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Women & Women's Groups

Ann Knight (1786-1862)Campaigner

Women had no vote and little influence on the political scene; despite this, they played an important role in the abolition of the Slave Trade and slavery in the British colonies. In the early years, women were not direct activists and were not expected to take part in politics. Lady Margaret Middleton, for example, helped persuade William Wilberforce to take up the cause but could not become actively engaged herself.

Despite this, women found their own ways to campaign. They wrote imaginative literature on slavery, such as Hannah More's publications . In 1792 Mary Birkett Card wrote 'A Poem on the African Slave Trade' and, as the campaign became more popular, many women, from all walks of life, (including Georgina, the Duchess of Devonshire and Bristol milk-woman Ann Yearsley) published anti-slavery poems and stories. These were aimed at a wide readership. Former slaves such as Phyllis Wheatley wrote their own poems and accounts that were extremely influential.

Women also brought and wore the anti-slavery cameos produced by Wedgwood to publicise their support. By 1788, the Abolition Society had 206 female subscribers. These were mostly wives and daughters of professionals, manufacturers and shopkeepers of Quaker, Unitarian and Evangelical backgrounds.

As the main food purchasers, women played an important role in organising the sugar boycotts of the 1790s, after the bill for the abolition of the Slave Trade was defeated in Parliament in 1791. Over 300,000 people joined a boycott of sugar which had been grown on plantations that used the labour of enslaved people.

The Abolition Act, passed in 1807, abolished the Slave Trade but not chattel slavery. A child born to an enslaved person was still a slave. It was abolitionist women who played an important role in keeping the anti-slavery movement alive in the 1820s. It was also newly formed women's groups who pushed for total abolition in the British Empire;  women like Elizabeth Heyrick.

Another important campaigner was Anne Knight. She was born into a Quaker family in Essex and took active roles in the Anti-Slavery campaigns. Knight formed the Chelmsford Female Anti-Slavery Society. She also toured France, giving lectures on the immorality of slavery.

The women's societies were almost always bolder than those of the men. In the 1820s and 30s, they once again stopped buying slave-grown sugar and also refused to use bakers or shopkeepers who sold it. This was the first time that the sugar boycott had been used this way, making its impact much sharper.

They also played an active role in gaining public support for the campaign. In Birmingham, women's groups visited more than 80% of homes, persuading people to support the cause. They also paid for lecturers to give public speeches around the city. 

Encouraged by Heyrick, the Birmingham women declared that they would only give their annual £50 donation to the National Society when they gave up the word ‘gradual' in their title; others soon followed from the 70 odd women's groups that had sprung up across the country. 

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