Women also demanded the right to participate in the market revolution. At an 1851 women’s rights convention, the black abolitionist Sojourner Truth insisted that the movement devote attention to the plight of poor and working-class women and repudiate the idea that women were too delicate to engage in work outside the home. Born a slave in New York State around 1799, Truth did not obtain her freedom until the state’s emancipation law of 1827. A listener at her 1851 speech (which was not recorded at the time) later recalled that Truth had spoken of her years of hard physical labor, had flexed her arm to show her strength, and exclaimed, “and aren’t I a woman?”

Woman’s Emancipation, a satirical engraving from Harper’s Monthly, August 1851, illustrating the much-ridiculed “Bloomer” costume.

Although those who convened at Seneca Falls were predominantly from the middle class—no representatives of the growing number of “factory girls” and domestic servants took part—the participants rejected the identification of the home as the women’s “sphere.” Women, wrote Pauline Davis in 1853, “must go to world’ to emancipate themselves from “bondage.” During the 1850s, some feminists tried to popularize a new style of dress, devised by Amelia Bloomer, consisting of a loose-fitting tunic and trousers. In her autobiography, published in 1898, Elizabeth Cady Stanton recalled that women who adopted Bloomer’s attire were ridiculed by the press and insulted by “crowds of boys in the streets.” They found that “the physical freedom enjoyed did not compensate for the persistent persecution and petty annoyances suffered at every turn.” The target of innumerable male jokes, the “bloomer” costume attempted to make a serious point—that the long dresses, tight corsets, and numerous petticoats considered to be appropriate female attire were so confining that they made it almost impossible for women to claim a place in the public sphere or to work outside the home.

Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?, an illustration from The Liberator, 1849. Identifying with the plight of the female slave enabled free women to see more clearly the inequalities they themselves faced.

In one sense, feminism demanded an expansion of the boundaries of freedom rather than a redefinition of the idea. Women, in the words of one reformer, should enjoy “the rights and liberties that every ‘free white male citizen’ takes to himself as God-given.” But even as it sought to apply prevailing notions of freedom to women, the movement posed a fundamental challenge to some of society’s central beliefs—that the capacity for independence and rationality were male traits, that the world was properly divided into public and private realms, and that issues of justice and freedom did not apply to relations within the family. In every realm of life, including the inner workings of the family, declared Elizabeth Cady Stanton, there could be “no happiness without freedom.”

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