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2004 national women's history month

Another Mothers’ Movement, 1890 to 1920

The role of women’s voluntary organizations in Progressive Era social reform

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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On July 19th, 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the Declaration of Sentiments at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton and other early supporters of the women’s rights movement set a wave of progress in motion that moves us to this day. But the long struggle to win the vote for women is only one example of the extraordinary fortitude of 19th century woman activists.

Support for Stanton’s demand for enfranchisement was not universal— at a time when the ideology of domesticity was in full flower, the suggestion that women had inalienable rights and civic responsibilities was treated with derision by most men and many women. However, even wives and mothers who openly rejected the appeal for women’s suffrage were poised to expand their social influence beyond the boundaries of the domestic sphere.

During the Victorian and Progressive eras (1830 to 1920) millions of middle-class homemakers took part in grassroots political action through affiliation in women’s voluntary organizations. Rather than challenging the status quo of male dominance, reform-minded clubwomen exploited the cultural ideology of their day— an idealization of womanhood that granted women moral superiority and absolute authority in all matters related to the health and welfare of the family— to achieve their political goals.

From pure food and milk to better wages for women workers, reforms championed by women’s groups in this period were aimed at protecting the well-being of mothers and children and preserving the maternal-child bond. These campaigns proved to be highly effective— so effective that the activities of women’s voluntary organizations were central to the enactment of some of the earliest social policies in the United States.

Women in a changing world

The rapid advance of industrialization, immigration and urbanization in the second half of the 19th century produced profound changes in family life— and a host of social problems of staggering proportions. While men shifted their attention to the worldly affairs of commerce and public life, women were expected to fulfill their part of the social compact through selfless dedication to motherhood and housekeeping. Wives and mothers were celebrated as the moral guardians of the household, and educators, politicians and clergymen frequently called upon mothers to apply their specialized talents to the betterment of the human race, one well-reared child at a time.

When viewed through a feminist lens, 19th century social conditions appear inordinately oppressive to women. Certainly, married women were deprived of the most basic rights of citizenship— a wife had no legal claim to personal property, or even to her own wages. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in her Seneca Falls Declaration, when a woman married, she became “in the eye of the law, civilly dead.”

Paradoxically, the gendered division of power inherent in the ideology of “separate spheres” germinated new cultural attitudes which allowed women to flourish as social actors. The Victorian notion of “true womanhood” upheld the “feminine” virtues of purity, piety, domesticity and submissiveness as the moral antidote to the corrupting influence of the free market. An emphasis on care-giving as a “sacred” duty provided homemakers with a sense of higher purpose, and women were urged to develop mastery over all things in the private domain. Furthermore, the popularization of domesticity through novels, homemaking manuals and magazines such as Godey’s Ladies Book and Ladies Home Journal prompted women to cultivate a resilient collective identity based on the ideal qualities of motherhood.

The combination of moral empowerment, feminine mastery and collective identity was a potent mix for conceptualizing a broader political role for middle-class mothers at a time when women and children from less fortunate families were suffering from the devastating consequences of urban poverty. Although women were chided to direct their growing sense of social agency to home, church and charity, dutiful wives and mothers began organizing for the common good as early as 1830.

banding together

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