Women Reformers and the Suffragettes

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What was the relationship between the abolitionist and women's rights movements?

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The abolitionist movement emerged from the reform movements of the 1830s. These movements included temperance, prison and asylum reform, opposition to Native American removal, and many other causes. Women took active roles in many of these movements, which eventually came to encompass abolition. In turn, their participation in such movements...

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The abolitionist movement emerged from the reform movements of the 1830s. These movements included temperance, prison and asylum reform, opposition to Native American removal, and many other causes. Women took active roles in many of these movements, which eventually came to encompass abolition. In turn, their participation in such movements caused them to question oppressive conditions confronting women themselves.

Part of this was because they experienced discrimination within the movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, attended an antislavery convention in England along with her husband. She was outraged when the convention's leaders refused to allow her to sit with the American delegation. This incident led her to champion women's rights, including suffrage.

Other women were struck by the affinities between abolitionist rhetoric and ideology and that of women's rights. Abolitionists asserted the equality of all people, and for many women, this led to a broader critique of inequality for women. Not all abolitionist women specifically embraced the cause of women's equality, but most vocal advocates for women's rights—Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and many others—were abolitionists as well. Abolitionist literature regularly described the exploitation of young enslaved women by lascivious masters, and slavery was held to be the epitome of unchecked masculine aggression and power. In short, the visible role played by women in abolitionism, as well as many other antebellum reform movements, contributed organically to the growth of a movement for women's rights.

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Before the Civil War and black emancipation, the abolitionist and women's rights movements often worked in concert. Transcendentalists, for example, supported both women's rights and abolition, and Margaret Fuller, a champion of women's rights, became an editor of The Dial, a prominent transcendentalist journal.

Sojourner Truth, a woman and escaped slave, became the single face representing the unity of the dual movements before the Civil War. In 1851, she gave her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech at the 1851 Women's Right Convention in Akron, Ohio, speaking to the need for both female and slave emancipation.

Although slaves were clearly more profoundly and horrifically oppressed, both white women and enslaved people saw parallels in their lack of civil rights, such as the right to vote. Women's rights advocates argued that women became the equivalent of chattel slaves in marriage, with few rights to own property, work outside the home, control their children's fates, or deny their spouse sex, leading to marital rape. Men were also legally allowed to physically beat their wives at that time, a parallel to owners' rights to beat slaves. With so many common grievances, it was natural that the two groups would join forces, with largely white (and some freed black) abolitionists speaking for the slaves who, for obvious reasons, could not speak for themselves.

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The unalienable rights of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence were not fully realized by two groups of the American population: African Americans (who were not fully recognized as citizens in many cases) and women. This commonality brought them together as early as the 1830s in organized efforts to fulfill these promises for both groups.

By the 1940s, black and white women held abolitionist positions as editors, speakers, and lecturers. Although some came to question "allowing" women to work in these roles, their collective voice in the anti-slavery movement provided further strength to the movement.

In 1848, the First Women's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, and many of the participants had already begun work with the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an author and acclaimed abolitionist speaker, attended this convention. The organizers themselves were active abolitionists, though their roles in abolitionist work varied.

Women who spoke out about slavery were often in dangerous positions; often they were from families with some money, which offered at least a little protection. Not only did they have to confront deeply ingrained racial traditions in American society, but their very attempts to present themselves as an authority on subjects as complex as racial relations were not well-received. Nevertheless, women continued to find courage to voice their concerns about the injustices they saw in the treatment of African Americans.

Often, these two groups worked in conjunction each other, with many people speaking as active voices of change for both causes. Lucretia Mott explained this position effectively:

I have no idea of submitting tamely to injustice inflicted either on me or on the slave. I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity.

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There was a direct relationship between the abolitionist and women rights movement, however, it should be noted that this relationship was not a simple one. The relationship between the two movements was born of necessity because the groups both suffered from oppression. The women rights groups knew how to organize themselves from the abolitionist movement. They knew of political tactics to create awareness and pressure the leadership into recognizing their rights. Leaders of the women rights movement knew of such tactics when they were active participant in the anti-slavery movement, but due to oppressive treatment by the men in the abolitionist movement, the women decided to forge their own movement to champion for their rights. In some ways, women realized that by supporting the abolitionist movements they would in turn force the administration to address their own issues as women, and also earn support from some of the men in those movements such as Frederick Douglass.

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Basically, the relationship between these two movements is that the abolitionist movement helped lead to the women's movement.  The reason for this is that many women were involved in the abolitionist movement.  These were women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, and the Grimke sisters.  As these women fought for the rights of African Americans, many of them came to think about their own lack of rights.  It seemed to them that it was ironic that they would be helping to try to secure for African Americans rights that they themselves did not really have.  This helped lead to the calling of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which is seen as the start of the women's rights movement.

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