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Women's Reform Movement

A common story runs through textbook accounts of antebellum women reformers. It is a tale of origins and future progress, of new roles for women and the beginning of a movement for gender equality stretching to the present day. This story's usual starting point is the enormous amount of social, economic, demographic, and cultural change that occurred between 1815 and the Civil War. Exactly how the antebellum transformation of America produced an antislavery and a women's rights movement is often vague in textbook accounts, but three things commonly receive attention.

Textbook Narratives

The first is rapid economic growth that produced a new, primarily urban, middle class from which reformers generally came. It also led to an increasing number of women (usually not middle-class ones) working outside the home for wages.

Two further changes of significance for antebellum reform were cultural. One was a wave of Protestant revivalism, frequently called "the Second Great Awakening," that swept across the United States after the War of 1812. It was an intensely emotional religious experience that for some converts carried with it a moral imperative to reform the world.

Reality aside, "true womanhood" posited that women and men had essentially different natures and hence had different spheres of influence."

For middle-class women it encouraged engagement with social issues such as drunkenness (primarily a male vice) and the abolition of slavery. Abolition provided a crucial link to what lies at the center of the story of women reformers—the Women's Rights Movement and its founding manifesto, the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. As Angelina Grimké famously wrote: "The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own."

Another cultural shift, however, had a more ambiguous relationship to women's participation in reform. In textbooks it sometimes appears as the "cult of true womanhood" (the title of a pioneering essay on the subject) or as a "cult of domesticity." Scholars use these terms cautiously and critically, emphasizing that they refer to idealized images, not to the day-to-day lives of most women, even in the middle classes.

Reality aside, "true womanhood" posited that women and men had essentially different natures and hence had different spheres of influence. Women—presumed weaker, more emotional, but also innately more moral—ruled the home as their proper domain. Worlds outside the home—commerce, politics, and the professions, for example—belonged to men.

Borrowing the language of the Declaration of Independence, they indicted man, instead of King George, as the oppressor.

This was an ideology against which Women's Rights advocates rebelled, but its claims about the superior moral nature of women could also justify their involvement in reform. This was especially true of middle-class women who, as textbooks often note, were increasingly well-educated while having few other ways to apply their learning, intelligence, and convictions outside the home.

With these changes in the background, the primary focus of textbooks is on that gathering of reformers, mostly abolitionists, in Seneca Falls in 1848, and the stirring Declaration of Sentiments they produced. Borrowing the language of the Declaration of Independence, they indicted man, instead of King George, as the oppressor. This, so the story goes, was the birth of a long struggle for gender equality.

A Closer Look

There is much in this account with which scholars would agree, but there are also claims they would shade differently and omissions they would note. I will give five examples, although they do not apply equally to every textbook. These examples are mostly reactions against the Seneca-centric perspective of textbooks.

  1. First on my list is the frequent omission of other women reformers with agendas differing from the Seneca Falls Declaration. Some, for example, went beyond the Declaration, vigorously attacking religion and marriage as oppressive institutions for women. Prime among these was Scottish-born Frances Wright, a popular lecturer who established a black and white utopian community in Tennessee in the 1820s. Her controversial ideas on gender and religion (among other topics) were so notorious that "Fanny Wrightism" became a slang term for a dangerous extremist.

    Her controversial ideas on gender and religion (among other topics) were so notorious that "Fanny Wrightism" became a slang term for a dangerous extremist.

    Margaret Fuller published her own manifesto on gender equality, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, three years before Seneca Falls.

    A notable radical after the Civil War was Victoria Woodhull, whose list of reform commitments was staggering. In 1872 she became the first woman presidential candidate (although too young to hold the office). The Equal Rights Party platform on which she ran reflected the abolitionist heritage apparent at Seneca Falls, but was bolder in its call for gender and racial equality (see Primary Source Equal Rights Party Platform [1872]).

    Compared to it, Margaret Fuller, and Frances Wright, the Seneca Falls Declaration looks more narrowly focused, a perception encouraged by textbooks' emphasis on its call for women's suffrage, rather than other radical rhetoric it contains.

  2. Textbooks also seldom address class differences, thus obscuring the fact that, by and large, the women represented at Seneca Falls were not the same women who were entering the wage labor force in larger numbers. Nor was the vote necessarily a high priority for the latter.
  3. A related omission has to do with the two groups of women who do figure into the usual story: middle-class reformers in urban areas or small towns and early women factory workers (see Primary Source Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls [1898]). Far more women lived in different places, under different circumstances—on farms, on plantations, or on frontiers. Were their views represented in Seneca Falls?
  4. Yet another group of women is largely absent in textbook accounts—those who opposed the Woman's Rights Movement, including women who had careers outside the household as writers, educators, or, as seen in "Women's Rights: A Right Good Ballad" (see "Womans Rights" Sheet Music [1853]), a composer. Looking at these women reveals both conflicting sets of values among women and different ideas about producing social change.

    Maria Stewart linked gender and racial oppression in an 1832 speech, 16 years before Seneca Falls...

    Catharine Beecher, for example, rates occasional mention for her book for housewives and for her controversy with the abolitionist, Angelina Grimké. In these instances, Beecher comes across as an opponent of Women's Rights. Read carefully, however, her debate with Grimké is in part a disagreement over how women should produce social change, not whether they should.

  5. The final item on this list of omissions and disagreements is the contribution of African American women to abolitionism and Women's Rights. They are generally represented by Sojourner Truth. She was an impressive figure, but to focus on her is to hide the contributions of other African American women abolitionists and to silence their views on gender.

    For example, Maria Stewart linked gender and racial oppression in an 1832 speech, 16 years before Seneca Falls and 19 years before Truth's oft-quoted remarks on the subject (see Primary Source "Why Sit Here and Die?" Speech [1832]). Stewart and a handful of other African American women abolitionists, moreover, had rich and varied lives, some with impressive literary and professional accomplishments.

Given space requirements and state guidelines, it is unlikely that any textbook could please a scholarly expert in the field, even if one is the author. With that in mind, however, the usual textbook story about antebellum women reformers serves best as an invitation to pose questions about the diversity of antebellum women's perspectives and about why and how American women have set out to change the world.

 
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