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While a lot of attention is given to convention speakers and delegates--who were overwhelmingly male--women also played integral roles. Though they are named infrequently, women’s influences and presence can be found if we look at the minutes carefully. Much as the wordcloud on this exhibit's landing page suggests, women’s participation in the convention must be read as a shadowy form against the larger, recorded version of the conventions. And, while we can never recover an exact account of many of the important contributions women made to the convention effort, we can certainly gain a better understanding of their presence when we make a concerted effort to look for them.
Women’s Roles at the Conventions
- Spectators and audience member
- Contributors to speeches or speakers themselves
In later conventions, starting in the 1850s, women were also delegates. For a visual representation of women's presence at Conventions over time, see a chart of "Women in Conventions" by clicking here.
Women's active roles as spectators and audience members appear in the minutes in a variety of ways. The important 1840 New York State convention which included famous editors, speakers and organizers like Charles Ray (editor of the Colored American) and Henry Highland Garnet also described "numerous" spectators, "both of male and female" who remained "in attendence, morning, afternoon, and evening" and who "manifested no less interest than the delegates themselves" . When speakers rose to deliver a formal address, they sometimes addressed their remarks to the "Ladies and Gentlemen" at the public session . At the 1841 Pennsylvania State Convention, delegates passed a resolution thanking "the ladies" for their presence throughout the convention .
Black women have a long history of working both within and outside of the home. They used their financial prowess to bolster both the convention movement as well as the efforts heralded at conventions. Acting as fundraisers, the women's supportive efforts are often recorded in the minutes at moments of 'official thanks.' At the Ohio State Convention in 1856, "Rev. Mr. Turban came forward and presented the Convention five dollars on behalf of the ladies of Bethel Church." In response, the delegates unanimously resolved "that the thanks of the Convention are. . . hereby tendered to the ladies of Bethel Church, for their liberal donation" . Years earlier, "the Ladies attending" the Ohio State Convention of 1850 "proposed to defray the expenses of the house for the sitting of the Convention." The delegates then moved and resolved, "that the Convention tender their sincere thanks to [the ladies] for their genuine patriotism" .
Women gained the convention floor at times as well. Some women, like Jane P. Merritt at the 1849 Columbus Convention of Colored Citizens of Ohio, used their own voices to call for a more active record of their participation in the conventions . At the 1849 Convention, Merritt, with the support of T.J. Merritt who brought the resolution to the floor initially, stood before the Business Committee with a posse of other women at her back, and threw down the proverbial gauntlet:"Whereas the ladies have been invited to attend the Convention, and have been deprived of voice, which we the ladies deem wrong and shameful. Therefore, Resolved, That we will attend no more after tonight, unless the priviledge is granted."
Dramatic actions like Merritt's illustrate not only the women's quiet participation as audience members, but that they were politically engaged and active in their own right—and that they activity sought to voice their concerns themselves. Although little other mention of women is recorded in the 1849 Convention—the point was made: women had ideas and they were ready for the political realm.
Merritt's was not the only way for women's voices to be recorded at the conventions. In 1856 at the Ohio State Convention, a statement from the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Delaware was read into the minutes . Sara Stanley salutes the gentlemen of the convention and urges them to "press on!" with their efforts. In showcasing the oratorical tradition that women also accessed , Stanley uses classical references to paint the women of her Ladies' AntiSlavery Society as supportive mothers, sisters, and daughters, of the male delegates:It was a Spartan mother's farewell ot her son, 'Bring home your shield or be brought upon it.' To you we would say, be true, be courageous, be steadfast in the discharge of your duty. The citadel of Error must yield to the unshrinking phalanx of truth. In our fireside circles, in the seclusion of our closets, we kneel in tearful supplication in your behalf. As Christian wives, mothers and daughters, we invoke the blessing of the King, Eternal and Immortal... to rest upon you.
 "Minutes of the State Convention of Colored Citizens, Held at Albany, on the 18th, 19th, and 20th of Auguest, 1840, For hte Purpose of Considering their Political Condition.," Albany, NY, ColoredConventions.org, accessed April 12, 2016, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/620.
 "PROCEEDINGS OF THE STATE CONVENTION OF THE COLORED MEN OF THE STATE OF OHIO, HELD IN THE CITY OF COLUMBUS, JANUARY 21ST, 22D AND 23D, 1857." Columbus, OH, coloredconventions.org, accessed April 12, 2016, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/253.
 "PROCEEDINGS OF THE STATE CONVENTION OF THE COLORED FREEMEN OF PENNSYLVANIA, HELD IN PITTSBURGH, ON THE 23D, 24TH AND 25TH OF AUGUST, 1841, FOR THE PURPOSE OF CONSIDERING THEIR CONDITION, AND THE MEANS OF ITS IMPROVEMENT." Pittsburgh, PA, coloredconventions.org, accessed April 12, 2016, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/621.
 "PROCEEDINGS OF THE STATE CONVENTION OF COLORED MEN, HELD IN THE CITY OF COLUMBUS, OHIO, JAN. 16TH, 17TH, AND 18TH, 1856." Columbus, OH, coloredconventions.org, accessed April 12, 2016, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/252.
 "MINUTES OF THE STATE CONVENTION OF THE COLORED CITIZENS OF OHIO, CONVENED AT COLUMBUS, JANUARY 9TH, 10TH, 11TH AND 12TH, 1850." Columbus, OH, coloredconventions.org, accessed April 12, 2016, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/248.
 "MINUTES AND ADDRESS OF THE STATE CONVENTION OF THE COLORED CITIZENS OF OHIO, CONVENED AT COLUMBUS, JANUARY 10TH, 11TH, 12TH, & 13TH, 1849." Columbus, OH, coloredconventions.org, Accessed April 12, 2016, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/247.
 Ellen NicKenzie Lawson with Marlene D. Merrill. The Three Sarahs: Documents of Black Antebellum College Women (Edwin Mellin Press, 1985), 49-50.