Women in Antebellum Reform

Women in Antebellum Reform

Women in Antebellum Reform

Women in Antebellum Reform


This is a soul-stirring era," remarked the Reverend William Mitchell in 1835, "and will be so recorded in the annals of time." Countless antebellum reformers agreed. The United States was awash in efforts to change itself, a "sisterhood of reforms" emerging to characterize the efforts of hundreds of thousands of Americans. In all of this, women played an important role.

In her latest publication, Professor Ginzberg offers a view of women and antebellum reform through two lenses: one focused on the ideas about women, religion, class, and race that shaped reform movements; and another that observes actual women as they participated in the work of social change. For women, a commitment to reform offered a broader sense of their place in the world-and of their responsibility to set it aright. By considering the efforts of these women-distributing bibles, tracts, and charity, fighting intemperance, opposing slavery, or demanding their rights as women-the reader gains a richer understanding of the antebellum era itself.


“What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!” observed the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844. By all accounts, the United States in the years between the War of 1812 and the onset of the Civil War fairly buzzed with plans, projects, and organizations to reform society. During those restless years thousands joined movements to alleviate poverty, educate children, alter Americans' drinking habits, abolish slavery and war, establish socialist communities, and advance working people's, African Americans', and women's equal rights——in sum, to perfect the experiment in human government that many Americans believed was destined to be the most democratic and virtuous in the world.

American women, especially white, middle-class, Protestant women, proved to be at least as committed to social reform as their male counterparts. Whether they offered charity to the poor, distributed religious tracts, or protested the existence of slavery, many women expressed the widely held belief that they had a special mandate as women to exert a virtuous influence in the world. In the process, they articulated a range of concerns about social justice, fashioned new conventions for women's public activity, and challenged assumptions about gender, class, race, and reform that transformed their own lives as well.

Historians who have grappled with the mind-boggling array of women's reform activities have engaged in a lively and complex . . .

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