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American Philhellenic Women and Reform

Dr. Maureen Santelli

In 1848, a young abolitionist by the name of Lucy Stone visited the Boston Common to view a controversial work of art that had all of Boston abuzz. The statue was the first nude sculpture of a woman put on exhibition in the United States, but its controversy extended well beyond this taboo. American artist Hiram Powers had created a work of art that depicted a young Greek Christian maiden recently enslaved by the Ottoman Turks, moments away from being placed on the auction block. Powers drew inspiration for the work from the “Greek Revolution; the history of which is familiar to all.” The Greek Slave, whose family was “destroyed by her foes… is now among barbarian strangers, under the pressure of a full recollection of the calamitous events which have brought her to her present state.” For Lucy Stone, however, the statue also evoked emotions within her for another reason. Upon seeing the statue, Stone was struck by how “emblematic of women” the statue was with “fettered hands and half-averted face.” Stone recalled that in contemplating the meaning of the statue “hot tears came to my eyes at the thought of millions of women who must be freed.” For Stone, The Greek Slave was an emotional and poignant reminder not only of the status of women in war-torn Greece, but also of women in Stone’s own country.

Powers’ masterpiece was a reminder of a popular movement that had brought together elite and middle-class women from countless benevolent, social, and religious groups of the 1820s. Female involvement in the Greek cause contributed to the expanding domestic sphere in antebellum America. This movement had enabled women with different charitable interests to band together for a common cause and find consensus in applying republican motherhood and beneficence abroad. In addition, the Greek Revolution made an impression on future political rhetoric in the United States– influencing, for example, the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

Before organized benevolence in the United States embraced the cause, the Greek Revolution was closely linked to the international philhellenic movement. This was an intellectual trend that looked back to ancient Greece as the source of western democracy and freedom. Americans felt they shared the plight of the modern Greeks more so than European philhellenes because they had fought and won their own revolution. A dislike and mistrust for the Muslim world was already extant within the United States by the end of the eighteenth century but intensified through the Barbary Wars. The nostalgic connection to ancient Greece combined with the fact that the modern Greeks were living under Ottoman rule, cultivated early American interest in advocating for Greek independence and the restoration of a Greece that more resembled its ancient political origins.

Nineteenth-century female centered benevolent societies focused on a range of charitable efforts. Benevolent societies were popular among white elite and middle-class Protestant women, in both northern and southern states, where dedication to Christianity and family justified participation in the civic and political affairs of local communities. Enthusiasm for ancient Greece entwined with dedication to the Greek cause as part of a global outreach for social and religious reform. Female interest in Greece coincided with providing aid for destitute mothers, their children, Protestant evangelism, and education.

The early organization of the philhellenic movement in the United States was largely achieved through the efforts of two individuals, classical Harvard scholar, Edward Everett, and Philadelphia printer and philanthropist, Mathew Carey. While these two men were internationally recognized for their support of the Greek Revolution, both relied on the involvement of women. Women directed their efforts toward gathering supplies, clothes, and later organized efforts to recruit teachers for newly built schools in Athens.

A key reason that American women were especially drawn to the Greek cause and saw it as an extension of their existing charitable work was through their understanding of female life in the Ottoman Empire. For early Americans who saw the moral stability of a nation as originating in the home with the wife and mother, the harem was viewed as the ultimate manifestation of depravity and despotism. American women imagined Greek women as the ultimate group of victims, not only because they were subjects under the Turks, but also because of their link to ancient Greece.

When the U.S. government refused to officially assist Greece, female led groups organized efforts at the local level to raise funds for Greek civilians. Conservatively, women helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars, and perhaps more, for the Greek cause. Funds were raised in a variety of ways, including knocking on doors, advertising in newspapers, speeches, carnivals, and balls. Although much of the more active organizations existed in northern cities, activity also took place throughout southern communities.

Female support for the Greek Revolution accelerated in response to a series of setbacks sustained by the Greek Army. The death of Lord Byron at the Greek-controlled city Missolonghi in April 1824 especially piqued interest. Newspapers reported that the Greek Fund of New York alone successfully dispatched a contribution in the amount of $6,000 in the early summer and that $5,000 more had been gathered by August. Public interest only continued to accelerate in the midst of what would become known as the Greek Frigate Scandal, an incident that involved a New York ship building company that mismanaged the construction of two ships for the Greek navy. Philhellenes considered it a national embarrassment that this incident might have added to the suffering of the Greek army and civilians.

By the height of female involvement in the Greek cause, ladies’ groups primarily directed their efforts at gathering food and clothing for Greek civilians. The ladies of Providence, Rhode Island, and surrounding communities alone produced over 3,000 items of clothing. Greek committees reported similar efforts in numerous towns and cities. Even in smaller communities such as Canandaigua, New York, local ladies set to work with “their needles in making clothing for the Greek women and children.” At least some African American women were involved in the Greek cause, since one paper reported that “ladies and gentlemen of colour” in New York had given a benefit for the Greek cause. According to the report, the participants were so enthusiastic that “the company did not disperse until six in the morning.”

