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Women’s Rights, Abolitionism, and Reform in Antebellum and Gilded Age America  

Faye E. Dudden

The U.S. women’s rights movement first emerged in the 1830s, when the ideological impact of the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening combined with a rising middle class and increasing education to enable small numbers of women, encouraged by a few sympathetic men, to formulate a critique of women’s oppression in early 19th-century America. Most were white, and their access to an expanding print culture and middle class status enabled them to hire domestic servants; they had the time and resources to assess and begin to reject the roles prescribed by cultural domesticity and legal coverture, or the traditional authority of husbands. A critical mass of these rebellious women first emerged among those who had already enlisted in the radical struggle to end slavery. When abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke faced efforts to silence them because they were women, they saw parallels between their own situation and that of the slaves. The Grimkes began to argue that all women and men were created by God as “equal moral beings” and entitled to the same rights. The ideology of the women’s movement soon broadened to encompass secular arguments, claiming women’s part in a political order ostensibly based on individual rights and consent of the governed. At Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and at subsequent women’s rights conventions, the participants articulated a wide range of grievances that extended beyond politics into social and family life. Almost all the leading activists in the early women’s movement, including Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were trained in “the school of antislavery,” where they learned to withstand public or familial disapproval and acquired practical skills like petitioning and public speaking. The women’s rights activists’ efforts were complicated by questions about which goals to pursue first and by overlap with other reform efforts, including temperance and moral reform as well as abolition and black rights. Women and men related to the movement in a range of ways—activists were surrounded by a penumbra of non-activist contributors and an interested public, and much grassroots activity probably went unrecorded. After the Civil War destroyed slavery, Reconstruction-era politicians had to define citizenship and rights, especially the right to vote. Realizing this opened a rare window of political opportunity, the women’s movement leaders focused on suffrage, but their desperate efforts uncovered ugly racism in their ranks, and they betrayed former black allies. Disagreeing over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the vote to black men only, the women’s movement fell into two rival suffrage organizations: Stanton and Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association, which did not support the 15th Amendment, faced off against the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Stymied in their political moves, the suffragists then found their judicial strategy, the “New Departure,” checkmated by a conservative Supreme Court. By 1877, the moment of radical opportunity had passed, and though the women’s suffrage movement could count a few marginal successes in the West, it had stalled and was increasingly overshadowed by more conservative forms of women’s activism like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.