This Changes Everything: Early American Feminists Were Deeply Religious, Relational, and Race-Conscious

Helen LaKelly Hunt, Author of And the Spirit Moved Them, and movement builder for both gender equality and safe relationships.

For Helen LaKelly Hunt, three central passions drive her work: funding for gender equality, changing the culture of intimate relationships, and rethinking the historical roots of American feminism. These three passions all come together in a new way with the publication of her latest book.

“Jennifer Baumgardner gets much credit. After all, she published this book.” said Helen, in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women. “And as a result of Jennifer’s passion, I always remind her, this book has two mothers.” Baumgardner is the Publisher at The Feminist Press, which released Helen’s book this past May.

The book is called And the Spirit Moved Them: The Lost Radical History of America’s first Feminists and is the culmination of Hunt’s Ph.D work at Union Theological Seminary. Its launch was recently celebrated at in Los Angeles at a Women Moving Million’s Salon. Hunt explained she was particularly gratified by the diversity of women in attendance and what the book meant to them. “Many of the African American women spoke out about women of color being forgotten when the rise of Womens Rights in the U.S was historically documented. They said, ‘We knew we had a place in women’s history, but our stories are usually left out.’ I had never realized this before, and was so touched when they expressed that this book made them feel included.”

Hunt’s book gives feminists of all races and creeds new evidence for why it’s time to embrace both a relational and an intersectional model in creating strategies for social change. When a new piece of history is discovered, it has the capacity to transform the narratives of our collective past, and open up new questions about where we need to go in the future. Hunt’s book has that capacity to infuse the women’s movement with a deeper understanding of why race and gender are so intricately entwined, and why we must embrace thoughtful strategies to address the issues of diverse communities.

Related: Helen LaKelly Hunt: Feminism and Philanthropy Are Converging to Create a New Relationship Culture

As the impassioned excavator of this lost history of American feminism, Hunt brings into the picture a startling fact: the women’s movement began in concert with the abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery but also catalyzed women into political voice. As a result of this revelation, today’s feminists and progressives have a new opportunity to realign their strategy with a broader vision.

While researching the Seneca Fall’s Convention for her dissertation, Hunt accidentally came across a small dusty booklet called Turning the World Upside Down: The Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women – New York City May 9-12, 1837. It was the proceedings of the relatively unknown first Women’s Convention in the US. It documents the cross-race, cross-class meeting that publically called for greater gender equity; and it predated by 11 years the Seneca Falls Convention, commonly referred to as the birthplace of American feminism.

Sarah Mapps Douglass, Educator, Abolitionist, and Co-founder of American Feminism in Helen LaKelly Hunt’s new account. (Photo credit: African American Registry)

By writing about this meeting and its participants, Hunt revives the voices of American leadership that have been largely overlooked, like that of Angelina Grimke, one of the first women to write and speak out about the wrongs of slavery. She and her sister Sarah and their African American friends Grace and Sarah Douglass became publicly vocal at a time women had no public or political voice. These women in their bonnets and petticoats stepped into political leadership at the 1837 Convention. “I feel that when I am speaking, I am surrounded by a bodyguard of hearts, faithful and true,” wrote Angelina of the deep relational commitment she felt from her abolitionists sisters.

Grimke’s words were not only a deft expression of the bond she felt, but also reflected serious danger these women confronted. Refering to her activists sisters as ‘bodyguard’ takes on darker tones when Hunt’s book tells about the fiery backlash against them. The following year, when the same group of women gathered in Philadelphia, an angry mob surrounded the building, and first verbally harassed them. But then, when the women marched out because they could not hear each other speak, the mob set fire to the building and burnt it to the ground.

Inscription from William Lloyd Garrison to Sarah Mapps Douglass, Abolitionist and Educator discussed in Helen LaKelly Hunt’s new book.

The scholarship and primary sources on the major players in this chapter of history are still surfacing. A recent example of a new find is a book given to Sarah Mapps Douglass, African-American abolitionist and participant in the anti-slavery groups in Philadelphia. A recent article in the Philadelphia Library Company’s blog from Jessica C. Linker, PhD candidate at UCONN, provides the details on how this new find is informing the history of both feminism and science education, since Mapps Douglass was a teacher of science, along with being a leader in the Abolitionist and Feminism movements of her time.

Recovering this lost history and integrating it into the feminist narrative is a role that Hunt seems to relish. But this piece of Hunt’s work must be seen within the larger context of her knowledge and experience in both relational science and the funding of gender equality movements today. Along with recovering this lost history of early feminism, Hunt has also spent much of her life developing a unique expertise in relationships. She and her husband, Harville Hendrix, are experts in the science of relationship, and are now disseminating a new process called Safe Conversations, a structured conversation that facilitates two people, even if they disagree, to stay connected.

And then there is the role that Hunt plays in women’s philanthropy. In tandem with her sister, Swanee Hunt, these two donor activists are major players in the Women’s Funding Movement. Hunt has co-founded some of the largest and most influential women’s funds in the country, including the Dallas Women’s Foundation, the New York Women’s Foundation, the Women’s Funding Network, and Women Moving Millions. In 2007, Women Moving Millions emerged on the scene with a public launch of a two-year campaign to raise $150 million for the global network of women’s funds. During the financial meltdown of 2008, Women Moving Millions became one of the only campaigns to exceed its fundraising goal, with a total of $182 million raised during that economic crisis.

Like many in progressive feminist circles, Hunt is distressed by the political climate since last November, which she sees as more geared toward combat and competition, rather than seeking collaboration and cooperation. “Instead of emphasizing that we’re a ‘We’ on this planet – a global human family, people even in our country are being pitted one against the other. The truth is, we all interconnected and we all need each other. ”

Hunt hopes the unleashing of the words of the Abolitionist’s Feminists will help us resist despair, and inspire us to keep fighting for both race and gender equality. “The visionary women who met in 1837,” she said, “stepped into their power to make change happen. Look at the odds against them! May their words give us the courage to continue to foster greater peace and justice in every way we can today.”

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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