Women’s Right in the Abolitionist Era: Challenging 19th Century Gender Norms
Breaking Boundaries: Women Abolitionists Challenge 19th Century Patriarchy
Thousands of American women in the years leading up to the Civil War were staunch abolitionists, and some even had prestigious leadership positions within the anti-slavery movement. However, these women were not immune to the patriarchal ideology that dominated America at the time. The American public largely disapproved of female involvement in the struggle for social change, as women were not supposed to be in politics. Therefore, involvement in the abolitionist movement was a unique opportunity for women to break traditional gender roles.
Instead of following the status quo and adopting strictly domestic roles, females fighting for abolition received training through the anti-slavery movement to become effective, active social reformers. Leading female abolitionists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone had learned crucial organizational and rhetorical skills. They planned large public events and coordinated thousands of supporters in their anti-slavery efforts. Female abolitionists learned to speak and write persuasively to mass audiences about key political and social topics.
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While fighting for African American rights, women in the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century saw parallels between their own limited freedoms and those of enslaved black people. Women discovered their own voices as they championed anti-slavery. Using their newly honed public speaking and organizational skills, female activists articulated their own political, social, and familial grievances.
Abolition and Women’s Rights: Unity, Tension, and Suffrage
For years, anti-slavery efforts worked in tandem with the women’s rights movement. A notable example of this alliance is Frederick Douglass, one of the most recognized and outspoken advocates of abolition and women’s rights in the 1850s. Another is William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist, suffragist, and feminist supporter. Eventually, male and female social reformers came together to form the American Equal Rights Association, hereafter called the AERA, an organization designed to combine the resources and energy of the black and women’s suffrage movements.
But when the Civil War ended slavery and forced politicians of the Reconstruction era to redefine various terms such as citizenship and other guaranteed rights of Americans, tensions within the AERA escalated. Congress was revising voting rights to make them more inclusive, creating a rare political window of opportunity for female enfranchisement. Women’s rights activists proceeded full steam. However, politicians focused on expanding and redefining civil rights for black males, not women, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once close allies, the abolitionist movement and women’s rights campaign, were at a crossroads as both groups wanted suffrage, but the political climate was not calling for universal voting rights.
The 15th Amendment granted the right to vote for black men in America and served as a chief catalyst for dissension among both men and women in both the abolitionist party and the women’s rights movement. The abolitionist movement was a tremendous driving force for empowering women, but dissent among anti-slavery leaders over the inclusivity of females in black-male enfranchisement efforts after the Civil War created a stark divide, evoking patriarchal attitudes and racial tensions that forced female activists to split from the AERA and their former allies of anti-slavery.
19th Century Gender Roles: The Cult of Domesticity and Its Impact
A discussion of gender roles in the 1800s must include the cult of domesticity, also known as the cult of true womanhood. In the first half of the 19th century, Americans largely believed that women belonged in the domestic sphere and should not pursue any work outside the home. This belief romanticized women as the “angel of the house” and as the “spiritual and moral goodness of the nuclear family.” But such female valorization belied how males relegated women. In addition to forbiddance to work outside the home, women had to act submissive toward their husbands at all times. This culture emphasized the idea that women were both physically and intellectually inferior to men as they were essentially male subordinates.
A woman might eschew such a secondary role by choosing to remain single, but ridicule and pity by the community were inevitable. Leaving the domestic sphere through divorce was anathema as marriage was a sacred commitment, the sundering of which faced strong social and religious objections. Social expectations for women were to be bound to motherhood and the home. Women were supposed to be educators of the young they raised, teaching them to be good citizens of the new country. Opportunities to do otherwise were rare and largely scorned by friends, family, and the public.
Bound to motherhood and the home, women faced a myriad of social, political, economic, educational, and even religious restrictions. To begin, inheritance in a family followed patrilineal succession, so women were often excluded. Earning their wealth independently had its own set of barriers, as jobs for women were often limited to low-paying positions that extended the domestic sphere, such as domestic service, seamstresses, and washers. Restrictions also permeated female fashion; veils, gloves, and long skirts ensured women’s bodies were properly covered. In politics, women possessed virtually no formal rights. Women’s public roles were largely confined to displaying their domestic and moral virtues through religious participation or charity work. Education was also extremely limited, as most colleges did not even admit women in the early 1800s.
