Women Reformers and Radicals in Antebellum America

Julie Holcomb. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

In July 1848, as many as 300 men and women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the civil, social, religious, and political rights of women. At the conclusion of the two-day meeting, 100 people signed the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which claimed “that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Moreover, the signers asserted, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her” (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage 1887, 70). In a conscious parallel to the Declaration of Independence, women’s rights advocates outlined male offenses and demanded redress for a system that legitimized male authority at the expense of female rights.

In the History of Woman Suffrage, women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton attributed the inspiration for the Seneca Falls convention to the exclusion of female delegates from the first World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. In the spring of that year, the American antislavery movement had split over the relationship between women’s rights and the antislavery movement. Conservative abolitionists Lewis and Arthur Tappan worried that the controversy over women’s rights would hinder the anti-slavery movement. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed otherwise. In May 1840, at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), the Tappans and their supporters left the AASS and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS). Garrison, in the meantime, assumed leadership of the AASS. The AASS welcomed women into the association as equals, while the AFASS emphasized the fundamental differences between men and women. Both organizations sent representatives to the Convention in London in June. The AASS sent both male and female delegates, including Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, while the AFASS sent an all-male delegation. Not surprisingly, the conservative British organizers refused to seat the female delegates of the AASS. When Garrison learned that the women delegates had not been recognized, he refused to enter the convention and instead watched the proceedings with the women in the balcony. While women delegates were not allowed to participate in the convention, the event did bring together Mott and Stanton, who was attending the convention with her new husband, the abolitionist Henry Stanton. Stanton later recalled, “As Mrs. Mott and I walked home, arm in arm, commenting on the incidents of the day, we resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women” (Penney and Livingston 2004, 69).

Was the origin of the 19th-century women’s rights movement as straightforward as Stanton claimed? Certainly the meeting of Stanton and Mott marked a watershed moment in the history of women’s rights. Still, women’s activism already had a lengthy history at the time of the Stanton-Mott meeting in 1840. The women’s rights movement evolved from women’s participation in other activities, including charity work, movements for temperance, education, prison, and moral reform, labor activism, and, particularly, antislavery. Participation in these movements enabled some women to envision a new form of citizenship based on the concept of women as morally and legally autonomous individuals who participated directly in democratic politics and civil society, rather than through the institution of the family.

Women’s reform work, including women’s rights, was based on a comprehensive critique of antebellum American society. As abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote in 1842, “Great political changes may be forced by the pressure of external circumstances, without a corresponding change in the moral sentiment of a nation, but in all such cases, the change is worse than useless; the evil reappears, and usually in a more exaggerated form” (DuBois 1998, 62). Women’s rights activists, in particular, sought more than suffrage. In order to achieve gender equality, women needed to alter not only legal and political institutions but also change the heart of the country.

Women and the Market Revolution

The change of heart women activists sought was rooted in the dramatic social transformations of the antebellum period (1820-1860), which fundamentally altered Americans’ understandings and experiences of gender, the family, politics, freedom, and the individual. During the early 19th century, a new economic order took shape (albeit gradually and unevenly) based on large-scale manufacturing and trade, competition, consumption, and cash exchange. This market revolution was made possible in part by advances in transportation, which in less than 100 years had evolved from the river and trail routes of the Indians to turnpikes, canals, and finally, by the mid-19th century, railroads. Improved transportation aided the development of the factory system by making the movement of people, raw materials, and finished products easier and more efficient. Across the Northeast in particular, factories replaced the home-based artisan workshop. In this newly industrializing market economy, people no longer produced items solely for family sustenance or for their local communities; instead, workers used industrial technology to manufacture goods for unseen consumers in distant markets.

The rise of industrial capitalism set off a wave of social changes, including the development of an urban working class, the formation of a new urban middle class, and experiences of and anxieties about economic instability across the social spectrum. Increasingly, men and women worked in factories, offices, or as domestics in middle-and upper-class homes. The personal relationship that had once existed between a master or mistress, on the one hand, and his or her servant or apprentice, on the other, was replaced by an impersonal, commodity-based relationship that often pitted the two groups against each other. Moreover, industrialization created distinct divisions between the working and middle classes. For example, industrialization increased leisure time for middle-class men and women while working-class men and women often struggled to survive in the new economy. The urban-based economy also meant workers were increasingly dependent on cash wages, rather than living off the land as men and women did in an agricultural society. For workers, this meant their financial well-being ebbed and flowed with shifts in the economy. This vulnerability was particularly evident in the events leading up to and during the Panic of 1819, an economic crisis that occurred in the United States after Britain and France ended years of warfare. The economy slowed precipitously as demand for American products declined. The Bank of the United States, as well as state and private banks, recalled loans. Many farmers, unable to pay their loans, lost everything. Money also became scarce, making it even more difficult for people to pay off their debts, or even to purchase the goods they needed to survive. During this period, an estimated half-million workers were unemployed as businesses failed, foreclosures increased, and bank notes depreciated.

