In September 1832, Maria W. Stewart delivered at Boston’s Franklin Hall one of the first public lectures ever given by an American woman. Her speech, directed to the women of the African American Female Intelligence Society, called on black women to acquire equality through education. The speech appears below.
Oh, do not say you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try. Perhaps you will say that you cannot send them to high schools and academies. You can have them taught in the first rudiments of useful knowledge, and then you can have private teachers, who will instruct them in the higher branches.
It is of no use for us to sit with our hands folded, hanging our heads like bulrushes lamenting our wretched condition; but let us make a mighty effort and arise. Let every female heart become united, and let us raise a fund ourselves; and at the end of one year and a half, we might be able to lay the cornerstone for the building of a high school, that the higher branches of knowledge might be enjoyed by us.
Do you ask, what can we do? Unite and build a store of your own. Fill one side with dry goods and the other with groceries. Do you ask, where is the money? We have spent more than enough for nonsense to do what building we should want. We have never had an opportunity of displaying our talents; therefore the world thinks we know nothing…
Few white persons of either sex are willing to spend their lives and bury their talents in performing mean, servile labor. And such is the horrible idea I entertain respecting a life of servitude, that if I conceived of there being no possibility of my rising above the condition of servant, I would gladly hail death as a welcome messenger. Oh, horrible idea, indeed to possess noble souls, aspiring after high and honorable acquirements, ¬yet confined by the chains of ignorance and poverty to lives of continual drudgery and toil.
Neither do I know of any who have enriched themselves by spending their lives as house domestics, washing windows, shaking carpets, brushing boots or tending upon gentlemen's tables. I have learned, by bitter experience, that continued hard labor deadens the energies of the soul, and benumbs the faculties of the mind; the ideas become confined, the mind barren. Continual hard labor irritates our tempers and sours our dispositions; the whole system becomes worn out with toil and fatigue, and we care but little whether we live or die.
I do not consider it derogatory, my friends, for persons to live out to service. There are many whose inclination leads them to aspire no higher: and I would highly commend the performance of almost anything for an honest livelihood; but where constitutional strength is wanting, labor of this kind in its mildest form is painful: and, doubtless, many are the prayers that have ascended to heaven from Afric's daughters for strength to perform their work. Most of our color have dragged out a miserable existence of servitude from the cradle to the grave. And what literary acquirements can be made, or useful knowledge derived, from either maps, books, or charts, by those who continually drudge from Monday morning until Sunday noon? . . .
O ye fairer sisters, whose hands are never soiled, whose nerves and muscles are never strained, go learn by experience! Had we had the opportunity that you have had to improve our moral and mental faculties, what would have hindered our intellects from being as bright, and our manners from being as dignified, as yours? Had it been our lot to have been nursed in the lap of affluence and ease, and to have basked beneath the smiles and sunshine of fortune, should we not have naturally supposed that we were never made to toil? And why are not our forms as delicate and our constitutions as slender as yours? Is not the workmanship as curious and complete? . . .
Look at our young men smart, active, and energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire; if they look forward, alas! What are their prospects? They can be nothing but the humblest laborer, on account of their dark complexion; hence many of them lose their ambition and become worthless.
Look at our middle aged men, clad in their rusty plaids and coats. In winter, every cent they earn goes to buy their wood and pay their rent; their poor wives also toil beyond their strength, to help support their families.
Look at our aged sires, whose heads are whitened with the frosts of seventy winters, with their old wood saws on their backs. Alas, what keeps us so? Prejudice, ignorance and poverty.
But ah! Did the pilgrims, when they first landed on these shores, quietly compose themselves, and say, "The Britons have all the money and all the power, and we must continue their servants forever?" Did they sigh and say, "Our lot is hard; the Indians own the soil, and we cannot cultivate it?" No, they first made powerful efforts to raise themselves. And, my brethren have you made a powerful effort? Have you prayed the legislature for mercy's sake to grant you all the rights and privileges of free citizens, that your daughters may rise to that degree of respectability which true merit deserves, and your sons above the servile situations which most of them fill?
William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears:
Great Speeches in History
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1992).