Although the leadership of reform movements of the 1840s and 1850s (temperance, abolitionism, social purity, and so on) was largely male, many of the members of reform organisations were women. Explain the significance of the preponderance of women in reform organisations. What was the relationship between gender and reform?
Amidst a background of religious revival and polarisation of the sexes, women in America began to embrace reform organisations. The institutions of church and school fostered close relations among these educated middle class women. They nurtured a female culture where women could act, both privately and publicly on a value system increasingly at odds with those of the dominant male sex. The reform institutions gave women a way of defining themselves and the world around them, reshaping definitions of public and private, male and female.
Traditionally women in America were regarded as wards of their husbands, they were barred from professions like the law, medicine and the ministry with few opportunities for higher education.
Acceptable occupations for working women were limited to factory labour or domestic work. At a time when North Americans were proclaimed liberty and political participation as their birthright, women remained separate from the political sphere. Even when women had access to political writings and pamphlets low female literacy ensured that few could read them and fewer still could understand them.1 Under law a man virtually owned his wife and children as he did his material possessions. If a poor man chose to send his children to the poorhouse, the mother was legally defenceless to object.2 Male attitudes towards women at the time can be summed up in the common phrase of the day, "tell that to women and children". In view of the enlightenment a mother's relationship with her children changed in a small but significant way.