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"Moral reform" was a campaign in the 1830s and '40s to abolish licentiousness, prostitution, and the sexual double standard, and to promote sexual abstinence among the young as they entered the marriage market. Like abolitionism and the temperance movement in these years, moral reform attracted the support of thousands of men and women from New England to the Old Northwest. What distinguished moral reform from other movements was not only its focus on sexuality, but the extent to which women ran the movement. Female numerical predominance was nothing new in churches, revivals, and benevolent associations during the antebellum period, but moral reform was the first reform movement to become almost exclusively the cause of women.


To explore key arguments in moral reform discourse; to compare and contrast the viewpoints of different authors on these key arguments.

Lesson Ideas

Ask students to read "Essay Read at a monthly prayer meeting of an auxiliary Female Moral Reform Society" (1839). What did this author argue was the purpose of moral reform? How was moral reform a personal challenge? How did the author argue for the distinctly female mission of moral reform?

Next have students read the Annual Report of the Auxiliary in Mt. Morris (1839). What objection did the author encounter when trying to enlist people to the cause of moral reform? How did the author argue that this objection was not a valid one?

To explore another argument, have students read "First Annual Report of the A.F.M.R. Society" (1840). What did this writer suggest to reform the morals of society? How was this argument key to the cause of moral reform?

Next read the "Editorial" (1838). How did this author argue for the importance of having a separate Female Moral Reform Society? How did she rebut the male critic of the Advocate ?

To explore the last major tenet of moral reform discourse, read "What is it, to 'Cease from Man?'" (1841). How was religion used in this document to justify the cause of moral reform? Moral reformers had come under some attack by the clergy. What was this author's solution? How might this argument have been liberating for moral reformers?

Two options for short writing assignments:

Compare "First Annual Report of the A.F.M.R. Society" with "Just Treatment of Licentious Men. Addressed to Christian Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters" (1838). Ask students to compare and contrast the authors' views of the sexual double standard and the proper relationship between the sexes in a three-page paper.

Compare the "Editorial" with "Thoughts on Miss S.M. Grimke's 'Duties of Woman'" (1838). Ask students to address the following questions in a three-page paper: How did the authors of these two pieces differ on the rightful place of women? How were their viewpoints similar?

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