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In the late nineteenth century,"Age of consent" referred to the legal age at which a girl could consent to sexual relations. Men who engaged in sexual relations with girls who had not reached the age of consent could be criminally prosecuted. American reformers were shocked to discover that the laws of most states set the age of consent at the age of ten or twelve, and in one state, Delaware, the age of consent was only seven. Women reformers and advocates of social purity initiated a campaign in 1885 to petition legislators to raise the legal age of consent to at least sixteen, although their ultimate goal was to raise the age to eighteen. The campaign was eventually quite successful; by 1920, almost all states had raised the age of consent to sixteen or eighteen.


To understand the class, gender, and racial tensions within the age-of-consent campaign of the late nineteenth century; to investigate the differences in the views of diverse supporters of the campaign; to understand the broad appeal of the campaign to many groups of women; to see how reformers' solutions to the problem of the sexual exploitation of wage-earning women changed over time.

Lesson Ideas

Begin by reading Aaron M. Powell, "The Moral Elevation of Girls," February 1886; and "Protection of Girlhood," October 1886. Why did reformers believe the age of consent needed to be raised? Who did these reformers hope to protect? What attitudes did the middle-class women who ran the working girls' clubs have about wage-earning women? How did they feel about women's sexuality?

Continue to explore women reformers' views toward the relationship between men and women by reading the English reformer Josephine E. Butler, "The Double Standard of Morality," October 1886. What was the "double standard?" How did Butler propose to eliminate the double standard? How did she propose to change the nature of the relationship between men and women? Why did she believe these changes were necessary?

Begin a deeper discussion of women's active involvement in the age-of-consent campaign by first reading Bessie V. Cushman, "Another Maiden Tribute," February 1887; and Petition from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union for the Protection of Women to Congress, May 1888. How did Cushman hope to use "Another Maiden Tribute" to arouse public sentiment? What did she propose as a solution to the vice camps? Why would public support be crucial to her solution? Why might the petition be an effective weapon in the fight to raise the age of consent? Why did women send it to Congress?

Investigate how reformers' approaches to the sexual victimization of wage-earning women changed over time by reading Louise De Koven Bowen, "Legal Protection in Industry," 1914. What did this author suggest to prevent working girls from engaging in illicit sexual relations? How were her suggestions in 1914 different from the solutions advocated by reformers 25 years earlier?

Short paper assignment:

Read "The National Colored Woman's Congress," January 1896; and Frances E. Willard, "Social Purity Work for 1887," January 1887. In a 2-3 page paper, compare the resolutions of the National Colored Woman's Congress to the social purity activities of the WCTU. How were the activities of the two groups similar? How were they different? What could account for these differences?

Long paper assignment:

Read "Seduction a Felony," September 1888; Helen Campbell, "Poverty and Vice," May 1890; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Preface," to Pray You Sir, Whose Daughter? 1892; Helen Campbell, "Why an Age of Consent?" April 1895; and Helen Hamilton Gardener, "A Battle for Sound Morality," August 1895. In a 5-7 page paper, compare and contrast the arguments various reformers used to support the age-of-consent campaign. Questions you might want to consider include: What do the authors view as the cause of vice? What solutions do they propose? How do the authors feel about the age-of-consent campaign? What do the authors view as the differences and/or similarities between men and women? How do the authors feel a higher age of consent will improve women's lives?

For Further Exploration:

To investigate earlier efforts to eradicate prostitution and predatory male sexual behavior, see "What Was the Appeal of Moral Reform to Antebellum Northern Women?" also on this website.

Explore further the influence of the writings of English reformer Josephine Butler on the American social purity movement by reading her works available online at the Victorian Women Writers Project.


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