Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery profiles fourteen women who have courageously fought for an end to slavery. Following are highlights of some of the women’s stories:
Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, hated being a slave. “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman,” she declared. She was living in Massachusetts during the American Revolution, and one day she heard the words of the new Massachusetts state constitution, which stated that all people are “born free and equal.” That applies to me, she thought, and she approached a lawyer to plead her case in court. In 17881 an all-white jury decreed that under the Massachusetts state constitution slavery was illegal. She had won a victory for herself and all others enslaved in Massachusetts.
To learn more about Elizabeth Freeman, read chapter 1, “To Stand One Minute on God’s Earth a Free Woman,” in Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery.
Britain ended the slave trade to its West Indian colonies in 1808, but, contrary to the expectations of British abolitionists, slavery itself did not wither away there. In the 1820s, millions of blacks were still toiling away in the plantations of British colonies like Jamaica and Barbados. English social reformer Elizabeth Heyrick was dismayed by the British abolition movement, which was advocating a slow approach – improving the lives of slaves while urging gradual emancipation. Heyrick believed that slavery was so unjust that no one had the right to ask slaves to wait around to be freed. She organized women’s antislavery groups and boycotts of West Indian sugar. Her powerful pamphlet Immediate, not Gradual Abolition made the men rethink their position, and by 1830, the men’s movement had changed its focus, committing itself to the full abolition of slavery.
To learn more about Elizabeth Heyrick, read chapter 2, “No Middle Way,” in Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery.
Alice Seeley Harris
The Congo Free State was created in 1885 by King Leopold II of Belgium to exploit the land for its natural resources (especially rubber) and enrich himself. When British missionaries Alice Seeley Harris and her husband John arrived there in 1889, they had one goal: to convert the native people to Christianity. The atrocities they witnessed there changed their mission. Agents of the king forced the natives into the bush to harvest rubber, viciously punishing them if they failed to meet quotas. Knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, Alice, a skilled photographer, graphically documented the brutality. Then, through pamphlets and public lectures, Alice and John helped raise an outcry in Europe that finally put an end to King Leopold’s Congo regime.
To learn more about Alice Seeley Harris, read chapter 7, “They Are Women As You and I Are,” in Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery.
“I was sold like a goat,” says Hadijatou Mani, describing her sale as a slave at age twelve to a forty-six-year-old man in Niger in West Africa. She was known as a “fifth wife,” but had none of the rights or privileges of a wife under Islamic law. Instead, she was forced to work in her master’s house and fields, obey him in all things, and submit to beatings and humiliation. Fortunately for Mani, a local antislavery organization, Timidria, was working to end the practice of slavery in Niger, where it was illegal but widespread. With its help and the assistance of Anti-Slavery International in England, Mani took her case to court and, after many legal battles, won damages from the government of Niger for its failure to protect one of its citizens against enslavement. This was a victory not only for Mani, but for others facing the same degradation.
To learn more about Hadijatou Mani, read chapter 12, “I Was Sold Like a Goat,” in Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery.
In South Asia, desperate parents often sell their children to factory owners to make the money their families need. These unfortunate youngsters sit at looms for eighteen hours a day, weaving and tying knots, denied the basic rights of fresh air, good nutrition, and an education. Now, thanks to Nina Smith, there is hope for these children. In 1999 she established GoodWeave USA, the American branch of an Indian organization. It inspects factories to ensure that children are not employed by them. Its inspectors free children they find working illegally, offering them housing, good food and, most important, an education. Smith helps educate consumers to look for the GoodWeave label on the rugs they buy to be certain that no children produced them. GoodWeave’s inspectors are, she says, “the eyes and ears of the buyer.”
To learn more about Nina Smith, read chapter 14, “The Eyes and Ears of the Buyer,” in Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery.