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Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America.

Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America, by Beth A. Salerno. DeKalb, Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. ix, 233 pp. $38.00 US (cloth).

In this short but powerful book, Beth A. Salemo documents the formation of two hundred and thirty female anti-slavery societies (FASS) in the United States between 1832-59, tracing the change in women's anti-slavery activities from moral suasion and petitioning to fairs, vigilance committees, and formal politics. Salemo focuses most of her attention on the decade of the 1830s, when American women engaged in a massive petition campaign and the organization' of FASS reached its height. As she follows these societies, Salerno stresses two themes: the importance of such associations to sustaining and encouraging female abolitionists, and their successful blending of morality and politics to justify women's public actions.

Salemo organizes her book around the traditional chronology of the American anti-slavery movement, from the rise of immediate abolitionism in the late 1820s to the splintering of the anti-slavery movement after 1840. Women joined FASS after decades of activism in benevolence, missionary, colonization, and free produce societies. The first FASS was formed in 1832 in Salem, Massachusetts, but FASS proliferated after the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) in Philadelphia in 1833. From the beginning, women faced questions about the propriety of their anti-slavery activities, such as petitioning, raising money, and lecturing. Women managed to overcome public opposition, as well as their own racial, religious, and ideological differences, in the three Anti-Slavery Conventions of American Women, held from 1837-39 in New York City and Philadelphia. Though the number of FASS continued to grow in this period, members faced not only criticism, but also mob violence. As Salerno notes, the experience of mob violence served to unite the women who remained in the anti-slavery movement after 1840.

The divisions in the national anti-slavery movement had a profound impact on FASS, as one of the issues on which abolitionists disagreed was the appropriate role of women. Women themselves differed on this issue, so many FASS also split, allying themselves with the more egalitarian AAS or the more conservative American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Though membership in FASS declined after 1840, Salerno shows that the division offered women a greater variety of ways to become involved in the anti-slavery movement. In addition to joining FASS, women of different political inclinations could form sewing societies, hold fundraising fairs, or offer their support to vigilance committees, organized to help fugitive slaves. As Salerno points out, women continued to disagree among themselves about the definition of anti-slavery work; for example, some saw aid to fugitives in Canada as a proper outlet for their donations, and others did not. By the 1850s, anti-slavery sentiment in the northern US had become part of the mainstream, and the need for female anti-slavery societies declined. Women turned their attention to protesting the Fugitive Slave Act and campaigning for anti-slavery third parties.

Salerno devotes a short section to women's abolitionist networks in the west, including such states as Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. She argues that western women's anti-slavery activities followed a similar pattern to those in the east, only in a slightly later period. The major difference Salerno finds is that western women devoted more energy to aiding fugitive slaves than eastern women, speculating that their proximity to slavery increased their interests. As she associates eastern women's support for fugitives to the influence of African American women, Salerno should have explored this aspect of western FASS. How racially integrated were western FASS? What were members' experiences with slavery? Salerno also downplays the connection between eastern and western FASS. Massachusetts abolitionist Abby Kelley (later Foster) inspired female abolitionists like Oberlin College student Sallie Holley and stimulated the formation of societies in Ohio and elsewhere during her extensive lecture tours. In addition, female abolitionists in Ohio held an early women's rights convention (Salem 1850), an event suggesting that these connections deserve further exploration. But Salerno's quick discussion of women abolitionists in the west also reflects her emphasis on the 1830s. She devotes three chapters to the 1830s, and only one chapter to the period 1841-55. Her conclusion traces women's abolitionist activity through the Civil War, but offers only a glimpse of the increased antagonism abolitionists faced at the end of the 1850s.

In part, Salerno's tendency toward brevity comes from the existence of a large body of historical literature on abolitionist women; as a result, she recounts history that is familiar to many of her readers. Salerno's significant contribution is to uncover the existence of so many FASS, which she lists in an appendix organized by both date and state. As she notes, even her careful research probably "underrepresents" the number of FASS in antebellum America (p. 163). Salerno also includes the organizations of African American and western women along with the more well-known Boston and Philadelphia FASS. In this comprehensive study, Salemo shows the common bonds between,.and obstacles faced by, female anti-slavery organizations.

Carol Faulkner

SUNY Geneseo
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Author:Faulkner, Carol
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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