RANDALL M. MILLER
This collection of essays focuses on important American women reformers and the reforms they most directly affected or led. Each chapter combines biography with historical analysis of a particular reform to establish the context and character of the movement each woman embodied or represented. The chronology of subjects treated runs from the early nineteenth century to the present. The experience of American reform dictates such an approach, for since the dawn of the republic, American reformers, women and men, have believed in America as a special, even divinely ordained, society capable of building a more perfect world. The germination of reforms over the past two centuries attests to the persistent power of this belief.
The idea of America as a regenerative force preceded, and in some ways even precipitated, the creation of an independent United States, but it emanated most powerfully from the American Revolution. The Revolution fostered both an obligation and an opportunity to reshape government, society, and even the human condition. Freed from the past, Americans could make their own future. Such liberty also made Americans self-conscious and critical of their republican experiment. Without a sense of purpose and without self-criticism, Americans believed, no nation could prosper and no people could properly govern themselves. American reformers from the late eighteenth century until today have used revolutionary rhetoric and invoked the Revolution's legacy to justify their calls for reform and renewal, though admittedly others have drawn on similar language and inheritance to contest the means and ends of various reforms. Although no consensus about the exact course of American reform emerged from the Revolution or after, an abiding sense of special purpose, of reform, has run through American history. Women, as these essays collectively suggest, have been central to that process.