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[Detail] Millions of acres, Iowa and Nebraska, 1872

Women and Reform

Women were a major part of several reform movements of the 1800s and early 1900s. These reform movements sought to promote basic changes in American society, including the abolition of slavery, education reform, prison reform, women's rights, and temperance (opposition to alcohol). A National Temperance Circular (ca. 1850) outlined the problems of drunkenness:

"...Our country is now harboring a fatal enemy; cherishing a plague of dreadful malignity; submitting to a tax which brings no increase to our treasury, while it perpetuates poverty, misery and crime. To prove this, let us state a few facts which may be relied on. Whatever may be said in favor of the temperate use of ardent spirits, (if that indefinite line could ever be drawn,) facts will show incontestibly, that the excessive use of them is the severest scourge with which our nation is visited: and you know that all drunkenness commences in the moderate use of them. Ardent spirit destroys health: ardent spirit creates idleness: ardent spirit ruins character: ardent spirit makes paupers: ardent spirit makes criminals: ardent spirit brutalizes men: ardent spirit destroys domestic happiness: ardent spirit ensures premature death: ardent spirit makes three-fourths of the business and expense of our criminal courts, jails and alms-houses: ardent spirit throws an immense tax on a christian community to support vice: ardent spirit unfits thousands and tens of thousands for the duties of this life and exposes them to the lawful retribution of the next...."

From "National Circular of the Several State Temperance Societies"

Read the circular and then find other documents on the topic of temperance:

  • According to the temperance movement, what problems did alcohol cause for individuals? For society?
  • What actions did the advocates of temperance urge to solve the problems caused by alcohol?
  • What strategies did the advocates of temperance use to advance their ideas? What evidence can you find that they achieved any success?

As the Grimke letter quoted earlier suggested, women were active in the abolitionist movement. Some cite the fact that women were not allowed to participate in the debates at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention as the event that launched the women's rights movement. In 1848, the first American convention focused on women's rights was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Approximately 200 women and 40 men met and adopted the "Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments" (modeled on the Declaration of Independence), which called for political and economic rights for women. The effort to gain the vote for women took 70 years and engaged thousands of women. An American Time Capsule contains a number of documents on the question of women's suffrage; the following are a few examples from people on both sides of the issue:

Read several of the documents listed above or others that you locate using a Keyword Search.

  • Identify several arguments for and against suffrage for women. Write a sentence that summarizes how the opponents of suffrage viewed the ideal relationship between women and the larger society. Write a sentence that summarizes how the advocates of suffrage viewed the ideal relationship between women and the larger society.
  • Choose the three strongest arguments on each side. Which side is most persuasive? Why? Is it possible for you to evaluate the arguments objectively given that you live in a society in which women have voted for more than 80 years? Why or why not?
  • Prepare a broadside featuring the strongest arguments either for or against women's suffrage. Write the broadside as it might have been written in 1900.

Learn about another reform movement in the late 1800s or early 1900s by searching the collection. What problem was the reform movement trying to solve? To what extent was the reform movement successful? From the documents in the collection, can you discern whether women were active participants in the reform movement?