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Women's Rights Before the Civil War

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Women's Rights Before the Civil War

To me, the sun in the heavens at noonday is not more visible than is the right of women, equally with man, to participate in all that concerns human welfare . . .

These words were penned in 1866 by Frederick Douglass, a former slave and avid rallier for abolition and women's rights. This was no small task. Women's struggle for equality was and is a long and hard battle. Though suffrage was gained in 1920, the struggle for equality continues into the present time. The women who embarked on this crusade in the mid-1800s were courageous, defying most respectable standards of their time to stand up for what they believed.

In the nineteenth century, most Americans assumed that there was a natural order in society which placed men and women in totally different spheres. The ideal woman was submissive; her job was to be a meek, obedient, loving wife who was totally subservient to the men around her.

Between 1750 and 1850, women's roles in America changed somewhat. In an agrarian society, it was necessary for both husband and wife to put in a full day's labor, for the success of the farm depended on them both.

Industrialization produced further changes. As factories began to do many of the things women had done at home previously, such as spinning and weaving, women were left with a little more time to devote to other projects. Clergymen began to recruit them for various reforms but always they, the women, would work in their proper sphere, influencing only the men In their family.

By the early 1800s women were ready to branch out from their families and make an impression on the world. Numerous women's organizations were formed, some social, but many bound on doing social work. "Female associations . . . ran charity schools, and refuges for women in need."

One of the first movements in which women took an active hand was the female seminary movement which began its serious phase about 1815. The leaders were Emma Willard, Catherine E. Beecher, Zilpah P. Grant, Mary Lyon and Joseph Emerson. They intended to improve the quality of women's education so that they could be good citizens and "mothers of future statesmen." They felt that young men and women should be educated separately and in a different fashion. While these leaders worked for improvements for women, they only worked for education and otherwise accepted the notion of the "appropriate sphere of women." They never became involved in the women's rights movement but they still contributed something important. The seminary movement proved that women had minds capable of serious study and opened the way for women to teach and manage institutions. This was an important, although small, step toward equality for women.

The American Revolution was fought for independence and equality. However, these ideals only applied to white males. As time went on this became the slogan of many oppressed groups.

The Jacksonian movement for democracy during the 1820s and 1830s furthered the idea of equality. As many northern businessmen began a push for abolition, women joined in the cause and were exposed to politics. Both the abolitionist movement and the upsurge of unionism were sources of the women's movement.

The rise of industrialization in the 1830s and the increasing numbers of working women prompted women to become involved in the labor movement. The women's labor unions which were formed worked mostly for better pay and better working conditions. The Female Labor Reform Association in New England, begun in 1844, was one of the nation's most significant. It eventually failed however, when the workers could not stand up to their employers.

Unlike the sisterhoods of religious benevolence or female seminaries, which complemented the efforts of male leaders, sisterhoods of labor threatened the authority and economic power of corporate leaders and investors.

One of the first female lecturers in the United States was Frances Wright. She spoke out for not only the political rights of working men but for equality for women, emancipation of the slaves, free religious inquiry, free public education for everyone, birth control, and equal treatment of illegitimate children.

In 1825, Wright bought land in western Tennessee to form a model community to help pave the way for the emancipation of the slaves. The community was called Nashoba. Donated slaves and those she bought with her own funds would be brought there to live. Each slave would be charged with his price and upkeep which was to be worked off on a credit system. Older slaves would learn a trade while younger ones would go to school. At the end of five years, they would be freed.

In 1826, Wright decided to make Nashoba not only an "example of gradual emancipation," but also "a pilot project for world reform." People would come from around the world to join them in the search for happiness, liberty, and "the emancipation of the human mind."

Frances Wright's lecturing career was marked by opposition. She devoted her lectures to Nashoban ideals, attacking the clergy and speaking out for women's rights.

Until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling assign to them, human improvement must advance feebly. . .

Eventually Nashoba failed. Wright's vision of the community never materialized. The slaves were unhappy and Nashoba became a financial disaster. Frances Wright spent her fortune, "ruined her reputation, (and) violated all codes of respectability," but she left her mark and became a symbol to the feminists who came after her.

Wright was not the only woman to fight for emancipation, many women became involved in the movement in the 1830s and the 1840s.

In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leaders of the society, was fervently for women's rights. Unfortunately the other members were not. When women were not allowed to sign the Declaration of Purposes, they formed the Female Anti-Slavery Society as an answer. The society spread and it became the target of much criticism. There was strong opposition to abolition and even stronger opposition toward the female abolition societies. Meetings were often mobbed and the hall was burnt down where the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was being held.

In 1836, Angelina Grimke wrote the pamphlet "An Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States" urging women to work for abolition. Though rejected in the South, the pamphlet was well received in the North. That same year Angelina and her sister Sarah arrived



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