Finding a Voice: Women in the 19th Century
America has always been a nation of insiders and outsiders. By definition, insiders get to shape the culture and provide the moral vision for shaping the nation’s future while outsiders struggle to find a place in the culture where their voice can be heard. Outsiders know too well the cultural doors that are closed to them. Most often they are the doors that offer traditional access to power and influence: politics, business, and education; however, the genius of outsiders is how adept they become at locating and utilizing non-traditional and counter-intuitive access points.
Though this is admittedly too broad a statement, the cultural insiders of the 19th century were Protestant males. This is not an indictment of Protestants or men, it’s just a historical fact that must be taken into account. Protestant males controlled the traditional accesses to power and influence but they were also responsible for unintentionally putting into motion forces that would significantly change the cultural landscape.
They were responsible for advocating and promoting radical doctrines like popular sovereignty, individual religious freedom and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ( See my blog Preachers and Politicians). In effect, during the 19th century the court of public opinion in America became a significant source of power and influence for individuals possessing charismatic personalities, inspiring vision and leadership ability.
You see, the problem is, if you advocate and promote such doctrines, don’t be surprised if people take you seriously and begin rallying public opinion to their views. Don’t be surprised if some of these same people begin redefining their social roles as a result of these radically liberating and socially leveling doctrines. Don’t be shocked if they use their individual freedoms to gain public support for their cause and become civic leaders.
The role of women in the 19th century was to be the moral gatekeepers of the American home. In the privacy of their homes they were to raise their children to be God fearing, morally upright models of civic and religious virtue. This concern for the moral and civic welfare of their children eventually expanded to larger concerns for the moral and civic issues affecting American culture that in turn affected family life: abolition, temperance, poverty, the mentally ill and worker’s rights.
During the 19th century women expanded their role as moral gatekeepers in the home to the role of social reformers in the public square. Though the traditional doors of politics, business and higher education were closed to most women, the role of social reformer was wide open.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a Southern slave owner. As young adults they moved north to join the fight against slavery. Both sisters became well known and effective public speakers and influential writers for the abolitionist cause.
Francis E. Willard was a devout Methodist influenced by Charles Finney’spreaching. As leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she became the spokesperson for the largest women’s movement of that era and was responsible for leading the WCTU to join forces with the social causes of labor unions and women’s right to vote.
Dorthea Dix was a school teacher who dedicated her life to improving conditions for the mentally ill. She hounded the Massachusetts State legislature to pass laws that would improve and expand the Worcester Hospital for the Insane. Her concern for the plight of the mentally ill ultimately became a national crusade.
As advocates for social reform women found their public voice in the culture. The court of public opinion provided women with the kind of non-traditional power and influence that would allow them to effectively challenge their traditional roles as moral gatekeepers and eventually demand their rights as full citizens of the nation. Once empowered by the cause of social reform it was a short step to Seneca Falls, New York where in 1848 women and men joined together to formally demand that women be given the right to vote.
Those women, let them be reformers and they’ll want to vote.
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