The Woman’s Movement

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The Womans Movement


Pure Womanhood. The restructuring of economic life in nineteenth-century America led to a rethinking of the roles that had traditionally been assigned to men and women. On family farms the two sexes worked side by side, but in the cities men brought in the family income while women raised the children and ran the household. The gradual expansion of the urban middle class produced a change in the way women were perceived: they came to be regarded as morally superior, but intellectually inferior, to men; they were seen as the standard-bearers of all that was pure and refined, their lives dedicated to creating a moral atmosphere in the home and maintaining a benevolent influence on their children. Women were not, therefore, to be contaminated by the corrupting influences of politics. Some historians have called this attitude the cult of true womanhood.


It has often been remarked to me that, when this war is over, the independence of the country will be due, in a great measure, to the women; for they declare that had the women been desponding they could never have gone through with it; but, on the contrary, the women have invariably set an example to the men of patience, devotion, and determination. Naturally proud, and with an innate contempt for the Yankees, the southern women have been rendered furious and desperate by the proceedings of [Union generals] Butler, Milroy, Turchin, Sec. They are all prepared to undergo any hardships and misfortunes rather than submit to the rule of such people; and they use every argument which woman can employ to infuse the same spirit into their male relations.

Source: Arthur Fremantle, Three Months in the Confederate States (London: J. Bradburn, 1864).

Trends and Transformations. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century evangelical religious revivals inspired Americans to believe in the possibility of perfecting themselves and their society. This spirit of perfectionism brought about a wave of reform movements throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Women such as the Grimké sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lucretia Mott were active in the abolitionist and temperance crusades from the 1820s to the 1840s, in the process acquiring fund-raising, organizing, and publicity skills. When some of these women, such as Susan B. Anthony, found themselves shut out of abolitionist conventions during the 1840s, they decided to focus on womens rights.

Politics and Benevolence. There were two overlapping but distinct movements toward womens rights. The first flowed from the general reform impulse: temperance workers realized that alcoholism created serious problems for women when husbands spent their earnings on drink or came home drunk and beat their wives and children; and hospital, prison, and asylum reformers were often motivated by the sufferings of female inmates. Women interested in these issues worked as individuals and in unofficial groups, rather than attempting to address the problems politically. The second branch of the womens rights movement focused on political and legal issues, such as getting women the vote, passing legislation to give married women a share in control of family property, increasing opportunities in education, and allowing women to work outside the home. Susan B. Anthony, perhaps the womens rights movements most able organizer, spoke eloquently before many state legislatures on the subject of married womens property rights. Lucy Stone kept her maiden name after her marriage and gave rise to imitators called Lucy Stoners. Amelia Jenks Bloomer attempted to popularize a more comfortable costume for women, consisting of baggy trousers worn under a knee-length tunic; although the outfit was actually designed by Elizabeth Smith Miller, the pants came to be known as bloomers and were decried in insulting verses and comments by men and women alike.

The Civil War. The outbreak of war brought women to a new level of participation in national affairs. The war brought violence and privation directly into the homes of many American women, especially in the South. Although they could not vote, both northern and southern women took a keen interest in political issues such as secession and emancipation. Many southern women caught the war spirit, some openly expressing bloodthirsty sentiments. Women supported the war effort by becoming nurses, sewing uniforms, writing encouraging letters to soldiers, and taking over the civilian jobs the soldiers had left behind. An attempt to blend support for the Union cause with the womens rights and abolition movements was the Womens Loyal League, founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1863. After the war northern women made important strides in entering professions such as teaching and nursing, while many southern women, left destitute and widowed by the war, had to engage in small businesses such as dairy-and-egg farming. Women made little headway, however, in gaining legal and political rights. While the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave the vote to male former slaves, women would not receive the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920.

Volunteers. In addition to learning new tasks and facing new challenges at home, some women participated directly in the war: it is estimated that around four hundred women donned male uniforms and joined the fighting, and there are highly romanticized accounts of women spying for both sides. But most found more socially acceptable ways to participate. In 1861 Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell founded the Womens Central Relief Association, which raised funds for supplies for Union soldiers and recruited and trained female nurses. Later that year a group of influential New Yorkers formed the United States Sanitary Commission, which oversaw all relief efforts and briefly took over the selection and training of nurses. At the same time, Dorothea Dix was commissioned superintendent of women nurses for the Union army, partly in recognition of her work in hospital and insane-asylum reform. Clara Barton, who would later found the American branch of the International Red Cross, gave first aid and supplied candles, medicines, and food to northern soldiers; they would long remember her as the Angel of the Battlefield.

Nursing. Women nurses did not have an easy lot. Being members of the upper classes who were accustomed to deferential treatment and clean, well-appointed homes, many found the transition to rough field hospitals trying. They had to accustom themselves to shocking and distressing sights, assist at amputations, and watch their patients die. Further, although the nurses were admired by the soldiers on both sides, they received a marked lack of respect from the male doctors.

Feminization of Professions. At least partly as a result of the Civil War, American women came to dominate two professions. Nursing emerged from the war as a mainly female occupation. Women had been moving into teaching since colonial days; by 1860, 25 percent of all teachers were women (the percentage was somewhat higher in the North than in the South). During the Civil War, with the men away fighting, women constituted the majority of teachers on both sides. Twenty years later, two-thirds of all teachers in the primary grades would be women.

Temperance, Again. With the end of slavery, many women reformers who had been active in the abolitionist movement turned to other causes, includingonce againtemperance. Women protested drunkenness by kneeling in prayer on the sidewalks in front of saloons; some entered these dens of iniquity and smashed bottles of liquor. On 18 November 1874, 135 female activists met at the Second Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and founded the Womans Christian Temperance Union. Quickly becoming the largest womens organization in the history of the United States, the WCTU attracted far more adherents than the womans rights movement had ever been able to rally. Later in the decade the organization formally disavowed the cause of woman suffrage.


Barbara I. Berg, The Remembered Gate: Origins of American FeminismThe Woman and the City, 1800-1860 ((New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);

Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980);

Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Womens Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).

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The Woman’s Movement

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