Women in Antebellum America

In American history, the Antebellum period refers to the time between the end of the War of 1812 (1812-1815) and the onset of the Civil War (1861-1865). The word "antebellum" derives from Latin and means "before the war." This period was marked by the development of distinct Northern and Southern economies, the expansion of the nation westward and a spirit of reform. These issues made the political environment unstable and ultimately led to the Civil War. Women in Antebellum America lived in a time of controversy in which they had to endure the roles prescribed to them by the patriarchal society, although many felt a strong need to leave their homes and fight for social causes.

Women and men had very clear, separate roles based on their gender, with the common belief that the differences between the male and the female were natural and essential. Women were expected to be religiously pious, morally pure and physically delicate. They were taught to obey their husband and had to adhere to the system of coverture, which stripped married women of all of their civil identities. A covered woman could not sue or be sued, seal contracts or participate in property transactions. Textbooks on how to be a good wife include The Young Wife (1838) by William Alcott (1798-1859). In Recollections of a Housekeeper Recollections of a Southern Matron, Caroline Gilman (1794-1888) urged women to be obedient. Young women formally received the same level of education as young men but the focus was different was on etiquette, while men were expected to concentrate on academic studies.

Women in Antebellum America did not have the right to vote. This was mainly due to the coverture system, which had consequences for any hopes of a political life. It was the husband who had the right to speak for his wife and to vote. The occupations of men and women were also designated, so while men could make careers in public life and business, women had the responsibilities of taking care of the children and households. Women sought to use the advantages granted by their child-rearing responsibilities as an excuse to push for social causes, including improved access to education.

Women of the Antebellum period also played a vital role in abolitionism, the anti-slavery movement. Slavery had been a politically sensitive issue, as the South depended on slaves for its agriculture-driven economy, while the industry-driven North saw the threat of the political power that the South could gain if the slavery kept expanding. Congressmen from the North opposed the slavery, while those from the South advocated it. The battle soon entered the social arena, along with the growing popularity of the revivalism and the Second Grand Awakening in the 1830s.

In Sister Societies: Women's Antislavery Organizations in Antebellum America (2005), author Beth Salerno explains how women played a crucial role in this period by setting up hundreds of anti-slavery groups known as "sister societies." According to Salerno, these women "gained power from their association with each other." As part of the sisterhood they were able to meet regularly, educate themselves, stay motivated and pool their efforts. Among the important women mentioned by Salerno in her book are Quaker Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and abolitionists Sarah Grimké (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimké Weld (1805-1879).

Many Americans faced the problems of poverty and alcoholism and turned to religion, which promised solace. Revivalists soon shifted their attention from the personal life to the public one and sought to eliminate social sins. Slavery was labeled as such a sin, as it did not allow slaves to act in accordance with their free will, thus depriving them of a chance for salvation. Women who were known for their religious concerns participated actively in the Second Great Awakening and abolitionism, which gave them a chance to gain a public voice.

Pennyslvania-born Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) was referred to as the "idol of her generation" and some argue that she was the inspiration for the heroine in Ivanhoe (1819) by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The family, of German heritage, were one of the early influential American Jewish families and Gratz was seen as a pioneer in charitable work. She joined a group of like-minded women in establishing the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. Gratz was also known as a patron of the arts and enjoyed reading poetry and fiction.

Women in Antebellum America: Selected full-text books and articles

Women in Antebellum Reform By Lori D. Ginzberg Harlan Davidson, 2000
Pollution's Stain: A Fallen Woman's Quest for Redemption in Antebellum New Orleans By Pelger, Erin Kennedy The Historian, Vol. 62, No. 3, Spring 2000
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