Gender and Everything Else


Their Right to Speak: Women’s Activism in the Indian and Slave Debates

by Alisse Portnoy

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, 290 pp., $49.95 hardcover.


Reviewed by Jacqueline Bacon


Scholars focusing on the history of women’s rhetoric often fall into one of two traps: either they employ theoretical lenses that privilege twenty-first-century perspectives; or they isolate gender from other factors that influence women’s discourses. Similarly, those who study American social reform often neglect to place particular movements in their proper historical context. Studies that successfully avoid these pitfalls are especially valuable, as they help to expand and modify our understandings of gender, history, and rhetoric. Alisse Portnoy’s analysis of the rhetoric of European American women in the debates of the 1830s over the forced removal of Native Americans from the South, the abolition of slavery, and the colonization of free African Americans in Africa is an example of such scholarship. It will compel others to rethink the much-studied histories of abolition and of nineteenth-century women’s rhetorical efforts.

Portnoy is an accomplished archival researcher, and her range of sources, which include newspapers, pamphlets, novels, and advertisements, is impressive. She provides careful textual analyses, foregrounding key linguistic characteristics and elements of the arguments while avoiding preconceived theoretical categories. She articulates carefully how her approach differs from those of conventional historians; she is interested not merely in “facts,” “issues,” or “situations” but in how these are “interpreted and used” in discourse. As she demonstrates throughout the book, the worlds created in texts are as worthy of study as the events and concerns outside of them.

“A study of women’s political activism in this period structured dominantly by gender, or even gender and the politics of just one of these movements,” Portnoy says, “simply is insufficient for understanding the dynamics of women’s emergent national rhetorical activism.” Thus, Portnoy considers gender as one of various factors—including ideologies of race and nation and perspectives about appropriate goals and methods of argumentation—that influenced nineteenth-century women’s discourse. She also links the featured reform movements and examines why different women responded differently to these causes and what their varying responses tell us about how they viewed rhetoric, race, and gender.

The first two chapters of Their Right to Speak focus on the debates of the 1820s and the 1830s over whether Native Americans should be forced out of their lands in the American South or be allowed to retain their territory and independent governments. Portnoy examines “why this particular topic became the first issue of federal policy on which women demanded their ‘right to speak’” by petitioning the federal government on behalf of Native Americans. Taking advantage of advances in print culture such as the “saturation of newspapers into communities” and the completion of the United States postal network, the women portrayed their participation in the debate as an “extraordinary” intervention. To justify engaging with an issue of public policy, they used concepts such as “virtue” and “home,” which are conventionally feminine yet “mutivalenced”: “virtue” can be either an individual or a national trait; “home” may refer to one’s domestic realm or to a community or a nation’s land.

In the third chapter, Portnoy addresses the apparently paradoxical reactions of those who supported women’s intervention on behalf of antiremoval but not on behalf of abolition—such as Catharine Beecher. The key lies not in such activists’ conservative views of gender but rather in two other factors: how they viewed Native Americans and African Americans, and whether they supported colonization as an alternative to abolition. Portnoy’s final two chapters explore in detail the colonizationist-abolitionist debate through the conflict between the American Colonization Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society and the 1837 public dispute between Beecher and Angelina Grimké over the two competing approaches to slavery.

Beecher’s critique, Portnoy demonstrates, was based on her Christian religious beliefs, her espousal of colonization, and her “nuanced” notions of what was appropriate in “public debate.” She believed that women should “remain neutral” in discussions of public affairs, remaining “calm in their advocacy,” fostering “peaceful and Christian public discussion,” and acting as “mediators.” Portnoy’s reading of the Beecher-Grimké exchange allows us to encounter Beecher as rhetor and reformer rather than as Grimké’s unfortunate foil. It is one of the strongest contributions of the book, rendering both women and their debate more complex and interesting. The arguments of Beecher and others against Native American removal but for African American removal (in the form of colonization) cannot be discarded as mere inconsistencies but must be examined carefully for the insight they provide into nineteenth-century European American conceptions of nation and race. European Americans who argued against the removal of Native Americans portrayed them as farmers and citizens of their own governments, descriptions that connected them to white audiences. At the same time, many of these same reformers believed that African Americans would never be able to coexist with European Americans in the United States. They believed that some non-European Americans, such as Native Americans, might remain part of the body politic while others, such as African Americans, could not.

Portnoy’s book has its limitations. It is not a drawback in and of itself that Portnoy focuses her study on European American reformers; all studies must have boundaries, and she clearly indicates that she will emphasize how whites in particular approached the three movements she considers. However, she often suggests that what was true of white antislavery reformers was normative for American abolitionists in general. For example, she says that “most antislavery advocates during Jackson’s presidency believed colonization to be a more viable. . . solution to slavery than immediate emancipation” and that “most petitioners before and through 1830” did not engage issues such as the “virtue” of the United States or use emotion and religion in their appeals. These statements are true only if they are limited to the beliefs and petitions of whites. They do not describe a general state of affairs. As Portnoy’s own insight reveals, we must scrutinize how groups of reformers influenced and were influenced by each other, and removing African Americans leaves an incomplete picture.

Portnoy states that abolitionism began in the 1830s. In fact, African Americans had begun fighting slavery well before that, and they influenced the post-1830s generation of white reformers. Portnoy cites William Lloyd Garrison’s 1832 Thoughts on African Colonization as an “early version of one of the most significant abolitionist arguments against colonization”—that people of color were Americans—and claims that people of color “picked up the themes” of Garrison’s text. In fact, the influence went the other way: African American abolitionists had criticized colonization for more than a decade before Garrison’s rejection of the policy. Garrison, as the editors of the Black Abolitionist Papers have shown, actually took his central arguments from his African American colleagues. Portnoy correctly notes that the attack of David Walker, the African American abolitionist, on slavery and colonization in his 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World was influential. But, she says, “Walker’s intervention was unique” and that other texts did not have the “impact” or “weight” of Walker’s. Other published arguments may not have generated the controversy of Walker’s Appeal, but as many scholars have demonstrated, organized black anticolonization activism significantly altered the perspectives of the white reformers of the early 1830s.

African Americans are passive in Portnoy’s study. Her statement that “the fate of African Americans living in the United States was up for grabs in the fight between abolitionists and colonizationists” because “African Americans simply did not have a political presence to combat their oppression as Native Americans did” inaccurately suggests that African American speakers and writers did not play prominent roles in the debates about colonization and abolition. She laments that “too often, we limit our study of advocacy to the advocates” when “we need to include the objects of advocacy in our scholarship.” Yet African Americans were advocates as well as objects of other’s activist projects, and in the former role they fundamentally affected the ways whites argued.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Their Right to Speak are instructive in identifying challenges and new directions for those studying women’s rhetoric and history. We need scholarship in which texts are central and in which scholars are not afraid to challenge conventional views. We need to be attuned to the complexities of gender as well as race and to understand how such categories intersect and depend upon one another. Portnoy’s convincing demonstration that “one of discourse’s most powerful functions is the constitution of political agency” should generate a renewed and invigorated interest in rhetoric among scholars studying women from various disciplinary perspectives.


Jacqueline Bacon is the author of The Humblest May Stand Forth: Rhetoric, Empowerment and Abolition as well as of numerous articles on African American rhetoric and history, contemporary culture, and the media. Her website is



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