Maria Stewart was a political activist of the early- to mid-nineteenth century who had important impacts in the areas of women's rights and the rights of African Americans. At a time when womenwhether of European, African, or other ancestrydid not often speak publicly on political issues, Stewart established herself as a public speaker and a writer whose principal topics were the evils of slavery and the need for women to come forward and take responsibility for righting this wrongand more generally for improving their own status so that they could more effectively influence the course of events in their country.
Maria Stewart was born Maria Miller in Hartford, Connecticut in 1803. Both of her parents died while she was still very young, and she was taken into the home of a clergyman, not as a family member but as a servant. As a teenager, she worked for pay in other households as a domestic servant. However, she at this time was laying the groundwork for a different sort of future for herself by learning to read and write, which she accomplished with the aid of instruction she received in Sabbath school. Her social and financial situations were improved by her marriage to James W. Stewart in 1826. Stewart, a much older man, was a naval veteran of the War of 1812 and was at the time of his marriage to Maria Miller employed in the shipping business in Boston, where the newly married couple lived. But after only three years of marriage, James Stewart died, and his estate, apparently through legal chicanery, went to the white businessmen in Boston who served as his executors, rather than to his widow.
At about this time, Maria Stewart's interest in religious matters greatly increased, as she evidently turned to religion as a comfort in the aftermath of her husband's death. At the same time her desire to play an active role in improving social conditions became more pressing. When William Lloyd Garrison launched the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, at the beginning of 1831, Stewart soon responded to his call for contributions by submitting several essays for publication, and she also began delivering public addresses, which, relying heavily on biblical references, called for the end of slavery and the elevation of women in American society. For both women and African Americans she emphasized the importance of education as crucial to gaining social equality. Her first public speech, to the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston, was delivered to an all-female audience, but she later spoke to audiences that included men as well as women. Stewart remained in Boston only until 1833. After her departure for New York and later to Baltimore, she worked as a teacher, served on the staff of Frederick Douglass's The North Star, another abolitionist newspaper, and was active in women's groups. In 1835 Garrison published a collection of her speeches as Productions of Maria W. Stewart, and later, in 1878, Stewart herself published Meditations from the Pen of Maria W. Stewart. Stewart's speeches and essays, potent in themselves, were also important as a part of the growing impetus of the abolitionist movement and as one of the stimuli to the women's rights movement that would flower in 1848 in the Seneca Falls, New York Women's Rights Convention.