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Women and Nineteenth-Century Reform

Women and Nineteenth-Century Reform

by Dr. Heather Munro Prescott, Central Connecticut State University

“When our Lord ascended, his last command was ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ For ages, most Christian people have supposed this command was limited to the apostles . . . But a time is coming when Christian churches will under stand this command in a much more comprehensive sense; and the ‘Christian family’ and ‘Christian neighborhood’ will be the grand ministry of salvation.”
— Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home, 1869[1]

Catharine Beecher is known to many as the principle architect of the nineteenth-century “cult of domesticity,” a gender ideology that firmly established the truism that “woman’s place is in the home.” However, the excerpt above from the domestic advice guide she wrote with her more famous sister indicates that she did not believe that “home” was confined to one’s physical dwelling. Rather, Beecher believed the “Christian home” was contiguous with the “Christian neighborhood.” According to Beecher, women’s natural moral superiority and sympathy towards the less fortunate made them ideally suited to implementing various programs of social reform.

The work of Dorothea Dix to improve the treatment of persons with mental illness illustrates the gendered nature of nineteenth-century reform activity. Like many women of her generation, Dix began her career as a teacher, a profession that many women and men believed ideally suited to women as it both mirrored and prepared them for their roles within the home. Dix’ tireless activism within the Unitarian church and sense of moral religious duty was also common for women of her day. Eventually Dix felt that school teaching was insufficiently rewarding and in 1831 left the United States for a tour of England and Scotland. There, she became acquainted with a number of leading reformers who worked to improve the conditions for the poor and the mentally ill. On her return to the United States, Dix accepted a position to teach Sunday School to women prisoners at the East Cambridge jail. Thus, her life’s purpose grew out of a very common role for women at this time, that of educator and moral guide.

The problem for Dix and other women reformers of the nineteenth century was how to engage in social causes without losing their femininity. Opponents of women’s suffrage argued that political engagement would make women “mannish” and thereby undermine the social order. Even Catharine Beecher argued that women should not receive the right to vote because it would destroy their feminine virtues. Instead, Beecher believed that women could best exert their moral influence through their roles in the Christian home and neighborhood.

This dilemma for women reformers was described by noted abolitionist and women’s suffrage leader Lucretia Coffin Mott in an anti-slavery speech delivered in Philadelphia in 1849: “Why should not woman seek to be a reformer?” she asked. According to Mott, it was truly “a mournful prospect for woman” to confine herself to the narrow sphere assigned to her by men “lest she should transcend the bounds of female delicacy.” Indeed, said Mott, it was only through full participation in advancing social good that a female could become a “true woman.” Mott gave several examples of women who had been active in social causes without becoming “mannish.” Mott mentioned Dorothea Dix’ work for asylum reform, asking whether Dix was “throwing off her womanly nature and appearance in the course she is pursuing?” Mott’s reply was no: rather, “a beautiful mind and retiring modesty was still conspicuous” in the noted reformer.[2] Temperance leader Reverend Samuel J. May likewise commented on how Dix was able to fight for the rights of the insane while still remaining “a very delicately organized woman.”[3]

It is clear from these contemporary portraits that Dix was able to wield tremendous political influence without threatening the separation between male and female spheres of influence. According to biographer Thomas J. Brown, the life and career of Dorothea Dix exemplifies the ways in which the majority of women reformers of this period “worked within prevailing gender norms to exercise policy making influence without the prospect of voting or holding office.”[4]

Women’s dedication to social reform became even more prominent during the Progressive era. Female reformers used the term “municipal housekeeping” to describe women’s duty to participate in the social activism of this era. One of the foremost proponents of this view was Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jane Addams whose dedication to social justice led her to found the Hull House settlement in the slums of Chicago during the late nineteenth century. Addams believed that the settlement house movement would not only help the less fortunate, it would also provide useful work for college educated women who had few other professional opportunities at this time. Addams had suffered from nervous and physical ailments caused by the malaise she encountered upon graduating from college with no prospects for professional employment. Addams therefore wanted to create “a place for invalid girls to go and help the poor.”[5]

What was new in this era was that women’s reform activity was increasingly linked to the cause of women’s suffrage. Leaders in the suffrage movement used the notion of municipal housekeeping to justify giving women the right to vote. According to these suffrage proponents, women would literally use their votes to clean up society by eliminating social ills such as slavery, poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, child labor, environmental hazards, and political corruption.


[1] Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home: Principles in Domestic Science (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1869), 453, 455.

[2] Speech of Lucretia Mott, Philadelphia, 1849, by Lucretia Coffin Mott. In History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1: 1848-1861, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (New York, NY: Fowler and Wells, Publishers, 1881), 368-369.

[3] Speech of Reverend Samuel J. May to the Women’s and Men’s Temperance meeting in Albany, January 28, 1852, by Samuel Joseph May. In History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1: 1848-1861, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (New York, NY: Fowler and Wells, Publishers, 1881). 479.

[4] Thomas J. Brown, Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), xii.

[5] Allen Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 64.

Source: Heather Munro Prescott, “Women and Nineteenth-Century Reform,” Disability History Museum, (February 11, 2014).