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When Canvassers Became Activists: Antislavery Petitioning and the Political Mobilization of American Women


Examining an original dataset of more than 8,500 antislavery petitions sent to Congress (1833–1845), we argue that American women's petition canvassing conferred skills and contacts that empowered their later activism. We find that women canvassers gathered 50% or more signatures (absolute and per capita) than men while circulating the same petition requests in the same locales. Supplementary evidence (mainly qualitative) points to women's persuasive capacity and network building as the most plausible mechanisms for this increased efficacy. We then present evidence that leaders in the women's rights and reform campaigns of the nineteenth century were previously active in antislavery canvassing. Pivotal signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration were antislavery petition canvassers, and in an independent sample of post–Civil War activists, women were four times more likely than men to have served as identifiable antislavery canvassers. For American women, petition canvassing—with its patterns of persuasion and networking—shaped legacies in political argument, network formation, and organizing.

Corresponding author
Daniel Carpenter is Allie S. Freed Professor of Government; Director, Center for American Political Studies; Director of Social Sciences, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Harvard University (
Colin D. Moore is Assistant Professor of Political Science University of Hawaii (
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