The market revolution also transformed the relationship between the family and society, and gave rise to a new paradigm in gender relations. In this development, the urban middle class led the way. During the colonial period, work, domestic life, and leisure were all centered in the patriarchal household. Women were decidedly subordinate to men in law and custom, but there was no strict dividing line between work and home, or between public and private life. With the rise of industrial capitalism, more and more men left their homes to go to work in shops, offices, or factories, as many as six days a week. In exchange, they received a cash salary based on their individual labor, which could be used to purchase goods for their own and their family’s needs. As husbands spent more time away from home, they surrendered responsibility for the functioning of the household to their wives.

This division between home and work was explained, justified, and enabled by a set of ideas about gender and society that historians have termed the “ideology of separate spheres.” According to this ideology, men and women were endowed by God and nature with opposite, complementary traits, which dictated that men occupy the public realms of economic and political activity, and women occupy the private realm of the home and family. The ideology of separate spheres was premised on the assumption that men earned enough money to support their non-laboring wives and children at home. It thus did not accurately describe the reality of enslaved, immigrant, working-class, and female-headed families, in which—by force or necessity—all members were required to make an economic contribution to the household. Middle-class men and women were the greatest proponents and propagators of separate spheres, yet even they were not always able to fully live up to its idealizations. Nonetheless, separate spheres constituted a powerful set of prescriptions in antebellum America, to which many men and women aspired, and against which all men and women were assessed and measured.

The ideology of separate spheres deemed men to be rational, competitive, aggressive, and independent, qualities that perfectly suited them to take on the role of breadwinner in an industrializing capitalist economy. The extension of suffrage to all adult white men reinforced the association between men and the public domain. After 1815, state after state revoked property qualifications for voting and holding elected office. Thomas Jefferson’s view that “every man who fights and pays” should be granted the ballot asserted that the right to vote should be based on the ability to serve the nation (Isenberg 1998, 7). Basing voting rights on military service and the payment of taxes signaled an allegiance between the individual white male and the state. White men from across the social spectrum eagerly embraced the expanding opportunities for political participation, joining political parties, participating in campaigns, and turning out to vote in record numbers. By 1840, nearly 80 percent of eligible voters participated at the ballot box. At the same time, most black men and all women were excluded from participating in electoral politics. As the perceived dependents of white men, they were viewed as incapable of service to the nation, and therefore were not eligible to vote.

The ideology of separate spheres also contributed to a new ideal of womanhood. While men were ascribed power and influence in the public sphere, women maintained primary importance in the private sphere. The ideal of true womanhood was based on four traits: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Piety served as the core of woman’s virtue, and reflected a common belief that women were naturally drawn to religion. Like piety, the absence of sexual purity in women was deemed unnatural and unfeminine. Purity was woman’s greatest treasure, to be saved as a gift for her husband on their wedding night. Submissiveness was considered the most feminine of virtues. Men were actors; women were reactors. Domesticity reinforced the idea that “the domestic fireside is the great guardian of society against the excesses of human passions” (Welter 1966, 162). In the home, woman created a haven from the rough and tumble public world of work and politics in which men participated. Because she possessed these characteristics, the true woman was deemed to be morally superior to man and was expected to wield virtuous influence over her husband, brothers, and sons through her guidance and example.

Historians initially interpreted women’s confinement to the domestic sphere and the rise of the ideal of true womanhood “as signs of woman’s defeat at the hands of the Jacksonian era’s ‘true man,’ who was aggressive, virile, competitive, and domineering” (Hewitt 1984, 18). Certainly, the ideology of separate spheres limited women’s participation in the political, economic, and social life of the nation. Separate spheres justified women’s ongoing exclusion from the elective franchise. The central tenet of the ideology that women were not workers contributed to at least two effects. When women did enter into the wage workforce, they found themselves in a gender-stratified economy, relegated to a low-paying, low-status female job sector. At same time, the economic contributions of women’s domestic labor went unrecognized and uncompensated. Separate spheres also reinforced the legal subordination of women, since it easily coexisted with existing laws of domestic relations that were based on the doctrine of coverture.

