the 1820s through the disbanding of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1870. In her analysis, Salerno demonstrates the importance of women’s organizational activity to the broader antislavery movement. As a result Salerno successfully fills the gaps between Hewitt and Hansen’s regional studies of women’s antislavery organization while maintaining a broad grassroots focus first used by Jeffrey in The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism.

In Sister Societies, Salerno argues that female networks provided structure and the strength of numbers to women’s antislavery activism. Incorporating free produce organizations, female self-help societies, benevolent groups, and literary societies, Salerno successfully illustrates how women’s antislavery groups used these early precedents in their later associational activity. In fact women’s antislavery networks often preceded male networks and often encouraged the development of male associational activity. Salerno credits women’s activism in the 1820s with pushing William Lloyd Garrison toward a more activist antislavery stance. These early women’s organizations along with publications like Benjamin Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation, the evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening, and the economic changes of the period converged in 1832 as women formed their first female antislavery societies.

Salerno traces the familiar history of women’s antislavery organizational development during the 1830s as well as its demise in the debates over the “woman question” in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Little of Salerno’s analysis of this period is new. Rather, the strength of Salerno’s analysis is in her examination of women’s organizational activity in the 1840s and 1850s after divisions in the American antislavery movement contributed to the demise of many female antislavery societies. Salerno demonstrates successfully that the life and death of women’s antislavery organizations revolved around the question of women’s appropriate role. In the wake of the “woman question,” organizations disbanded or re-organized many along more conservative lines. Recent work on women’s antislavery organizations has called for a reconsideration of women’s work in the antislavery fairs and sewing circles of the 1840s and 1850s. Salerno builds on this work by demonstrating that while many of the women’s organizations of the 1840s and 1850s may have held a more conservative view of women’s rights, the organizations were as vital to the overall movement as the earlier associations. Indeed the networks women formed in the 1840s and 1850s to support antislavery fairs often crossed gender and geographic barriers and at times even class and racial boundaries and often sustained the movement when more broadly organized groups disbanded.

Through her study of more than two hundred female antislavery societies, Salerno shows how ties of kinship and friendship brought women together in the fight against slavery. While some organizations failed to thrive either because of ideological differences or economic problems, the women who joined these organizations expanded the definitions of women’s proper role and political action. In her study of women’s antislavery organizations, Salerno has enlarged our understanding of the history of women’s activism at a critical moment in American history.