Discuss the forces in American society between 1820 and 1850 that contributed to the emergence of a women's rights movement. How did the women's rights movement differ from other reform movements?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are at least three factors that we can identify as contributing to the emergence of the women’s rights movement during the early 1800s.  These factors are 1) the Second Great Awakening, 2) the other reform movements of the time, and 3) the idea of Republican motherhood.  All of these combined to help bring about the women’s movement, which was similar to other movements in some ways and different in others.

In the early 1800s, the wave of religious revival that we now call the Second Great Awakening swept many parts of the United States.  This revival helped bring about the idea among many people that human beings were perfectible, that they could change and improve themselves in fundamental ways.  As people came to believe this, they also came to believe that human beings could improve their societies.  They stopped thinking that society was inevitably flawed and started to imagine the possibility of creating a perfect (or at least better) society.  This idea, naturally, helped bring about a number of reform movements.

During the early years of the American republic, many people had come to believe in the idea of “Republican motherhood.”  This idea held that the proper role of women was to nurture children and to bring them up in such a way that they would be good citizens of the new country.  Women were to guard the moral lives of their families and to be in charge of inculcating good values in their children.  While this may seem limiting to us today, it did imply that women had an important role to play in the life of the nation.  When the ideas of Republican motherhood and the perfectibility of society were combined, it was possible to think that women ought to play a role not just in molding their children, but in improving society as a whole.

This led many women to participate in the social reform movements of the time.  Women were very prominent in movements such as abolitionism, temperance, and the reform of prisons and insane asylums.  Their participation in these movements gave them more confidence in their abilities and led some of them to believe that they should be able to play a bigger role in society.

All of these things combined to help bring about the women’s rights movement.  A lack of rights for women was seen as a part of society that needed to be improved.  As women became more involved in other movements, particularly in the abolition movement, they started to wonder why they should not work to improve their own lot.  Women started to push for their own rights because they felt that they could improve society and because their involvement in social reforms led them to think that they deserved greater rights.

The women’s rights movement was not different from all of the other reform movements in all ways.  It was, for example, similar to the abolition movement because it was pushing for greater rights for a given demographic group.  It was different from movements like the temperance movement because it was aimed at creating rights and not at doing away with a social ill, but so was the abolition movement.  You could argue, I suppose, that it was different from other movements because it grew out of the other movements instead of having been created on its own.

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