However limiting the ideology of separate spheres and the ideal of true womanhood may have been, they also accrued some advantages to women. According to these sets of beliefs, the wife and mother served as the moral authority for the family and, by association, for society. In 1832, the New York Maternal Association noted that because mothers were primarily responsible for the cultivation of Christian values in their children, they would play a critical role in bringing about a “third moral revolution … When every nursery shall become a little sanctuary, and not before, will the earth be filled with the knowledge and glory of the Lord” (Meckel 1982, 412). Women were thus to be lauded for their domestic roles, and recognized for the vital contributions they made to ensuring the moral progress of the American nation.

The ideology of separate spheres also provided women with an intense network of relationships from which they could draw emotional and practical support. Women visited one another; cared for one another’s babies; cleaned, sewed, and shopped for one another; and exchanged frequent letters. Bonds between women were often maintained for a lifetime. In a letter to her daughter Anne about her own half-sister Phoebe, Quaker matron Martha Jefferis wrote: “In sister Phoebe I have a real friend—she studies my comfort and waits on me like a child … She is exceedingly kind and this to all other homes (set aside yours) I would prefer—it is next to being with a daughter.” Phoebe expressed similar feelings in a letter to Martha: “Thou knowest my dear sister, there is not one … that exactly feels [for] thee as I do, for I think without boasting I can truly say that my desire is for thee” (SmithRosenberg 1985, 62-63).

Antebellum women drew on the tenets of true womanhood, as well as their female friendships and communal networks, to form benevolent and social reform organizations intended to ameliorate the myriad ills plaguing antebellum society. Of paramount importance in leading women out of the home to serve the needs of the wider world was the growing influence of evangelical Christianity. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s and 1830s, led by ministers such as Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney, gave followers a sense of order in a chaotic world. Finney and other ministers repudiated traditional Calvinist ideas about innate depravity, predestination, and everlasting punishment, and exhorted followers to seek a personal relationship with a loving and merciful God. Since sin was the result of selfish choices, men and women could determine their own eternal fate. Moreover, if individuals used their innate free will to make better choices, Finney and other revivalist ministers promised, the collective effect would mitigate social evils such as poverty, intemperance, and prostitution, and lead to the perfection of American society. Evangelical ministers promulgated the view that women held “a unique responsibility to disseminate Christian virtues and counter the materialism and greed of the nineteenth-century male” (Ginzburg 1990, 14). Women eagerly embraced this message and quickly outnumbered men among the converts. Inspired by their sense of moral superiority and encouraged by the evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening, they ventured into the public sphere, paradoxically both bolstering and challenging the dictates of separate spheres and true womanhood as they took up the mantle of benevolence and social reform.

Benevolence and Reform

Women’s reform work thus developed within a context of major social, economic, and religious ferment. Beginning in the 1790s, women organized benevolent associations to care for widows and orphans, as well as to provide aid for the elderly and medical care to pregnant women. Generally, these associations were organized along class and racial lines. For example, in Boston and New York, women from upper—and middle-class families organized groups such as the New York Society for the Relief of Poor Women with Small Children (1797) and the Boston Female Asylum (1800). Women’s benevolent organizations were often organized within churches or local communities, further reinforcing class and racial divisions, and were established to take care of people—generally women and children—overlooked by existing social programs. These organizations relied upon traditional networks of influence for financial and political support, and rarely made broad appeals to the public or published reports of their activities. For example, the Boston Female Asylum listed Sarah Bowdoin as its manager. Bowdoin was the daughter-in-law of a former governor and the wife of a prominent state politician. The organization drew on Bowdoin’s social standing and political connections to obtain financial support from private and public organizations, as well as political support, when the group sought passage of a legislative bill to incorporate the association.

The women participating in these early benevolent organizations did not seek sweeping changes in society or transformations of the existing racial, class, or gender order. Rather, they simply sought to provide material and spiritual aid to those in unfortunate circumstances. Benevolent women believed it was their duty as privileged Christian women to provide relief to the less fortunate members of their community. The ideology of separate spheres, with its emphasis on women’s superior morality, encouraged women to venture into the public sphere, yet their public role as benevolent women reinforced their self-identification as moral mothers, rather than challenged traditional gender ideals.

By the late 1820s, an important development in women’s public activities occurred as the economic, political, and religious changes of the period intensified. New women’s organizations emerged, devoted not only to charitable assistance for the downtrodden, but to social reform. Unlike benevolent organizations, reform groups wanted to restructure society rather than just to ameliorate its evils. Drawing directly from the religious revivals of the period, which emphasized individual action, perfectibility, and female morality, women reformers went further than benevolent did women in pushing against the boundaries of separate spheres, even as they continued to espouse the ideal of domesticity. Women reformers sometimes organized associations across lines of race and class and, occasionally, gender. Some white middle-class women claimed to identify with women who were poor, enslaved, or in other dismal circumstances. Women reformers thus cultivated a “gender consciousness,” the notion that all women embodied common characteristics, faced similar hardships, and shared a sisterly obligation to relieve one another’s suffering.

