Recall the concept of “republican motherhood,” which defined women’s political role in the new republic in response to growing demands for gender equality from Judith Sargent Murray and other American women.
By the early 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush and other American reformers argued that women could best fulfill their role as “republican mothers” by educating children in the principles of liberty. They believed in traditional gender roles, viewing women as inherently more moral and nurturing than men. For this reason, they suggested that women were uniquely qualified to take up the roles of educators of children.
By the mid-19th century, however, amidst the changes in the household economy brought by the market revolution, the concept of “republican motherhood” gradually evolved into a new doctrine known as separate spheres, which further divided responsibilities between the genders, and restricted women from public life by relegating them to home and domestic responsibilities.
Men were able to move freely between the public and private spheres.
EXAMPLEMen could leave the home and provide for their families by working. Men also engaged in public activities, such as gathering at a community tavern or participating in local elections.
Whereas “republican motherhood” had bestowed upon women something of a public responsibility through the education of children, the doctrine of “separate spheres” expected females to submit to male authorities and restrict themselves to the private sphere, or family life. Here, they were expected to nurture children, practice virtues such as frugality and simplicity, and provide emotional support for the family. In addition, women were expected to remain humble and obedient to their husbands.
Catharine Beecher, the daughter of temperance advocate Lyman Beecher, was among many American women who reinforced the doctrine of separate spheres. Beecher was particularly critical of women like Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the sisters who had become vocal critics of slavery and argued publicly on behalf of abolitionism in the 1830s.
In response to the publication of Angelina Grimké’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836), which argued that women should stand publicly against slavery, Catharine Beecher wrote a letter to Angelina that included a clear articulation of the “separate spheres” doctrine:
Woman is to win every thing by peace and love; by making herself so much respected, esteemed and loved, that to yield to her opinions and to gratify her wishes, will be the free-will offering of the heart. But this is to be all accomplished in the domestic and social circle….”
In all, Beecher’s writings represented a middle-class female sensibility that revolved around the separate spheres doctrine. The home was to be the site of female authority, through which women could influence the public actions of their husbands and children.
Although Beecher’s opinions were widely held, women actively participated in the abolition movement. Despite the radical nature of their effort to end slavery and create a biracial society, most abolitionist men clung to traditional notions of proper gender roles. White and black women, as well as free black men, were forbidden from occupying leadership positions in the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Because women were not allowed to join the men in playing leading roles in the organization, they formed separate societies, such as the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and similar groups.
The rhetoric associated with the abolition movement, particularly its insistence that slavery was a moral evil — and the movement’s use of moral suasion, or appealing to the conscience of its audiences — resonated with many northern white women. They condemned the sexual violence that many masters and overseers practiced against slave women.
Abolitionists utilized a number of images to highlight the moral wrongness of slavery. Among the most effective were the above woodcuts of two chained and pleading slaves, a man and a woman. The abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier used the woodcuts Am I Not a Man and a Brother? (a) and Am I Not a Woman and a Sister? to accompany his antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains,” in 1837.
Selections of Whittier’s poem are provided below. Apply the lenses of race and gender to respond to the questions provided.
What, ho! — our countrymen in chains! — The whip on WOMAN'S shrinking flesh! Our soil yet reddening with the stains, Caught from her scourging, warm and fresh! What! mothers from their children riven! — What! God's own image bought and sold! — AMERICANS to market driven, And bartered as the brute for gold!
Speak! — shall their agony of prayer Come thrilling to our hearts in vain! To us — whose fathers scorned to bear The paltry menace of a chain; — To us whose boast is loud and long Of holy liberty and light — Say, shall these writhing slaves of Wrong Plead vainly for their plundered Right? ….
A number of American women, both northern whites and free blacks, also played pivotal roles in helping runaway slaves escape the South through the Underground Railroad.
Quakers, who had long been troubled by slavery, were especially active in the Underground Railroad, as were members of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS).
The Underground Railroad emerged as a distinct network of safe passage for runaway slaves by the 1840s. It is unclear how many slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad, but historians believe that between 50,000 and 100,000 slaves used the network in their bids for freedom. Runaways who utilized the Underground Railroad found their safest asylum in Canada, because they could still be subject to capture by slave patrols in the North. Most runaways, however, joined the growing free black communities in Philadelphia, Boston, and other northern cities.
Harriet Tubman, one of the thousands of slaves who made her escape through the Underground Railroad, distinguished herself for her efforts in helping other enslaved men and women escape. Born a slave in Maryland around 1822, Tubman, who suffered greatly under slavery but found solace in Christianity, made her escape in the late 1840s. She returned to the South more than a dozen times to lead other slaves, including her family and friends, along the Underground Railroad to freedom.
Of course, participation in the abolition movement could mean many things for women. For Harriet Tubman, it meant participating directly in the freeing and sheltering of runaway slaves. For other women, participation or awareness of the abolition movement allowed them to embrace feminism, or the advocacy of women’s rights.
Like the Grimke sisters before them, a number of American women — including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (who met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840) as well as Susan B. Anthony (whose family occasionally hosted Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison) — realized that both women and African Americans occupied subordinate positions in American society.
EXAMPLELydia Maria Child, an abolitionist and feminist, once observed, “The comparison between women and the colored race is striking . . . both have been kept in subjection by physical force.”
Stanton, Mott, Anthony, and other women agreed with Child’s observation. In 1848, about 300 male and female reformers, many of them active participants in the abolition campaign, gathered at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York.
There, attendees agreed to a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,” which was based on Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“The history of mankind,” the document continued, “is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
The "Declaration of Rights and Sentiments" is notable for instigating the struggle for women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. However, also included in the document were a series of statements that criticized the separate spheres doctrine and insisted upon equal rights within the home and in public. Among them included:
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women — the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.”
Seneca Falls marked the beginning of a long struggle on behalf of women’s suffrage, which would not be fully achieved until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. More importantly, the convention constituted the dawn of a longer, continuous, and ongoing struggle against a doctrine that restricted women’s activities to the home and largely ignored their public contributions.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Catharine Beecher, Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (1837), in Foner, E. (2014). Voices of freedom: a documentary history (4th ed., Vol. 1). NY: W.W. Norton & Co., John Greenleaf Whittier, “Our Countrymen in Chains,” 1837. Ret Feb 17, 2017 from the LOC http://bit.ly/2ls72Am, Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, Ret Feb 17, 2017 from the LOC 1848, http://bit.ly/24kK5dX. Openstax tutorials 13.4, 13.5 & 14.1.http://bit.ly/2odG3XQ Some sections edited.