Women and Public Speaking in 19th Century

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Were 19th-century women permitted to be public speakers? 

To answer the presented question I used my prior knowledge and skills from being a history major to approach the question. I used the Trinity College Library online resources and databases to search for sources that would be able to answer the question. I personally prefer JSTOR, so I searched through JSTOR.

A struggle and very important aspect of searching in JSTOR is the keywords that you use to search. In my first search I used the keywords “19th century”, “women”, and “public speaking”. I further narrowed my results by only searching for results in English that are articles, books, or reviews, and narrowed the discipline to American Studies, Education, Feminist and Women’s Studies, and History. My results were very scattered, in order to narrow it down and to get better results I modified my search and added the keyword “American” in addition to my previous keywords. My search results yielded this. After that, I read the titles of the works and picked out a few that I thought would help answer my question. The following titles are the articles that I thought would help me to answer the question: “Schooling Women in Citizenship”, “woman’s High Calling: The Teaching Profession in America, 1830-1860”,  “On the American Dream: Equality, Ambiguity, and the Persistence of Rage”, and “Allowed Irregularities: Women Preaches in the Early 19th-Century Maritimes”.

In the article “Schooling Women in Citizenship” by Susan Douglas Franzosa, I found a quote that read “In the schools, girls and boys learned to revere and support the laws that provided for women’s disenfranchisement and prohibition from speaking in public, owning property, holding political office, and voting”.[1]  On the other hand, in the article “Allowed Irregularities: Women Preachers in the Early 19th-Century Maritimes” by D.G. Bell it reads “This study uncovers no tradition of female preaching in Maritime Protestantism, but the findings suggest tat female preaching was not uncommon”.[2] A female preacher suggests that women were allowed to be public speakers and in front of audiences of both men and women. However, it has a religious dimension attached to it. It does not answer the question of whether a woman would be able to give a public speech on something other than religion. In addition, in the article “woman’s high calling: the teaching profession in America, 1830-1860” it says, “When the movement to improve the public schools took hold in the 1820s and ‘30s, leading reformers could point to women teachers and pupils in the female seminaries as qualified instructors for common schools”.[3]

In order to further my search, I went out on a limb and googled the presented question. Most of the times nothing but Wikipedia or other unreliable sources come up.  However, this time it presented me with an interesting source “Social Conditions Inspired Women to Speak Up – In Speaking Up Women Changed History”, which said “Women could not speak in public without fear of being hit with rotten vegetables or worse”.[4] Eventually, “A few of the young women at Oberlin, led by abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone, organized the first debating society ever formed among college girls. At first they held their meetings secretly in the woods, with sentinels on the watch to give warming of intruders and later at the home of an old black woman at the edge of the wood”. [5] Furthermore, Phillips the author of this article comments, “Stone, who graduated from Oberlin in 1847, refused to write a commencement speech since she would not be allowed to read it. Ten years later, in 1857, Oberlin College finally allowed a woman to read her part at the public ceremony”.[6] Phillips argues that after the middle of the century women were beginning to be allowed to speak in public.

With this knowledge I went back to JSTOR and used “lucy stone”, “19th century”, “America”, and “public speaking”. I did not find many different sources. In order to find more sources I decided to use a different database, Google Scholar. I just typed in “lucy stone 19th century public speaking” and discovered a book titled Lucy Stone: Pioneer of Woman’s Rights”. I then searched within the book for “public speaking”. With these results I was able to confirm the discoveries of the article by Lois Phillips, that Lucy Stone was able to public speak as a woman and was headlining this campaign. However, it was not until after half way through the 19th century that this was possible.

[1] Susan Douglas Franzosa, “Schooling Women in Citizenship”, Theory into Practice , Vol. 27, No. 4, Civic Learning (Autumn, 1988), 278.

[2] D.G. Bell “Allowed Irregularities: Women Preachers in the Early 19th-century Maritimes”, Acadiensis , Vol. 30, No. 2 (SPRING/PRINTEMPS 2001), 4.

[3] Keith e. Melder, “woman’s high calling: the teaching profession in America, 1830-1860”, American Studies , Vol. 13, No. 2 (fall 1972), 20.

[4] Lois Phillips, ‘Social Conditions Inspired Women to Speak Up – In Speaking Up Women Changed History”, 4.

[5] Phillips, 7.

[6] Phillips, 7.


One thought on “Women and Public Speaking in 19th Century”

  1. This post presents a detailed, two-part search strategy on the challenges of finding sources to answer this question about public speaking by nineteenth-century women in the US.
    Good idea to try JSTOR, but it can be difficult to conduct “full-text” search because it’s such an extensive database of journal articles over centuries, including only about 10% with searchable “abstracts.”
    Your second idea about searching through Google Scholar yielded more useful results, and the secondary source on Lucy Stone is ideal (but always include a full citation — see this week’s Zotero tool to help you.)
    A third strategy might have been to search a library database devoted to secondary sources on US history, such as America: History & Life (http://library.trincoll.edu/databases/americahistory)

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