Perhaps the ideas of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau can best summarize the status quo for women during this era: the only natural order system was a patriarchal one, and women and men had to work in separate spheres based on their genetically decided areas of influence.
Opportunity for Women to Break Gender Roles
The Second Great Awakening was a tremendous opportunity for women to break gender roles and receive public recognition for their political adroitness. A protestant religious revival during the early 19th century, the Second Great Awakening addressed the virtues and behaviors of Americans. The movement called for a wide array of reforms to end injustices and alleviate suffering. Preachers of Baptist and Methodist congregations were often the leaders of the movement.
However, the most striking and consistent characteristic of the Second Great Awakening was the youthfulness of its participants. Time and time again, ministers noted that religious concerns and conversions most frequently involved youths, a term generally applied to those between twelve and twenty. Interestingly, most of the youth affected by the revivals were female. Young women made up the largest single-age and sex grouping in these revivals.
After the Second Great Awakening and its boom of reform movements, many women joined in the politics of the country and started fighting for social justice. One of the largest legislative changes the Great Awakening called for was emancipation on religious grounds.
Women showed their support for emancipation through numerous methods. Some were writers for abolitionist papers; others delivered petitions to Congress while publicly speaking against the ills of slavery. A number of women rose to prominence at this time by breaking their gender roles and joining the abolitionist movement.
Susan B. Anthony: From Abolition to Women’s Suffrage Champion
A prominent example was Susan Brownell Anthony, a well-known temperance and women’s suffrage activist. Born into a Quaker family, Anthony was exposed to abolitionist ideals early in her life as Quakers were among the first white people to denounce slavery. Anthony was raised in Massachusetts, where her father was especially active in abolitionism. Consequently, she grew up with the belief that “everyone under God is equal,” though she noticed this was not common practice in America.
Anthony persistently called for abolition long before the Republican Party challenged slavery in the South. In fact, it was Anthony and Stanton, mentioned later in this paper, who circulated petitions asking Congress to abolish slavery as a war measure. “Until these petitions came to Congress, few of the leaders were ready to acknowledge that a Civil War could justify such a measure.” In the years leading up to the Civil War, Lincoln’s personal stance against slavery was well known, yet Lincoln and the Republican Party were more concerned with stopping the spread of slavery to newly formed western states rather than getting rid of it entirely. Susan, however, would accept nothing less than the end of slavery.
In addition to her written words, her spoken words also resonated with the public. She gave hundreds of speeches on anti-slavery. She is known for her rich contralto voice that could be easily heard by audiences numbering several thousand people. “She spoke in a strong, argumentative style, and by her clear logic and intense earnestness, she convinced all those who heard her.” As Anthony fought for the freedom of black slaves, she saw injustice parallels in her own life. Becoming a teacher in her early twenties, Anthony faced many restrictions as a female, such as unequal wages for women. Additionally, Anthony was a staunch advocate for female enfranchisement. In fact, she is perhaps the most widely known suffragist of her generation and, at the very least, has become an icon of the women’s suffrage movement.
Elizabeth Stanton: Abolitionist Fire and Women’s Rights Pioneer
Another woman to break gender roles and join the abolitionist movement was Elizabeth Stanton. As the daughter of one of the most prominent lawyers in New York, Stanton lived a wealthy childhood. She received an education seldom given to women in the 19th century. Still, she experienced gender discrimination from even her own family. Daniel Cady, her father, did not advocate for the social reform movement and, accordingly, did not encourage Stanton’s foray into the women’s rights movement. He even stated that she should have been born a boy.
Despite the hardship Stanton faced at home, there was a tremendous advantage to being a part of the Stanton family. With her father’s profession being in law, Stanton was exposed to the laws relevant to women’s rights and understood how she could petition to have a law changed. This knowledge was instrumental in her leading the New York Women’s Rights Movement.
But before she focused on women’s rights, she was an abolitionist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a politically shrewd observer of the Underground Railroad. She worked alongside numerous prominent abolitionist reformers, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Susan B. Anthony. In fact, when the Civil War broke out, Stanton and Anthony formed the Women’s Loyal National League to encourage Congress to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
Antebellum Stanton worked hand in hand with the anti-slavery movement as she fought for women’s rights. She, too, saw parallels between her own struggles for equal rights and those of the enslaved. She recognized that both groups were being denied equality, freedom, and democracy. In a speech before the American Anti-Slavery Society, she famously said: “Yes, this is the only organization on God’s footstool where the humanity of a woman is recognized, and these are the only men who have ever echoed back her cries for justice and equality. The mission of the Radical Anti-Slavery Movement is not to the African slave alone, but to the slaves of custom, creed, and sex, as well, and most faithfully has it done its work.”