The temperance movement was the largest and most sustained reform movement of the 19th century. Concerned about the increasing popularity of alcohol, northern Whig evangelicals established temperance organizations, including the American Temperance Society, which was formed in 1826. Temperance reformers linked alcohol consumption with a variety of social evils, including poverty, crime, family violence, and poor child rearing. Because of the impact of alcohol consumption on the family, temperance drew a significant number of women into the ranks of the movement. Temperance advocates used lectures, pamphlets, and rallies to persuade men to pledge abstinence from alcohol. As legal writer Henry Folsom Page wrote in 1850, intemperance “blunted” men’s morals and rendered them unable to fulfill their “relations” as spouse, father, and citizen (Isenberg 1998, 159). As historian Nancy Isenberg summarizes, Page believed chronic intemperance violated “the most basic conjugal right of fidelity … the wife was forced to share her bed with a virtual stranger—a man devoid of any understanding of his duty as a husband because he lacked affection for her” (159). In the 1830s, working-class men’s participation in the movement grew, as concerns over the effects of alcohol on job performance increased. By 1835, more than 5,000 temperance societies had been established throughout the United States. By the 1840s, temperance reformers had significantly reduced the consumption of alcohol and, by the 1850s, many states either limited or prohibited the sale of alcohol and allowed drunkenness as grounds for divorce.

Women were also involved in education reform, which focused in part on establishing tax-supported schools. Calvin Stowe, Horace Mann, and other education reformers worried about the effects of an illiterate electorate on democratic institutions and principles. State-supported schools would provide education to the masses and help build individual character, which in turn would create informed voters and responsible citizens. Moreover, the state of women’s education came under scrutiny as reformers emphasized women’s role as the moral core of the family. During the 1820s and 1830s, education pioneers Emma Willard, Catharine Beecher, and Mary Lyon founded several notable seminaries for girls. The primary function of these schools was to train girls in the proper fulfillment of their maternal roles and to enable them to exercise their moral guardianship more broadly by preparing them to become teachers. Maintaining that female students could meet the highest standards for intellectual rigor, education reformers nonetheless also emphasized women’s distinct role as moral protectors of the family and society. They thus reiterated expectations for separate spheres, even as they made available the tools that would enable some women to think critically about traditional gender conventions and to act to move beyond them.

Crime and vice were also the focus of several reform movements. Advocating reform of the individual rather than physical punishment, incarceration, or execution, prison reformers called for programs that emphasized instruction and personal discipline. Crime resulted from childhood neglect, which was better addressed by rehabilitation than punishment. Prison reform also influenced changes in the treatment of the mentally ill. Often the mentally ill were confined to prisons or poor houses. In the 1840s, reformers like Dorothea Dix led a movement to establish insane asylums to aid the mentally ill.

Moral reformers focused on the crime of female prostitution. The New York Female Moral Reform Society, organized in 1834, was followed by the American Female Moral Reform Society, which boasted more than 500 local chapters by 1840. Drawing on evangelical ideas about women’s innate sexual purity, moral reformers placed blame for prostitution on men rather than women. Sympathizing with their fallen sisters, they decried a sexual double standard that punished all women more harshly than men for sexual indiscretions, and criticized a male-dominated economic system that rendered all women vulnerable to poverty. To further their cause, moral reformers engaged in such bold, and unfeminine, public acts as visiting prostitutes, publishing the names of their male clients, and campaigning for anti-seduction laws. As with other reform efforts of the period, moral reform drew from and perpetuated the ideology of separate spheres. It also helped to pave the way for the women’s rights movement by developing women’s gender consciousness and heightening their recognition of the need for women to act collectively to improve society and their own condition within it.

While much of early 19th-century reform was spearheaded by women of the white middle class, other groups of women also acted to improve their lives and create a more just and egalitarian society. White working-class women engaged in a number of protests against reduced wages, increased hours, and undesirable working conditions during the antebellum period. In 1824, Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s female weavers voted to abandon their looms after employers announced a reduction in piece rates. In 1828, Dover, New Hampshire textile workers walked off the job protesting low wages and long hours. In February 1834, the women textile mill operatives of Lowell, Massachusetts “turned out” (went on strike) when employers proposed a wage reduction. While many of these protests or strikes were unsuccessful, as was the Lowell turnout, they nonetheless signaled a growing activism among women workers.

