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Women’s Activism Research Papers

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Women’s rights have been an issue of debate and sought after by feminists for years. Much progress has been made over time. However, some women believe there is still room for growth. The need for women’s rights became necessary once the realization was made that women and girls of all ages were not receiving equitable treatment as their male counterparts. Feminists, as it relates to women, strongly believe in the following:

Women’s activism has been essential to the advancement of women. It is a recognized, vital tool that has afforded women the ability to make strides in change. Through bravery and determination, feminists have been able to draw attention to the public’s lack of interest and common discrimination towards women, experiences women encounter on a daily basis. After all, many people don’t realize there are incidents specific to females that men do not have to deal with, primarily the need to prove themselves since they are competing in an overall patriarchal society. As long as there continues to be bias towards women, women’s activism will continue to thrive; until their rights are no longer deemed irrelevant to those of men.

Were suffragists early feminists? This study answers that critical question by examining the contexts in which American women first emerged as activists in public life. Focusing on the time period between 1820 and 1860, the study analyzes the climate of American politics in which women emerged as temperance activists, abolitionists, utopians, and suffragists. The study demonstrates that although women initially joined and formed suffragist organizations with the intention of promoting moral reform in society, through their suffragist and other activities they inevitably challenged prevailing ideals that would severely restrict women’s roles. As such, although their initial intentions were hardly feminist in nature, the ultimate consequences of their actions were to dramatically transform gender ideals relations within the women's society.

The easiest and most obvious answer to the question of whether suffragists from 1820 to 1860 were early feminists is a resounding “no.” Indeed, the notion of “feminism” as it is currently understood hardly existed during the era, first emerging in popular usage only when the struggles for women’s suffrage intensified during the 1910s. The influence of feminist leanings in the early nineteenth-century “woman movement” such as it was also severely limited by the prevailing American political and social climates. Early nineteenth century American life was marked by a rigid, gendered separation of public and private spheres. Whereas men dominated the public spheres, particularly of local and national government, women’s ideal “places” were in the private worlds of the household and the family.

Although harsh necessity—and in the case of African-American slave women, brute coercion—compelled large proportions of women to engage in “unfeminine” work outside of the home, prevailing norms idealized the roles of mother and wife for upper- and middle-class women and emphasized their dependence on male providers and protectors. As such, the “feminine” ideal prescribed that women should be bound by the duties of wife and mother, ignoring “manly” intellectual and political pursuits that were unsuited to women’s allegedly fragile constitutions, but leading exemplary lives of chasteness and moral rectitude and ensuring that their children were raised in strict but loving moral and religious discipline. In the climate of constant and dramatic social change, women reigned as the keepers of traditional societal virtues, and as the bulwarks against the staunch commercialism and materialism that was increasingly prevalent in the male public world. 

However, despite the idealized rigid separations between private and public life a number of the political, social, and religious movements that emerged in the early nineteenth century increasingly transformed private “women’s” issues into problems of public debate and action. A case in point was the powerful “temperance” movement. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the temperance movement was an almost wholly male-dominated phenomenon, in which women played, at best, only silent and supportive roles. Nonetheless, through its heavy and dramatic emphases on the real and alleged relationships between alcoholism and uncontrolled domestic violence, the temperance movement inevitably transformed the “private” issues of spousal and child abuse into a public matter and, to a certain degree, extended women’s spheres into the public domain. 

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, temperance societies in various parts of the nation worked to arouse public and governmental concern about alcohol abuse and its impacts on private life, publishing speeches, tracts, and official reports on the problem and, in turn, generating both a demand and market for temperance fiction. There were real reasons for concern over alcohol abuse during the period, since rates of alcohol consumption within the society had generally increased spectacularly between the American Revolution and 1830. Moreover, although per capita consumption decreased in the decades following 1830, new patterns of consumption actually increased problems of drunkenness, since instead of drinking small and regular amounts throughout the day men increasingly concentrated their drinking in binge episodes that often led to intoxication.

Within these contexts of increased alcohol abuse, both fictional and supposedly factual accounts reveled in horrifying details about the impacts of alcohol on male drinkers, their wives, and their families (Nadelhaft). Alcohol was portrayed as ruining male drinkers’ self-control, deadening their moral sensibilities, and unleashing their latent antisocial tendencies. Inebriated men were regularly depicted as, among other things, highly prone to envy, spite, jealousy, revenge, rage, violence, cruelty and insanity.

By contrast, temperance advocates portrayed women as victims of alcoholism who, despite being upright and innocent of the dreaded vice, bore the severe ill-effects of their husbands’ and fathers’ alcohol abuse. The temperance literature during the period was virtually unanimous in maintaining that women were the primary victims when alcohol transformed “kind and affectionate” husbands into “unfeeling, unreasonable, and furious” tyrants. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, temperance advocates also depicted alcoholism as a problem that affected, not just the lower and working classes, but many of the finest families. Wealthy men and prominent professionals were regularly painted as some of the worst perpetrators of terror against women, steadily losing their fortunes to drink and increasingly relying on their wives for financial support. As such, the early temperance movement could be seen as challenging some of the most powerful men in nineteenth-century American society.      

The ardent condemnation of alcohol abuse as a specifically male phenomenon whose egregious impacts were suffered primarily by women could also be seen as reinforcing the prevailing view of women as inherently moral superiors—a view that would in turn serve as critical inspiration for women’s actions on a number of increasingly public fronts. As the century progressed, women steadily extended their prescribed roles as keepers of morality within the home by carving new public roles for themselves as champions of moral authority in what was portrayed as an increasingly morally lax society. Moreover, although women were often portrayed as innocent, terrorized victims of male alcohol abuse, some of the temperance literature also created new images of women as dedicated mothers who boldly defended their children from abuse and who assumed the “male” financial responsibilities that their husbands had essentially abandoned. As women became increasingly active in the temperance movement and women’s rights movements in later decades, they would seize upon such images to challenge an immoral society that tolerated the suffering of its most morally upright members. Thus, early female activists entered the public sphere, not as feminists, but as morally superior beings eager to right many of the moral wrongs that men had engendered in the public sphere.

Religious institutions, which were initially perceived as private domains in which women could exert their influences, emerged as critical centers for women’s activism. Churches and religious charities served as key sites from which women could associate with other females (and sometimes with sympathetic men,) to pursue moral reform projects that became increasingly public and political as the nineteenth century progressed. As such, as the century wore on women used the experiences initially garnered through religious revivalism to increase their involvement in the moralistic temperance movement, anti-gambling campaigns, moving eventually into the abolition, suffrage, and women’s rights movements.

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