Several reform movements emerged during the antebellum era in an attempt to restructure American society. Many people were displeased with the status quo and believed that change was necessary. Most of the reform movements emphasized morality and pursuit of righteousness. Some of the issues promoted by the movements during the antebellum era include temperance, education, rehabilitation, slavery abolition, and women’s rights. Women were usually actively involved in these reform movements because they were perceived as the voice of morality.
The temperance movement aimed to reduce and curb the vice of alcohol consumption in the United States. This movement was mainly comprised of women who condemned consumption of alcoholic beverages because it created rifts between family members. They claimed that men spent all their money on alcohol, leaving their wives and children without basic needs. 1 Additionally, men spent a lot of time at bars away from their families, thereby disintegrating the family setting. Women and children were viewed as victims of rampant alcohol use by men in society because some men became abusive and violent when drunk. The temperance movement was a platform for women to speak against overconsumption of alcohol.
Another movement during the antebellum era was concerned with reform of prisons, mental asylums, and schools. The prison reforms movement established prisons for errant members of society to be rehabilitated. The emphasis on helping people to get better also led to the establishment of asylums to house the mentally ill. Aside from prisons and asylums, other movements pursued school reforms. Education was viewed as the means of preserving democracy and preparing the youth for their civic responsibilities. Since women were viewed as inherently nurturing, they participated in these movements.
Women were also a big part of the abolitionists and women’s rights movements. They advocated for the abolition of slavery as it was dehumanizing. These two movements, abolitionists and women’s rights, intersected since members of one movement often supported the other. For instance, in her letter to Catherine Beecher, Angelina Emily Grimké reported that she had noted parallels between the treatment of Black people and that of women. 2 She recognized that women and Black people were denied similar rights. Consequently, women fought for emancipation of slaves as well as their own liberation.
Despite being able to accomplish several things within the movements, women faced significant obstacles. The biggest obstacle was overcoming the “cult of domesticity” and rigid gender roles. Traditionally, women were viewed as homemakers and child bearers without a place in society. Consequently, there were forbidden from participating in certain activities and excluded from hallmark events. For instance, they were forbidden from speaking at the World Antislavery Convention in 1840. 3 Being continually marginalized pushed women from reform movements to join the women’s right movement to achieve equity. They realized that they had to eventually advocate for deconstruction of gender roles because the current system oppressed them. They could not make any progress under this system where women were discouraged from participating in anything outside the home arena. The women achieved much more after joining the women’s rights movement.
In conclusion, the reform movements during the antebellum era made advances in many spheres of society. They reduced alcoholism, which was quickly becoming a problem in American society. They created prisons and asylums for rehabilitation and opened many schools to promote education. The antebellum reformists also contributed to the abolitionists and women’s rights movements. These women made all these changes within a gender roles framework. However, they eventually realized that they needed to join the women’s rights movement to make meaningful progress for their gender.
Angelina Emily Grimké, Letter XII, Letter to Catherine E. Beeche, pp. 274-293. Boston: I. Knapp, 1838.
Brinkley, Alan, Andrew Huebner, and John Giggie. “Antebellum Culture and Reform.” In The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 274-93, 9th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2019.
- Alan Brinkley, et al., “Antebellum Culture and Reform.” In The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People (New York: McGraw Hill, 2019), 274-93.
- Angelina Emily Grimké, Letter XII, Letter to Catherine E. Beecher, (Boston: I. Knapp, 1838), pp. 114-21.
- Alan Brinkley, et al., “Antebellum Culture and Reform.” In The Unfinished Nation. 274-293.