Female Greek aid societies also provided monetary support and funds for education to Greek refugees as well as the construction of schools in Greece. With the combined cooperation of philhellenic ladies’ organizations, religious groups, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first American-run schools in Greece were established in 1828. The American Board of Missions worked in conjunction with the Ladies’ Greek Committee of New York and the founder of the first female institution for higher learning in the United States, Emma Willard.

Willard held that the way a nation educated its women revealed how civilized that society was as a whole. Supported by other local women, she created a charitable society focused on building schools for Greek girls that they named the Troy Society for the Advancement of Female Education in Greece. Willard enjoyed support from a number of individuals that advocated for female education, including Samuel Gridley Howe an American physician who had served in the Greek Revolution and Sarah Buell Hale, editor of The Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette. By 1835, through the cooperative efforts of the Greek government and American Greek aid societies, the American Board of Missions had established several schools providing education to hundreds of male and female students.

The rhetoric used by these Greek aid societies played a part in the emerging abolitionist and women’s rights movements that followed in the proceeding decades. Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave illustrates this phenomenon. The Greek Slave reminded many of the support they provided during the Greek Revolution, their disdain for Turkish slavery, and the status of women abroad. The statue itself embodied the vision of the ideal chaste female–modest, demure, and in need of protection– and represented all of the Greek women whom the ladies’ aid societies wanted to help with their donations of clothing and funding. For American women, however, this image of Greek slavery and Turkish oppression contributed to conversations on the persistence of female oppression at home.

Abolitionists saw in The Greek Slave an image that highlighted the degree to which the United States fell short of its ideals. Frederick Douglass’s paper captured this sentiment best in a review that described the statue in great detail and offered emotional reaction to seeing the innocent young girl in chains. “How heart and brain burn with hatred for the cruel Turk who does thus violate the sacred rights of human nature,” condemned the reviewer, “And to this feeling heart and discerning eye all slave girls are GREEK, and all slave mungers Turks, wicked cruel and hateful be their names… their country Algiers or Alabama, Congo or Carolina the same.” Many other abolitionist publications drew similar conclusions, hoping the Greek Slave’s tour would bring about a national awakening to the similarities between slavery in the Ottoman Empire and the United States.

The legacy of the philhellenic movement influenced the foundation of the women’s rights movement as well. The Greek Slave had inspired Lucy Stone to not only continue her efforts at ending slavery in the U.S., but it also influenced her to advocate for women’s issues. Stone and other like-minded women also used The Greek Slave and the rhetoric made popular during the Greek Revolution as a vehicle for more radical political statements. Harriet Hosmer, a female American sculptor and contemporary of Hiram Powers, used art to convey her message of anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights. Supported by reformers such as Lucy Stone, Lydia Maria Child, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Hosmer crafted a critique of Powers’ statue with her own sculpture of a female slave. Unlike The Greek Slave, Hosmer’s creation, Zenobia, depicted the strong, resolute defiance of a woman in the face of male oppression. Her depiction of Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra who was enslaved by the Romans in 274 C.E., reflected Hosmer’s position and other women’s rights advocates, that their subject should promote a strong and publicly visible approach to women’s reform. Instead of Powers’ depiction of a subdued, weak, and demure woman suffering under male oppression, Hosmer created a female image that stood resolute and determined.

Suffragettes continued to draw on the rhetoric of the philhellenic movement in the late nineteenth century, echoing the critiques reformers had made of the Greek Slave. In the 1880s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote a history of the woman’s suffrage movement and in this three-volume work they included comparisons to slavery elsewhere in the world to the condition of women in the United States. “American men may quiet their consciences with the delusion that no such injustice exists in this country as in Eastern nations,” scoffed the suffragettes, “yet the same principle that degrades her in Turkey, insults her in this republic.” Stanton continued that “Custom forbids a woman there to enter a mosque, or call the hour of prayers; here it forbids her a voice in Church Councils or State Legislatures. The same taint of her primitive state of slavery affects both latitudes.”

The Greek cause and its legacy in American reform reveals both the consensus that first inspired female activism for Greece as well as the diverging opinions concerning slavery and women’s rights. The Greek cause brought together many different women’s groups with a range of philanthropic interests including religious reform, charity for Greek mothers and their children, refugees, and education reform. Women’s participation in the philhellenic movement initially galvanized their involvement in antebellum reform and took female-organized benevolence abroad. Though consensus among female organizations did not last and although not all of the women involved in the Greek cause went on to become radical advocates for abolition and women’s rights, the memory of the Greek cause continued to play a pivotal role in nineteenth-century reformist rhetoric.

Selected Bibliography
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