Boylan, Anne M., fl. 2007. "Review of The First of Causes to Our Sex: The Female Moral Reform Movement in the Antebellum Northeast, 1834-1848". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [View document in context of full source text] [Bibliographic details]


The First of Causes to Our Sex: The Female Moral Reform Movement in the Antebellum Northeast, 1834-1848

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The First of Causes to Our Sex: The Female Moral Reform Movement in the Antebellum Northeast, 1834-1848

By Daniel S. Wright (New York and London: Routledge, 2006. 290 pp. Cloth, $75.00, ISBN 0415979102).

Reviewed by Anne M. Boylan.

In this book, Daniel S. Wright revisits the moral reform movement, a subject that first attracted sustained attention at a time when women's history was just starting to become an academic discipline. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's arrestingly titled and widely reprinted 1971 essay, "Beauty, the Beast, and the Militant Women," rescued urban middle-class female anti-prostitution crusaders from historical obscurity (or condescension) and repositioned them as radicals who both challenged the sexual double standard and identified male privilege and power as the source of women's sexual degradation. Other historians, including Mary P. Ryan, Barbara Berg, Larry Whiteaker, Nancy A. Hewitt, Barbara Miel Hobson, and Lori D. Ginzberg provided additional insights into the social and economic changes that led women into moral reform, the class and religious characteristics of urban moral reformers, the political activities their organizations undertook, and the connections between moral reform and other contemporary social movements, especially abolitionism. As these historians made clear, in cities such as New York, Boston, Utica, and Rochester, female moral reformers were often recent urban migrants whose families directly experienced the economic dislocations of the 1830s, members of an emerging middle class, and evangelical Protestants to whom Finneyite revivals had significant appeal.

Wright's signal contribution to historians' understanding of antebellum moral reform is to refocus attention on the movement's small-town and rural base. Although the parent organizations - the American Female Moral Reform Society (later the American Female Guardian Society) and the New England Female Moral Reform Society - were based in New York and Boston, many of the women who subscribed to moral reform periodicals, circulated legislative petitions, attended meetings and conventions, and developed abstinence pledges for children, lived in small towns and farming communities. They were, he argues, "the backbone" (3) of a phenomenon that was "overwhelmingly rural" (63). By analyzing geographical patterns of belonging, Wright demonstrates that moral reform auxiliaries were strongest in areas of New England, New York, and Ohio's Western Reserve with significant numbers of Yankee settlers. (In some areas, such as central New England, there were many auxiliaries with many members; in other areas, such as Ohio, auxiliaries were typically few in number but robust in members.)

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Although agreeing with historians who have shown moral reformers to be both middle class and concerned about the fluidity of class standing in antebellum America, Wright challenges those who have found the roots of moral reform specifically in market-oriented economic change. The movement "flourished on the edges, rather than at the centers of market expansion" (96), he insists. Moreover, the crucial key to understanding rural moral reform is the demographic transition; the movement was rooted in communities that led their neighbors in fertility decline and had low rates of pre-marital pregnancy. "The real engine driving" moral reform, he concludes, was a "revolutionary change in family formation," a change that "summoned [women] into a crusade aimed at transforming the sexual mores" of their society (63). Wright's close analysis of three local societies for which manuscript records are available - two in Worcester County, Massachusetts, and one in adjoining Cheshire County, New Hampshire - confirms the larger pattern. Moral reformers in all three towns belonged to "households of the modestly prosperous, property-owning set of farmers, professionals, merchants, manufacturers, and artisans" (147). They were middle class, supported antislavery petitioning but not necessarily the Liberty Party, attended Congregational churches, and practiced family limitation.

For them, moral reform was "the cause of women" (2), one in which rural and urban women could join together to create and follow their own agenda. But did the grass roots follow or lead the cause? Like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Wright sees the relationship between local auxiliaries and the parent societies as reciprocal. For both rural and urban women, moral reform tapped into anxieties about the fate of sons and daughters moving to the big city, and "expressed a rage against male power and female powerlessness" (126) in the sex and gender system. But his evidence reveals that rural societies generally reacted to policies and ideas voiced in New York and Boston; their reports and minutes "echoed the themes and bywords" (133) found in the Advocate of Moral Reform and Friend of Virtue. Only once was that reaction decisive, when the leadership, many of whom were also abolitionists, appeared to endorse Sarah Grimké's woman's rights stance. "Negative reaction … from local moral reformers" was at least "partly responsible for the toning down of rhetoric and simultaneous distancing from woman's rights advocacy" (134) evident in the pages of both periodicals starting in 1838. Local members' complaints reflected their "unease … with the anti-male and anti-clerical tone" (136) of Grimké's and other essays; in response, the parent societies retreated from "further overt reference to woman's rights" (138). Thereafter, moral reform societies devoted their attention to "practical strategies aimed at the reform of gender and sexual relations" (139), including petition campaigns seeking to criminalize seduction and social welfare institution-building. As individuals, many moral reformers remained committed to abolition, but as Lori Ginzberg and Debra Gold Hansen have shown, they left the American Anti-Slavery Society and its woman's rights platform in favor of forming female auxiliaries to the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

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Wright's research adds new dimensions to historians' understanding of the moral reform crusade, especially in correlating moral reform support with fertility decline and recapturing the context in which the rural auxiliaries operated. Other aspects of his analysis are less compelling, particularly those that tie the emergence of rural groups to developments specific to Congregationalism and to church disestablishment in New England. As his statistics reveal, in New York and Ohio, where Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches had a strong presence, it was "low fertility and New England origin" (83), along with evangelical affiliation, that determined moral reform activism. His book may not be the first to which we will send students interested in nineteenth-century sexual reform, but historians familiar with the literature on moral reform will find its analyses of small-town and rural women's activities illuminating, and will learn from its thought-provoking argument about the connections between moral reform and the demographic transition.

Anne Boylan is Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) and The Origins of Women's Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and numerous articles.


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