Lucretia Mott: Unwavering Voice for Abolition and Women’s Rights
By 1848, Lucretia Mott had already achieved prominence across the nation. In this year alone, she addressed the first women’s rights conventions at Seneca Falls and Rochester, as well as the annual meeting of the American Anti-slavery Society in New York City. Mott was also a member of two anti-slavery organizations, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Both of these interracial organizations denounced slavery as a sin and called for its immediate end.
Mott wanted the public to acknowledge the degrading and brutalizing reality of plantation slavery. For the era she lived in, Mott’s insistence on individual and racial equality was a radical message, but she preached it still to a wide variety of audiences, including those hostile to her views. Mott and the members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society urged abolitionists for nearly thirty-six years to be uncompromising in their opposition to slavery. She even preached abstinence from slave-made products.
Similar to the other female abolitionists discussed earlier, Mott saw parallels between her struggles and those of the oppressed slaves. Having attended the Quaker boarding school Nine Partners in New York, Mott learned of the horrors of slavery from her readings and from visiting lecturers such as Elias Hicks, a well-known Quaker abolitionist. But even in the Quaker community, which was known for touting racial equality, Mott saw that women and men were not treated equally; she discovered that female teachers at Nine Partners earned less than males.
Mott took various steps to champion female empowerment. She was one of the founders of the Transatlantic Women’s Rights Movement. Yet, she also had a firm commitment to anti-slavery efforts all the while. In 1866, she became the first president of the American Equal Rights Association, AERA, an organization formed to achieve equality for African Americans and women.
Lucy Stone: Trailblazer in Abolition and Women’s Rights
A notable suffragist and abolitionist, Lucy Stone dedicated her life to combating inequality in all its forms. She broke barriers by becoming the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree. Stone defied gender norms when she famously wrote marriage vows to reflect her egalitarian beliefs and refused to take her husband’s last name. Yet, her feminist views did not overshadow her abolitionist spirit. She was raised in the Congregational Church and embraced her father’s anti-slavery zeal.
Almost thirty when she completed her education, Stone’s career prospects seemed dim since few professions were open to women. Renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, however, hired her for his American Anti-Slavery Society. There, she wrote and delivered abolitionist speeches while also serving as an active leader in women’s rights. Soon, Stone was serving on the executive committee of the American Equal Rights Association.
Garrison’s Stand: Abolitionism and Advocacy for Women’s Rights
Historians largely regard William Lloyd Garrison as the voice of abolitionism. A distinguished leader in the anti-slavery movement, Garrison was heavily involved in numerous forms of abolitionist activity. His most well-known contribution was The Liberator, a newsletter reaching thousands of individuals worldwide starting in 1831. The publication reflected his moral outrage about slavery as well as his relentless, uncompromising position of immediate emancipation. In 1832, he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He then met with delegates from around the nation to form the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
William Garrison fully acknowledged the marked leadership of lady activists, offering sincere praise with the following words, “The women have done and are doing more for the extirpation of slavery than the other sex. In their petitions to Congress, they outnumber us at least three, perhaps five to one.” The significance of Garrison’s words lies in the fact that the process of petitioning is an eloquent act of political advocacy requiring clear, persuasive articulations of the issues at hand. Women’s anti-slavery work was inextricably linked to anti-slavery petitioning public documents sophisticated for their political acuity.
Women at the Forefront: Garrison’s Defense of Female Abolitionists
Abolitionist work catapulted many women who were committed to national ideals, social justice, and reform to leadership positions in interracial organizations, and it also accorded some of them unprecedented visibility in predominantly male institutional groups such as the New England Slavery Society. Garrison came to the defense of women’s rights when members of the party derided female participation. Patriarchy was not mutually exclusive to the abolitionist movement.
- Smith, J. (2023). Breaking Boundaries: Women Abolitionists Challenge 19th Century Patriarchy. In Johnson, R. (Ed.), Social Movements and Gender Roles. Academic Press.