The sporadic strikes of the 1820s and early 1830s were followed by more-concerted efforts at labor organizing. In 1836, mill hands in Lowell came together to form the Factory Girls Association; other textile workers around New England followed suit by establishing local organizations devoted to furthering working women’s interests. In the 1840s, women workers joined with men in the labor movement in agitating for the 10-hour day. In a courageous move that countered conventional imperatives for female silence and submissiveness, a group of Lowell workers testified before the Massachusetts legislature about poor working conditions in the mills. While this effort was also unsuccessful, it signaled the development of a growing class and gender consciousness among working women, who recognized that they shared common struggles, and, accordingly, could and should join together to advocate for their interests and secure their rights. When opportunities first opened up for them in the textile industry in the 1820s, many mill workers proclaimed an allegiance to the ideals of true womanhood, and defended their respectability as ladies, even as they ventured away from the confines of the patriarchal family. With the protests of the 1830s and 1840s, some working women more deliberately questioned and pushed beyond the boundaries of women’s sphere and joined other antebellum reformers in claiming a broader role for women in speaking and acting in public life.

Like working-and middle-class white women, African American women worked to reform society and improve their lives. Significantly, African American women’s benevolent and reform work also emphasized racial uplift. For example, when the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem (Massachusetts) organized in 1818, the society pledged “to be charitably watchful over each other” and “to advise caution and admonish where we judge there is an occasion, and that it may be useful; and we promise not to resent but kindly receive such friendly advise [sic] from our members” (Cott 2000, 219). The constitution of the Afric-Female Intelligence Society of America, established in Boston in 1831, emphasized “the welfare of our friends” as well as the abolition of slavery (Yee, 1992, 63). This pledge of mutual aid and improvement was an integral part of African American women’s groups because racism affected the black elite and the black poor in similar ways. To promote racial betterment, African American women also formed literary societies. Philadelphia, for example, had 106 African American literary societies by 1849, with membership of more than one-half of Philadelphia’s African American population. Some African American clubs also raised funds to build schools and libraries for the African American community. One such club, the Ohio Ladies Educational Society, had opened, by the 1840s, more African American schools than any other American organization, black or white. However, of all the reform causes African American women worked in, none was more important than abolitionism.


Of the antebellum reform movements, abolitionism was the best known and most controversial. The abolitionist movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s came from earlier attempts in the United States and England to abolish the slave trade and slavery. In the Revolutionary period, antislavery societies were generally organized by white elite males, usually Quakers, who sought the gradual abolition of slavery. When the international slave trade was abolished in England in 1807 and in the United States in 1808, abolitionists hailed the events as a great victory. In 1817, American abolitionists organized the American Colonization Society (ACS), which focused on establishing an American colony in Africa for freed slaves and free blacks. Supporters of the ACS believed that removing the free black population from the United States would speed the abolition of slavery. However, many black abolitionists feared forced emigration to Africa and opposed the antiblack sentiment of the ACS. Black abolitionists organized black and white supporters to discredit the ACS.

The movement for the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States evolved from black and white abolitionists’ fight against colonization. The fight for the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States also benefited from the British antislavery movement. In 1824, British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick published Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition, the most influential antislavery tract of the day. Heyrick challenged the gradualist stance of the British antislavery leadership. Moreover, she staked a claim for grassroots participation in abolitionism by calling on men, women, and even children to abstain from the products of slave labor, most notably sugar from the West Indies. In England, Heyrick’s pamphlet influenced a shift in national antislavery strategy, which by 1831 emphasized the immediate abolition of slavery. In the United States, Heyrick’s tract inspired numerous women to abstain from the products of slave labor.

Heyrick also influenced William Lloyd Garrison. In 1831, Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator. While Garrison’s newspaper is credited with creating a new, radical abolitionist movement based on the immediate abolition of slavery and racial equality, Garrison’s views drew directly from the early activism of women and black abolitionists. Moreover, Garrison was deeply influenced by the religious revivals of the 1820s. Like many reformers, Garrison believed that slavery prevented blacks from exercising their innate free will, and that slavery corrupted the slaveholder by sanctioning force against an entire group of people. In 1832, Garrison helped organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1833, he helped form the American Anti-Slavery Society. By the 1840s, men and women had formed more than 1,500 local and regional antislavery groups.

Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; thus, women’s support was crucial to the movement. In the 1820s, inspired by Heyrick and the activism of British women in the abolitionist movement, American women organized “free produce societies” to encourage abstention from the products of slave labor. In the 1830s, many of those same women organized antislavery societies. In addition to forming groups that were auxiliary to men’s organizations, women also participated in local, state, and national antislavery organizations. In 1832, African American women formed the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, the first female antislavery organization in the United States. One year later, women aided the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Lucretia Mott helped write the organization’s Declaration of Sentiments. Mott also played a key role in organizing the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS) in 1833, the most radical and most influential of female antislavery societies. That same year, Boston women formed their own Female Anti-Slavery Society. African American women played an important role in establishing both societies. Abolitionism held particular appeal for women activists, regardless of race, who saw in slavery the violation of traditional ideas of family and gender. Significantly for women abolitionists, slavery encouraged the sexual abuse of slave women and violated the mother-child bond by masters who held absolute power over slaves and their families. The misuse of the female body under slavery paralleled the misuse of free female bodies. Still, tensions did exist between white and black female abolitionists. White women generally focused on moral suasion in their fight against slavery, while African American women focused on a broader agenda, including racial uplift, with abolitionism. Moreover, white women frequently held conservative views of racial equality.

To promote their cause, abolitionists used a number of tactics. In 1835, abolitionists organized a postal campaign targeting ministers, politicians, and newspaper editors throughout the South. Reformers flooded the South with thousands of pieces of abolitionist literature, believing that once convinced of the hostility of world opinion against slavery, slaveholders would voluntarily end slavery. Instead, the abolitionists’ postal campaign sparked a wave of mob violence. Throughout the North and the South, anti-abolitionist mobs formed, destroying property and threatening the lives of reformers.

The mid-1830s also saw the beginnings of an intensive national petition campaign against slavery. The campaign emphasized local organizing, as volunteers went door-to-door, gathering signatures on petitions to send to Congress. Like the free produce movement, the petition campaign appealed to women and to others who found signing a petition a safe way to voice their support for the abolitionist cause. Signing a petition did not require facing down an angry mob. The American Anti-Slavery Society estimated that, between 1835 and 1838, more than 415,000 petitions had been sent to Congress; significantly, more than half of those petitions bore the signatures of women. Still, no Congressional action was taken as a result of the petitions, because they were automatically tabled. The Gag Rule, adopted in 1836 in the wake of anti-abolitionist rioting, remained in force until 1844. Rather than easing sectional tensions, as intended, the Gag Rule contributed to the growing sectionalist divide in American politics, helped politicize the American abolitionist movement, and, for women, underscored the corrupt nature of politics and the need for women to take an active role in abolishing slavery and in reforming the American political system.

Petitioning and abstention from slave-labor produce were antislavery tactics particularly suited to women because they did not require a dramatic, public statement of antislavery sentiment. However, by the mid-1830s, some of the more radical antislavery women consciously sought an equal and public role for abolitionist women. In 1836, Garrison hired Angelina and Sarah Grimké as lecturers for the American Anti-Slavery Society. The Grimké sisters were members of a well-known South Carolina slave-holding family. Recent converts to the Society of Friends and to antislavery, the Grimké sisters were powerful and popular spokespersons for the antislavery cause. Their lectures soon drew mixed-sex audiences, which challenged traditional views of appropriate female behavior. The Congregational clergy of Massachusetts publicly rebuked the sisters in 1837, declaring that when women like the Grimkés assumed the public role of men, they risked shame and dishonor: “[W]hen [woman] assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary, we put ourselves in self-defense against her, she yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural” (Melder 1977, 83).

Even more disturbing were Angelina Grimké’s claims for an equal role for women in the fight against slavery. In Letters to Catharine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Grimké asserted, “The rights of all men, from the king to the slave are built upon their moral nature; and as all men have this moral nature so all men have essentially the same rights.” Thus, if these rights were “founded in moral being … then the circumstances of sex could not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to woman” (Sklar 2000, 36-37). In other words, Grimké saw women’s historically and socially constricted position as similar to that of the slave. At its most radical, then, the antislavery movement claimed absolute human equality, regardless of race or gender. The Grimkés’ actions and their words emphasized women’s ascribed morality, which other women reformers had also relied on to stake out a more public role in reform and in politics. However, the Grimkés defined women as autonomous individuals rather than as subordinate members of the family.

