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Women Movement 19th Century

The temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries was an organized effort to encourage moderation in the consumption of intoxicating liquors or press for complete abstinence. The movement’s ranks were mostly filled by women who, with their children, had endured the effects of uncontrolled drinking by many of their husbands. These organizations used many arguments to convince their countrymen of the evils of alcohol.

They argued that alcohol was a cause of poverty. They said that drunk workers often lost their jobs; or that they would spend their wages on alcohol instead of their homes and families. “Men spent more money on alcohol than their families needed for basic necessities, and drunken husbands often abused their wives and children (American History, A Survey, Alan Brinkley, PG 32,7 2003). The temperance societies also claimed that drinking led to hell. Temperance supporters argued that alcohol produced insanity and crime. It destroyed families, hurting women and children. They claimed that drunkenness was a worse evil than slavery. The temperance movement continued into the 20th century when it would achieve its greatest victory; the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States.

Producing a system of universal education became one of the outstanding movements of the mid 19th century. Horace Mann, the greatest of the educational reformers, was the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. He used his position to enact major educational reform. He spearheaded the Common School Movement, ensuring that every child could receive a basic education funded by local taxes. Mann reorganized the Massachusetts school system, lengthened the academic year, doubled teachers’ salaries, enriched the curriculum and introduced new methods of professional training for teachers (American History, A Survey, Alan Brinkley, PG 330, 2003). His influence soon spread beyond Massachusetts as more states took up the idea of universal schooling.

Dorothea Dix, an advocate for treating the mentally ill humanely fought for better treatment of mentally ill persons. Dix spent a few years studying the conditions in prison and insane asylums in Massachusetts. She discovered that a large number of people suffering from mental illness were confined in prisons and were receiving no medical treatment. Even in mental asylums the patients were often confined in cages and bound with ropes and chains. Shocked by what she discovered, in January 1843, Dix submitted to the Massachusetts legislature a detailed report on her research. Her ideas influenced the reform of the Worcester Insane Asylum. By 1854 Dix had helped to establish mental hospitals in eleven states.

Women in the United States during the 19th century organized and participated in a great variety of reform movements. At a time when it was not considered respectable for women to speak before mixed audiences of men and women, the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke of South Carolina boldly spoke out against slavery at public meetings. The reform ferment of the antebellum period had a particular meaning for American women. They played central roles in a wide range of reform movements and a particularly important role in the movements on behalf of temperance and the abolition of slavery (American History: A Survey, Alan Brinkley, PG 333, 2003).

Some male abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass supported the right of women to speak and participate equally with men in antislavery activities. Some women saw parallels between the position of women and that of the slaves. In their view, both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient to their master-husbands. The first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in July 1848. The declaration that emerged was modelled after the Declaration of Independence. Written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it claimed that all men and women are created equal. Following a long list of grievances were resolutions for equitable laws, equal educational and job opportunities, and the right to vote.

In 1817, a group of prominent white Virginians organized the American Colonization Society (ACS), which worked carefully to challenge slavery without challenging property rights or southern sensibilities. The ACS proposed a gradual manumission of slaves, with masters receiving compensation through funds raised by private charity or appropriate by state legislatures (American History: A Survey, Alan Brinkley, PG 334, 2003). By 1830, the early antislavery movement was rapidly losing strength. Those opposed to slavery had reached what appeared to be a dead-end until a new figure emerged to transform it into a dramatically different phenomenon. William Lloyd Garrison, born in 1805, believed that, in time, all blacks would be equal in every way to the country’s white citizens.

He believed they were Americans and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In 1832 he helped organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and, the following year, the American Anti-Slavery Society. These were the first organizations dedicated to promoting immediate emancipation.

In the early Anti-Slavery conventions, the broad principles of human rights were so deeply discussed, justice, liberty, and equality, so clearly taught, that the women who crowded to listen eagerly learned the lesson of freedom for themselves. When Angelina and Sarah Grimke began to lecture in New England, their audiences were at first composed entirely of women, but gentlemen, hearing of their expression and power, soon began hesitantly to slip into the back seats, one by one. The clergy, opposed to the abolition movement, first took panic and issued a pastoral letter, warning their congregations against the influence of such women.

The clergy, identified with anti-slavery associations, took notice also, and the initial steps to silence the women, and to deny them of the right to vote in the business meetings, were soon taken. This action culminated in a division in the Anti-Slavery Association. The Grimke sisters in advocating liberty for the black race were early bound to defend the right of free speech for themselves. They had the double battle to fight against the cruelty of sex and colour at the same time.

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