Monocausal explanations never suffice. Nevertheless, we can still say that within the first wave of feminism, the American church aided and abetted the coming of subsequent waves.
Around the time of the Second Great Awakening, the church began to see increased revivalism within its sectors. Social and moral reform spread across the United States. Figures such as Anthony Comstock and William Wilberforce emerged during this timeframe. Yet, how was the American church a midwife for the now victorious feminist movement?
Due to increased leisure time mixed with the enthusiasm of the reform movement, women in the middle class began creating charitable enterprises and female missionary societies for the deaf, blind, insane, poor, and prostitutes. In a nutshell, the church spread feminism with good intentions.
Destroying Feminine Appeal
Originally, women becoming involved with the lower class of society did not help their feminine appeal. Some thought it was destructive to their “female sensibility.” Despite this, women became “missionaries,” working in the night, trying to hand out tracts and materials to help prostitutes. These societies eventually led to organizations such as The New York Female Moral Reform Society. This society soon began publishing a journal and attempted to keep it â€œfemale only.” They began to try to be separate and distinct from men. In the past, women would be under the direction of men.
The New York Moral Female Reform Society’s original mission was to convert New York prostitutes to evangelical Protestantism. Eventually, they started to write articles challenging the idea that happiness for a woman only takes place within the house of marriage. They also began raising questions to the unequal pay scale between men and women, the double standard of sexual morality, and the fact that women could not compel lawmakers to listen to their arguments because they did not have a vote. Eventually, this rhetoric turned into women clamoring for independence.
The New York movement was cutting edge, ahead of the nation. While the feminist movement was underway during this time, there was still a separation between church movements and women’s rights elsewhere. They did not take long to catch up. For example, influentials like Susan B. Anthony began as Quakers. Most of the women involved in these societies were Quakers. These ‘world changers’ began as temperance workers and abolitionists. However, they soon began to dabble with women’s rights issues.
Consequentially, within some moral reform groups, once women’s rights began to be brought up, many ladies would not have it. Some wanted to separate themselves from helping the lower class and becoming advocates for women’s rights. This finally led to the split of the movement; one group toward women’s rights, the other toward moral reform.
The church spearheaded the moral reform of society, leading many women’s organizations to form. The Quakers at this time already let their women become pastors and have a leading role within the church. This is perhaps why the Quaker women were the most dominate group among the early feminists. The women who were engaged in these moral reforms, found themselves in public and at political rallies. They began to see and learn the process of how to change society. And change society they did.
This led to some church women claiming, “whatsoever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do.” Egalitarianism and the idea of independence began to gain greater traction; in the church and out. Women becoming more courageous led to the justification of their behavior of breaking out of their “proper sphere.” This activism opened the door to the political realm, which has never been shut. One stepping stone after another was laid in the road to feminism, and it was the church that laid many of them. Far too many.
Nicole LeamanSee More Essays
Nicole Leaman is a wife and mother of four daughters. With a degree in Criminal Justice, she writes essays about social matters regarding women and culture as a Senior Contributor to The Reformed Conservative.