The Women behind the Underground Railroad and the Resistance to Slavery in the US

Slavery was a part of US history from as early as the 17th century, and so was the resistance of the enslaved people. The quest for freedom took various shapes – slowing down the labor, theft, armed rebellion, and, most commonly – escape.

Enslaved people ran away towards freedom since the first days of slavery, and over the years, their numbers increased to tens of thousands. The safe flight was only the first step, as they needed a welcoming shelter. Those were provided by Native-American communities and later by people from Canada, Mexico, and the states of the American North.

Towards the 19th century, a network of secret runaway routes and safe houses came together to support those who escaped slavery. This network – which was organic and had no leader – came to be called around the 1830s “The Underground Railroad.” It was operated by individuals and families, mainly by free blacks and Quakers.

African-Americans with wagon pointing guns at slave-catchers, 1872. Photo credit – Library of Congress

The network name was a metaphor, as it rarely used an actual railroad or underground routes. Its terminology was borrowed from the railway system: with terms such as “stations” for the homes where the fugitives would get food and rest; and “conductors” for the individuals who guided the runaway people to the “stations.” The railway routes were covered mainly by walking at night, sometimes up to 20 miles from a “depot” to a “depot.”

Estimates suggest that the Underground Railroad helped to move thousands to hundreds of thousands of slaves from the South to the North in the early 19th century alone. It was dissolved after the Civil War.

An essential layer in the activity of the Underground Railroad was money and fundraising. In addition to the people who assisted the operation by serving as “conductors” and “stationmasters,” there were also valuable roles of “stakeholders” – those who contributed funds or made efforts to raise financial support for the newly freed. One of the popular activities was bake sales in Northern towns with the slogan “Buy for the sake of the slave.” For thousands of women, this was an opportunity to politicize domestic chores.

The activities of all those involved in the Underground Railroad were illegal and put the runaway slaves and their assistants in danger of imprisonment and fines. In a famous quote, slave-holder George Washington, before becoming the first president of the US, publicly complained about how one of his slaves escaped with the help of a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” And indeed, the Quakers were one of the first organized societies to call for the abolition of slavery on the grounds that it violated Christian principles. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was another important institution in the abolitionist movement.

The fascinating story of the Underground Railroad, as a central theme in the US anti-slavery movement, is often told with regard to a long list of male abolitionists, such as the legendary black leader Frederick Douglass. However, although barely mentioned, many women had an essential role in the Underground Railroad actions.

In fact, the abolitionist movement was closely related to the early feminist movement. The rights of women and persons of color were both a concern for reformers of 19th-century US – challenging the superior status that white men enjoyed in society. Many famous women’s rights advocates developed their political awareness and set of activist skills from the abolitionist movement. Women – both white and black – raised funds, ran petition campaigns, and wrote pamphlets, poems, and articles.

Learn more about badass African-American women with these word search puzzle books:

The most famous African-American abolitionist women are – Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.

Sojourner Truth – Illustration from 1864. Photo credit – Shutterstock.

Sojourner Truth spent the first 28 years of her life in slavery and another decade working as a domestic. Approaching her forties, she followed a calling to become a preacher and changed her name accordingly. She didn’t know to read or write, yet she became one of the most well-known public speakers of the 19th century, advocating for equality between sexes and races. She also published an autobiography and was the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and win.

Harriet Tubman. Photo credit – Library of Congress.

Harriet Tubman, “The Black Moses,” a former slave and an iconic leader who freed hundreds of enslaved people. After escaping slavery, she served as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Among the hundreds of people who she led to freedom was her family. Though she did not start the Underground Railroad, Tubman is the name most associated with it.

The stories of the contribution of more women to the anti-slavery movement started surfacing only in the late 20th century. Those women came from various backgrounds – comfortable middle-class families, working-class, domestic, freeborn, formerly enslaved people, etc. Here is a partial list of the heroines of the resistance:

Maria W. Stewart, was a free black domestic who became a public speaker advocation for social justice and women’s rights. She is considered the first American woman to speak to women and men audience in 1832 and the first African-American woman to lecture about women’s rights.

The Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, acted for both the abolitionist and feminist movements. They toured and lectured in the early 19th century for the abolitionist cause. They were an attraction since women rarely spoke in public those days, and the fact that they came from a family of former enslavers made it even more of a sensation.

Sarah Mapps Douglass, born free to a distinguished black abolitionist family in Philadelphia, co-founded the Female Literary Association, a group of African-American women developing their writing and reading skills while deepening their identification with slave heritage. Her mother, Grace Douglass, was one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFAS) in 1833.

Elizabeth Margaret Chandler was born into a Quaker family. As an influential poetess and authoress, she focused on abolition as her central theme since publishing her first poem at the age of 18 in 1826, titled “The Slave Ship.”

