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Womens Rights Before Civil War

During the pre-civil war period of 1820-1860, vast changes in society were occurring. Conflicts between the North and South were increasing in number and intensity, and many advocators of abolition and women’s rights began to gain recognition and supporters. This was a period of great change in the United States, particularly for women. In fact, this is when women began to actively give their support to a wide-range of reforms. Many supported the abolition movement and the temperance movement.

With the majority of women advocating for the highly visible abolition and temperance movements, disunity fell upon the women’s right movement. Though the women’s rights movement was not generally considered to be greatly successful, women gained the knowledge, experience, and contacts needed for meetings yet to come by being involved with these movements. The women’s rights movement as a whole is a complex historical event and many happenings are interrelated and uncharacteristically interlinked socially, economically, and politically.

Socially, much progress was made in the areas of educational equality, contraception awareness, and the anti-slavery and temperance movements. Women were also somewhat successful economically by gaining more equality in the workplace. Politically, however, they were not so fortunate. Women did not get the right to hold property or divorce until well after the civil war, nor did they gain the right to vote until 1920. Ideas like these were considered by most to be too radical to take on at the time. As a result, overall the women’s movement for equality was not greatly successful from 1820-1860.

One of their more successful endeavors was obtaining equal education for women. In 1833, the first co-educational college was founded in Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin was not only for men and women, but black and whites alike. Oberlin gave women the first sense of accomplishment especially when other schools followed in its foot steps. Prudence Crandall opened a school that same year for African American females and in 1852 the Antioch College welcomed women as students. First Grinnell, and then the state university in Iowa was opened to females.

Millstein 148) Even though women were allowed to attend college and earn an education, they were still not seen as intellectual equals at first, “ Most remained in the ‘Female Department’ where they followed the ‘Ladies Course’ designed to prepare them for educated motherhood. ” (Lunardini 33) Thus, women received superficial education without any real substance until 1840 when women were granted the right to earn full Bachelor degrees. However, by 1860 women were receiving the same educational privileges as men, therefore accomplishing their goal of educational equality.

A woman by the name of Elizabeth Blackwell was the first modern woman to graduate from medical school in 1849, proving that women can be as intelligent as men, and sometimes even their superior. (Franck 134) In the early 1800’s, family sizes were enormous, averaging seven children per household, and women knew very little of how to control pregnancy. The wide-spread knowledge of contraception was not present until the late 1820’s when speeches and books were starting to appear. The first book, Moral Physiology, advocating Birth Control was published in 1830 by Robert Owens.

After that there was an abundance of books dealing with contraception. Fanny Wright was a well-known public speaker and motivator for women’s rights who spoke out about contraception. (Rappaport 113-114)These methods helped to educate women on how to prevent pregnancy. If women did not have a huge family to look after they would be more available to work and receive a higher education.

“As the sizes of families shrank, the demands on women correspondingly diminished…a women who delayed pregnancy for several years…had a chance to gain experience in an adult role other than a mother. Lunardini 30). By acquiring contraception awareness women were freer to concentrate on their own issues, not their children’s. Most women were fully aware and practicing birth control methods by the civil war.

Having less children provided women with move time to focus on supporting women’s rights. Along with these social successes, women, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were active advocators of temperance. Although temperance and prohibition of alcohol may seem political in origin, upon further investigation it had a clearly social motivation.

Many women who helped the temperance movement were those who suffered abuse from their drunken husbands. “ With the overwhelming majority of alcohol abusers being men, and with virtually no legal protection…it seemed a natural consequence, then, for women to become the primary agents for change and reform. ” (Hanmer 24) This movement, greatly dominated by women, had a few successes and gave them a point from which to jump beyond themselves in the future. They were able to persuade Congress to pass law that forbid the sale of alcohol to Indians.

An even greater step in the right direction was in 1851 when Maine became the first state to issue a prohibition on alcohol, following its example about twelve states did the same. (Hanmer 23-26) Without the support and hard-work of the women advocators, the temperance movement would not have been adopted so quickly nor would it have been so successful. In addition to the temperance movement, many women gave their support to the abolition movement. Even when women offered their help in the abolition movement they were sometimes turned away.

At the 1840 anti-slavery convention in London, women were refused seats until all the men had found one. Since this was the first overtly public movement in which American women participated in, men were unaware of their abilities and doubted their intelligence. However, this did not discourage women, it was at this convention that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Mott met. These women later became the leaders of the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls made their connections. (Lunardini 32-37).

The temperance and abolition movements are relevant to the women’s fight for equality because it gave them the knowledge, experience, and connections they needed in order to organize a productive outcome later on. “…female abolitionists gained experience that they and the other women would later draw on in mobilizing for…their own rights…women learned the basic procedures of public mobilization: drawing up a constitution and bylaws, electing officers, speaking before groups, taking votes, organizing committees, and planning collective actions. ” (Lunardini 37).

Without this prior knowledge the fight for women’s rights may not have been as successful. Women now not only wanted to be educated, protected from pregnancy , and sober, they wanted to earn their own money. A wave of independence swept over women like cool breeze on a hot summer day, only this breeze never ceased. Both men and women entered the depths of the workplace, but to the despair of many they again found discrimination. It is true that many women found jobs, but worked for salaries far beneath what was fair. Women attempted to fight for equal pay and labor, but they were unsuccessful.

This was evident in the case of the Lowell Mill Girls. These diligent workers went on strike protesting against cut backs in pay by fifteen percent for the same work load. As wishful as this protest my have been, the workers returned to the mill that Monday with out so much as a compromise. What accounts for the failure of this strike can be summed up in two words: inexperience and disorganization. However, the fight for equality in the workplace was not entirely unsuccessful, at least it was now acceptable for women to work in the public eye.

Plus, the Lowell Mill girls went on strike again in 1846, this time with a little more discipline and determination, and even achieved some of their limited goals reached. (Millstein 136-141) The Lowell Mill girls are prime exemplar of women finally speaking against injustices against them. It is hard to argue that the political fight for equality was successful but many of the ideas that are common place today were considered too radical at the time. For women to even thinking about pushing for the right to vote was an incomprehensible idea before the civil war and for sometime after it.

Though many women desperately wanted the right to hold land and to divorce, the historical circumstances did not allow for these desires to be realized. Women were smart by striving to gain equality a little bit at a time. Attempting something so controversial in that time as women holding property or being able to divorce would have cursed whatever platform they rested on. These ideals were discussed at the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, with leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Mott who had previously met at the anti-slavery convention in London.

Though the political goals were not reached by 1860, this convention was the beginning of a nation-wide campaign supported both by men and women for equality. Politically women were just beginning to mobilize by 1860, but they had all the knowledge and experience behind them when they did eventually begin. (Franck 147-151) Purposely or not, women strategically climbed the ladder to equality step by step. By involving themselves in the temperance and abolition movements they gained knowledge and experience. As a whole, women had their share of successes and failures.

The majority of their accomplishments were social, and their failures political, with a balanced economical middle ground. As the women won their small victories, they learned what boundaries they could push farther and what ones would come with time. Some of their successes gave way to others. Without contraception awareness and educational equality, women would not have had the time nor the education to eventually organize and unify as one force persistently fighting for equality. The period of 1820-1860, therefore maid the foundation for the women’s rights movement and the abundant successes that were realized in later decades.

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