“When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written,” Frederick Douglass later recalled, “women will occupy a large space in its pages.” Much of the movement’s grassroots strength derived from northern women, who joined by the thousands. Most were evangelical Protestants, New England Congregationalists, or Quakers convinced, as Martha Higginson of Vermont wrote, that slavery was “a disgrace in this land of Christian light and liberty.” A few became famous, but most antislavery women remain virtually unknown to history. One such activist was Lucy Colman, whose mother sang her antislavery songs when she was a child. Colman’s career illustrated how the era’s reform movements often overlapped. She became an abolitionist lecturer, a teacher at a school for blacks in upstate New York, an advocate of women’s rights, and an opponent of capital punishment.

The public sphere was open to women in ways government and party politics were not. Long before they could vote, women circulated petitions, attended meetings, marched in parades, and delivered public lectures. They became active in the temperance movement, the building of asylums, and other reform activities. Dorothea Dix, a Massachusetts schoolteacher, for example, was the leading advocate of more humane treatment of the insane, who at the time generally were placed in jails alongside debtors and hardened criminals. Thanks to her efforts, twenty-eight states constructed mental hospitals before the Civil War. In 1834, middle-class women in New York City organized the Female Moral Reform Society, which sought to redeem prostitutes from lives of sin and to protect the morality of single women. They attacked the era’s sexual double standard by publishing lists of men who frequented prostitutes or abused women. By 1840, the society had been replicated in hundreds of American communities.

A Women’s Rights Quilt. Made by an unknown woman only a few years after the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, this quilt embodies an unusual form of political expression. It includes scenes visualizing a woman engaged in various activities that violated the era’s cult of domesticity, and it illustrates some of the demands of the early women’s rights movement. The individual blocks show a woman driving her own buggy and a banner advocating “women’s rights,” another dressing to go out while her husband remains at home wearing an apron, and a third addressing a public meeting with a mixed male female audience.


1. Which aspects of freedom does the quiltmaker emphasize?

2. What aspects of women’s rights are not depicted in the quilt?

The May Session of the Woman’s Rights Convention, a cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly, June 11, 1859. A female orator addresses the audience of men and women, while hecklers in the balcony disrupt the proceedings.

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