The Forten family was an abolition powerhouse of three generations – mother Charlotte; daughters Sarah, Margaretta, and Harriet; and granddaughter Charlotte. The Fortens raised funds, organized informative fairs, published, lectured, and assisted runaway slaves.

Lucretia Mott was a prominent advocate of abolition and women’s rights. Among many of her contributions, she advocated boycotting the products of slave labor and operated her house as a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

Elizabeth Freeman, who escaped slavery, initiated the court case that, in 1781, set a precedent for the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

Anna Murray Douglass was a free domestic helper when she met the enslaved Frederick Douglass. She helped him escape, and later on, they got married. He became a national abolitionist leader while she raised their family and ran a safe house for fugitive slaves.

Lydia Maria Child was the author of the first book by a white person on the issue of slavery.

Sarah Parker Remond was a lecturer and agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. She delivered her first speech against slavery when she was only 16 years old.

Frances Harper, born to free black parents, was a poet and lectured advocating for abolition.

Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm is considered the first female political reporter, who wrote anti-slavery poems and articles and ran her own abolitionist paper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter.

Abby Kelley campaigned against pro-slavery churches.

Ellen Craft became famous when escaping slavery in 1848; she traveled openly by train, using her light complexion to disguise herself as a white male.

Phillis Wheatley published poetry in 1773, contesting the social construct of the inferiority of women and blacks compared to white men.

Harriet Beecher Stowe also used literature for the cause. Her most influential offering was the novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Slave residence in Monticello Plantation, owned by the third US President, Thomas Jefferson.

Interior look of a slave residence in Monticello Plantation, owned by the third US President, Thomas Jefferson.

Many, if not all, of those women and their fellow female abolitionists, faced gender-related challenges and personal prices when advocating for freedom for people of color. Some got mocked, lost their jobs, or their family and friends disconnected them.

Ironically, the gender-biased responses sparked the reform fire. One of the most notable examples of this “blessing in disguise” is that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton initiated the iconic Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention after being denied the right to speak at an anti-slavery convention in 1840 – because of their gender.

The rising point of women’s involvement in the abolitionist movement was in the 1820s and 1830s. By the mid-19th century, black and white women served as anti-slavery lecturers, editors, and fundraisers hid runaway slaves in their homes and organized meetings in various spaces. Through the Abolition Movement, women gained experience as activists, leaders, organizers, writers, and lecturers for political purposes.

The abolitionist movement served as a step towards women’s empowerment, and in return, the empowered women worked towards the freedom of the enslaved. Abolition was one of the first significant campaigns women expressed themselves in the public sphere. At the time, it was widely considered that the “proper” place for women was in the domestic sphere.

The women who took part in the Underground Railroad have received more respect and acknowledgment in recent years. Their contribution to the struggle is taught in classrooms, added to history books, and commemorated by statues, memorials, and museums.

The end of slavery was only the beginning of the journey of fighting for equal rights for African-Americans. In the years after the Civil War and until the late 20th century, they fought against racial segregation in every aspect of life.

One of the well-known struggles is the fight for transportation desegregation in the US. Women were a significant part of this resistance, and you can read more about it in this article: Hold on to Your Seats – The Women Who Fought for Transportation Desegregation in the US.

Landmarks honoring the women of The Underground Railroad and Abolition Movement:

  • The Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Cincinnati, Ohio
    Offer tours that tell the stories behind Harriet’s experiences in Cincinnati and their connection to her famous anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Click here to read more.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Slavery to Freedom Museum, Washington, Kentucky
    The home where Harriet first witnessed a slave auction. Open to the public by appointment. Click here to read more.
  • The Harriet Tubman Home and Park, Auburn, New York
    Open to the public. Offer tours operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Click here to read more.
  • The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, Maryland’s Eastern Shore
    Includes a research library, exhibits, and an audio-visual program. Click here to read more.
  • Liberty Farm, Worcester, Massachusetts
    The home of abolitionist and suffragist Abby Kelley Foster, which served as a station on the Underground Railroad. It was declared a National Historic Landmark, but currently is not open to the public. Click here to read more.
  • Mary Ann Shadd Cary House, Washington, DC
    Writer, educator, lawyer, abolitionist, and the first black newspaperwoman in North America. It was declared a National Historic Landmark, but currently is not open to the public. Click here to read more.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center

Follow Their Legacy:
Landmarks to Visit, Tourist Centers, and Literature about The Underground Railroad Stories

Get inspired by the legacy and unbelievable amazing stories of women that were part of this historical movement to end slavery. There are books, movies, museums, guided tours, and special events that commemorate the Underground Railroad stories. Also, several US states recognize September as International Underground Railroad Month.

* Read about The Underground Railroad *

* Watch about The Underground Railroad *

* Guided Tours exploring Underground Railroad Landmarks *


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