Female Reform Societies and Reformers

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Female Reform Societies and Reformers

Women's efforts to change and improve American society—and in the process alter their own status—began to develop significantly at the end of the eighteenth century. One reason for this was that the patriarchal attitudes toward women's roles in society, whereby women were seen largely as domestic drudges confined to the home and inferior to men in every way, began to yield to the idea that women in the new Republic needed to become more active in making the family a bedrock of republican virtue and a repository of religious instruction for the children. This elevated women to a distinct position of authority concerning morality and gave them the opening to define not only moral standards in the home but in the community.

revivalism and reform

Aiding this development was the emergence at the turn of the century, from New England to the Mississippi, of the Second Great Awakening. This revivalism, particularly as it developed in the Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches, not only produced large numbers of female converts but instilled in them the belief that sin and vices such as intemperance, gambling, and prostitution were voluntary activities that the new converts could eradicate. Moral suasion, a reform technique whereby sinners were persuaded by preachers, lecturers, and religious publications to give up their vicious ways, was a major development of the Second Great Awakening outlook and would inspire thousands of reformers of both sexes to improve American society.

In the cities, religion-inspired charity, in which women played a major role, developed extensively in the 1790s and 1800s. As the nation entered the industrial revolution and embraced a market economy, the soaring urban population brought with it a growing number of widows, orphans, and other groups needing assistance. Men and women from the upper and middle classes, often inspired by the new religious developments, began to organize efforts to succor the needy and at the same time bring them into religious institutions. Caring for the poor, especially the "worthy" poor, emerged as one of the earliest reforms in which women could participate. In 1797 Isabella Graham, a wealthy New York City woman, took the lead in establishing the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Graham and other members found jobs for the women, gave them food and clothing, and provided fuel for their fires. In addition, they tried to "improve" them by providing lessons in household management and instructing them in religion. A Boston female association founded in 1812 noted that by the 1840s it had aided more than ten thousand families. By the 1820s, not only in the larger cities but in places such as Rochester, New York, and New Orleans, women had set up hundreds of relief societies, orphanages, charity schools, and poorhouses. The New Hampshire Missionary Society established more than fifty local female auxiliaries to support its efforts to find and place domestic and foreign missionaries and to help distribute Bibles and religious tracts. Between 1810 and 1815 across the nation, thousands of women joined "cent a week" societies where their savings when pooled went to support more missionaries and to distribute more religious materials.

reforming prostitutes

Relief efforts brought evangelical women and men into contact with the lower classes, where they found not only widows and orphans in need of help but also women being exploited, especially by prostitution. A male-controlled prostitute asylum, where penitent prostitutes could be reformed, opened in 1800 in Philadelphia. Eleven years later, Isabella Graham and her wealthy matron friends joined with men to found a similar asylum in New York City. The asylum approach to reform came from the religious belief that all people, regardless of their sins, could be converted to Christianity and trained to live moral and productive lives. In the controlled environment inside the asylum, female instructors, aided by male preachers, taught the penitents religion and encouraged them to convert. At the same time, the inmates were trained to be seamstresses or domestic servants, "respectable" occupations that they could enter after leaving the asylum. Although the asylum approach failed to redeem many prostitutes and the asylums themselves had short lives, women increasingly took the lead in the movement against prostitution. By the 1830s, when the asylum approach to prostitution revived, women would dominate every aspect of the reform effort.

educational reform

Women also became deeply involved in educational reform. Since colonial times, girls had received a smattering of elementary education—enough to be able to read the Bible—but had seldom had any instruction beyond that level. Private academies in the eighteenth century sometimes enrolled girls as well as boys, and the all-female academy or finishing school emerged in the second half of the same century. All too often, the finishing schools instructed girls in household matters, good manners, and correct posture and in nothing else. By the 1820s, however, women reformers such as Catharine Beecher, Emma Willard, Zilpah Grant, and Mary Lyon called for more rigorous education for women to prepare them for the moral guardianship of the younger generation. Willard proposed in 1818 that girls receive religious and moral training in their schools and education in natural philosophy and literature. She and others also demanded that girls receive instruction in algebra, geometry, history, geography, and the natural sciences. Beecher, Grant, and Lyon used their own female academies to create rigorous curricula and to promote their new approach to female learning throughout the nation.

Women's education, while it continued to develop and spread during the early national period, caused considerable alarm among people who feared that educated women would forget that they were in a sphere that revolved around the home. For every Emma Willard who called for more education for girls, there was someone, usually a male authority figure, who warned that women's brains were too small and too fragile to handle the rigors of subjects such as philosophy. This theory of female inferiority indeed had long been used to prevent more educational opportunities for women and had provoked from some women stinging counterarguments calling for female equality. Judith Sargent Murray, a Gloucester, Massachusetts, education advocate, argued in the 1770s that the supposed superiority of male intellect arose from nothing more than men having more education than women. The anonymous female author of The Female Advocate in 1801 claimed that God and Nature had given both sexes "equality of talents, of genius, of morals, as well as intellectual worth" and that only male arrogance had deprived women of this equality by keeping them from education and experience.

Such ventures into a feminist critique of society remained daring—and rare. When Mary Wollstone craft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), calling for equality for the sexes, appeared in Britain, American women largely ignored her plea and continued to strive for change in the form of aid to the needy, vice eradication, and expanded educational opportunities for women rather than for sexual equality. A fully developed crusade for women's rights would not emerge until the 1840s.

See alsoEducation: Education of Girls and Women; Prostitutes and Prostitution;Revivals and Revivalism; Welfare and Charity .


Boylan, Anne M. The Origin of Women's Activism: New York and Boston, 1797–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England. 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Melder, Keith E. Beginnings of Sisterhood: The American Woman's Rights Movement, 1800–1850. New York: Schocken, 1977.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Larry Whiteaker

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Female Reform Societies and Reformers

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