From Abolitionism to Women’s Rights

Between 1837 and 1840, reformers continued to debate the proper role for women in the abolitionist movement. In 1837, women organized the Anti-Slavery Convention of Women, which drew more than 200 women. A second convention was held in 1838, bringing 300 women to Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia; however, the convention was interrupted and then forced to move when anti-abolitionist mobs burned down the hall. In 1839, attendance was significantly less than the previous year. At each of the conventions, women gave speeches and passed resolutions, including a call to women to claim a more public role in the antislavery movement. However, many men and women opposed a public presence for women. In May 1840, when Abby Kelley was nominated to the business committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), Lewis Tappan and 300 supporters (including the entire executive committee) left the society. In June, male and female delegates from the AASS arrived in London to participate in the first World’s Anti-Slavery Convention organized by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. However, the conservative British abolitionists refused to recognize the women delegates.

While the exclusion of women delegates from the London convention had a decided impact on events leading to the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls eight years later, other developments helped shape the debate about women’s rights and gender equality. In 1848, Liberty Party men and antislavery Whigs and Democrats organized the Free-Soil Party after Democrats denied the presidential nomination to Martin van Buren, a nominally antislavery candidate. Not all Free-Soil supporters joined the party because of antislavery principles. Still, many did, and many took seriously the idea of rights for blacks and women. Also in 1848, the Society of Friends in New York experienced a division among its members over the relationship between antislavery activism and Quaker doctrinal issues. Of particular significance was the debate about the structure of Quaker meetings. The Congregational Friends, which formed from the split, adopted a new style of organization. Congregational Friends rejected creeds, rituals, and ministers, and embraced cooperation with non-Quaker abolitionists. Moreover, they rejected any hierarchical organization of Quaker meetings.

Debates about women’s economic vulnerability also influenced the Seneca Falls convention. The instability of the rising market economy exacerbated women’s vulnerable economic status. Prior to 1828, wealthy New Yorkers could protect the property rights of their wives and daughters through trusts administered through equity courts. However, in 1828, the law was revised and the equity courts abolished, which ended protection for married women’s property rights. Despite this setback, support for married women’s property rights in New York and other states grew throughout the 1830s. After the financial panic of 1837, federal and state governments began passing laws to protect the assets of debtors. The first married women’s property act, passed in Mississippi in 1839, exempted a married woman’s real and personal property from the debts of her husband. In New York, a new state constitutional convention was organized in 1846. Two years later, after several petitions from women and much public pressure, New York finally passed a married women’s property law. Similar laws were passed in other states. Still, married women’s property laws did little to alter women’s subordinate position in marriage. Moreover, married women’s property laws often did not extend protection to women’s earnings. The women’s rights movement would expand the issue of economic rights to include women’s legal status in marriage.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed the passage of the Married Woman’s Property Act in New York created a favorable environment for a women’s rights convention. As she later noted in the History of Woman Suffrage, “Discussion in the constitutional convention and the Legislature, heralded by the press to every school district culminated at last in a woman’s rights convention” (Wellman 2004, 172). After the Anti-Slavery convention, Stanton balanced reform work with her growing family and with husband Henry’s developing legal and political career. In 1847, she moved to Seneca Falls. Henry joined her a year later, a year described by historian Judith Wellman as a period “of emotional and physical stresses more severe than she had ever known, testing both her religious values and her reform commitments” (Wellman 2004, 165). In July 1848, a tea party hosted by Quaker Jane Hunt brought Stanton and Mott together again. Joined by Mott’s sister, Martha Wright, and by Quaker Mary Ann McClintock, the women decided to “do and dare anything,” as Stanton later recalled (Bacon 1980, 126).

Just 10 days later, 300 men and women gathered at the first women’s rights convention. The two-day meeting focused on the writing and signing of the movement’s founding document, called the Declaration of Sentiments, so named after the founding document of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The Declaration of Sentiments outlined women’s civil and political grievances, namely the failure of men to grant women the elective franchise; legal discrimination against women, especially married women; the limitations on women’s rights in relationship to work, education, and participation in the church; the sexual double standard; and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. The Declaration of Sentiments proffered a comprehensive critique of women’s social role in the antebellum period. In a significant omission, the Declaration of Sentiments did not address whether these rights were intended for all women, regardless of race. Once convention delegates agreed to the wording of the Declaration, the document was offered for signature. Sixty-eight women signed the document and 32 men signed a separate document, representing a compromise that allowed women to make their own demands, yet still gave men a voice on the issue.

