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Their Right to Speak

Their Right to Speak

Women's Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates

Alisse Portnoy

ISBN 9780674019225

Publication date: 10/30/2005

When Alisse Portnoy recovered petitions from the early 1830s that nearly 1,500 women sent to the U.S. Congress to protest the forced removal of Native Americans in the South, she found the first instance of women's national, collective political activism in American history. In this groundbreaking study, Portnoy links antebellum Indian removal debates with crucial, simultaneous debates about African Americans--abolition of slavery and African colonization--revealing ways European American women negotiated prohibitions to make their voices heard.

Situating the debates within contemporary, competing ideas about race, religion, and nation, Portnoy examines the means by which women argued for a "right to speak" on national policy. Women's participation in the debates was constrained not only by gender but also by how these women--and the men with whom they lived and worshipped--imagined Native and African Americans as the objects of their advocacy and by what they believed were the most benevolent ways to aid the oppressed groups.

Cogently argued and engagingly written, this is the first study to fully integrate women's, Native American, and African American rights debates.


  • In a delightfully written work, Alisse Portnoy examines the debates over women's petitioning in the larger context of Indian removal, colonization, and abolition politics. She provides a new and persuasive interpretation of the now classic debate between Catharine Beecher and Angelina Grimké over antislavery activism. In fine detail and with great sophistication, she combines close readings of particular texts -pamphlets, petitions, novels, slave ads -with a sweeping narrative of social movements and national policies regarding Indians and African Americans. Their Right to Speak is a tour de force.

    —Nancy A. Hewitt, Rutgers University


  • Alisse Portnoy is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature and Faculty Associate in the Program in American Culture, University of Michigan.

Book Details

  • 306 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press