A common complaint about traditional history in the West is that it was written by “dead white males”—which it largely was, given that European men made up the bulk of the educated elite for most of Western history. The long process of correcting this imbalance—of according women and minorities their full civil rights in a democratic society—began to take shape in the various social movements of the nineteenth century. In the United States, the abolitionist movement put the goal of ending slavery front and center until the Civil War achieved this end; and in the latter part of the century, the movement for women’s rights began to gather steam.
However, these organized movements had lesser-known antecedents in the eighteenth century, in the small number of women and African Americans who were able to first become educated, and then—usually influenced by Enlightenment philosophies of rational individualism—mount rhetorical challenges to the dominant paradigms of their white-male-centered society. These were truly voices calling out in the wilderness, and are all the more interesting because of that.
In Europe, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement was heralded by the 1792 publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. But two years earlier, in Massachusetts, Judith Sargent Murray published the less well-known essay “On the Equality of the Sexes.” Murray’s particular assertion was that the same level of education should be available to women as to men—ideas echoed almost exactly in England by another woman writer, Catherine Macaulay. Murray, Macaulay, and Wollstonecraft, in addition to seeking increased opportunities for women, could see that their societies as a whole would only benefit by unlocking the abilities of talented women previously relegated to the domestic sphere.
If American women with intellectual pretensions found themselves hampered by the social expectation that they confine their energies to the home and hearth—and hampered, to be sure, by a host of formal legal restrictions as well—African Americans faced exponentially greater social and legal disabilities. In many states, especially in the South, the law defined Africans as slaves based entirely on their race. Nonetheless, a few examples exist of eighteenth-century African Americans who obtained an education and became published writers. Perhaps the most prominent is Benjamin Banneker, a free black farmer and scientist from Maryland who famously corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, asserting, much like Murray and Macaulay regarding women, that blacks were perfectly capable of becoming educated, independent, and productive if given the chance—that, in short, they were endowed with the same inalienable rights Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence, whose limited application to white males was so widely assumed at the time that it did not need mentioning.
Another eighteenth-century black writer, Jupiter Hammon, was perhaps the more notable for being a slave all his life, but one whose New York owners took the unusual step of allowing him to learn to read and write. Notable voices alongside these black writers were the small number of white abolitionists in the eighteenth century—many but not all of them Quakers—with sufficient independence of mind to conclude, by the lights of their own faith and reason, that slavery was inherently wrong. All these writers—men and women, black and white—stand as pioneers whose ideas would take a century and more to bear fruit.