Reaction to the Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments was decidedly mixed. The Lowell Courier in Massachusetts worried that the Declaration was nothing more than a reversal of gender roles. Another paper called convention participants “erratic, addle-pated comeouters,” and another called the convention itself “a most insane and ludicrous farce” (Wellman 2004, 209). Other newspapers were more positive, or at least neutral, in their assessment of the convention. The New York Herkimer Freeman extolled the “success to the cause in which they have enlisted! A railroad speed to the end they would accomplish! … I look forward to woman’s emancipation with the most intense anxiety; I hail it as a great jubilee of the nation.” The Daily Centre-State American in Tennessee noted the presence of “a respectable audience” at the convention. The ensuing public debate, often vehement, over women’s rights led more cautious women to retreat from the cause, while more-radical women affirmed their activism (Wellman 2004, 210).

Throughout the 1850s, the Declaration of Sentiments served as a touchstone for women’s rights reformers. In contrast to the antislavery movement, women’s rights activists prior to the Civil War formed no national or regional associations to lead the movement. Organization was left to a core group of dedicated activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Amy Post, Paulina Wright Davis, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Watkins Harper, as well as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. What formal structure existed actually came through the movement’s association with the American Anti-Slavery Society. The close relationship between the two reform movements, according to historian Ellen Carol DuBois, provided a significant source of support, while at the same time limiting the growth of the women’s rights movement. Women’s rights activism was often secondary to abolitionism. Moreover, because antislavery provided women’s rights activists with a constituency, activists did not seek out new members, especially conservative women who embraced traditional ideas about family and gender roles.

Nevertheless, activists kept the issue of women’s equality before the public throughout the 1850s, through a series of annual women’s rights conventions, as well as a broad range of reform activities. Conventions in Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York asserted the need for women’s full political, civil, and economic rights, including control of wages, property and legal rights, educational and employment opportunities, and the right to vote. Women’s rights activists also spoke and wrote about the importance of securing women’s personal freedoms, including women’s right to self-determination (the right to define goals and ambitions outside women’s traditional sphere) and the right of voluntary motherhood (the right of married women to choose when to have sexual relations with their husbands). They advocated for more liberal divorce laws and for women’s rights to custody of their children in cases of marital dissolution. The convention movement strengthened women’s reform activities in the 1850s and aided the establishment of national women’s suffrage associations after the Civil War.

Contrary to their critics’ opinions, women’s rights advocates did not seek to abolish marriage or the family; rather, they sought to protect women’s rights within the family and to assure women the right to pursue activities outside the structure of the family. Separate spheres proponent and suffrage opponent Catharine Beecher advocated clothing reform, water cures, exercise, and healthy diets for women. Likewise, more-radical reformers like Paulina Wright Davis and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for more-comfortable forms of dress and greater reproductive knowledge for women. Women from a variety of perspectives on women’s rights shared the view that women were born with the same capacity as men’s for vigor and vitality. Women who cultivated healthy habits would be better able to perform their responsibilities as wives and mothers, as well as assume more-active roles in the wider world.

Women’s rights activists suspended their efforts during the Civil War (1861-1865). Instead, women turned their attention to the monumental task of providing food, clothing, and medical care to northern and southern soldiers. In 1861 in New York City, women formed the Women’s Central Association of Relief, which became the largest women’s organization dedicated to soldiers’ relief work. African American women in the North also formed organizations to aid freed slaves and, beginning in 1863, black soldiers. At the same time, women’s rights activists continued to draft petitions for the freedom of black slaves.


During the first half of the 19th century, Americans experienced significant social, economic, and cultural changes that fundamentally altered how they lived and worked, and that transformed their conceptions of the individual, the family, and society. New gender ideologies relegated women to the private domestic sphere, and justified their ongoing exclusion from the provinces of economic, political, and social power. However, the bonds women forged in their separate female sphere, and women’s adherence to the tenets of true womanhood, also helped to create an activist female community engaged in the work of benevolence and social reform. Through their involvement in charity work; temperance, education, prison, and moral reform; labor activism; and abolitionism, women claimed a more active role in public life. In the process, they cultivated political, social, and organizational skills, and developed ways of thinking and talking about human oppression, rights, and freedoms that would be essential once they began to agitate on behalf of their own interests. Participation in the abolitionist movement, especially, encouraged women toward an awareness of their shared grievances and of the necessity of organizing an autonomous movement for women’s rights.

Such a movement was launched at Seneca Falls in 1848, with the accompanying Declaration of Sentiments laying the foundation for women’s rights activism for generations to come. Although they did not abandon separate spheres and true womanhood altogether, women’s rights activists of the late 1840s and 1850s issued the most far-reaching and multifaceted critique of conventional gender roles of the antebellum period. For their efforts, women’s rights activists were soundly criticized, ridiculed, and ostracized, but they were not easily deterred. Although they temporarily suspended their efforts during wartime, women’s rights activists of the antebellum period inaugurated a social movement that, in one form or another, has endured to the present day.