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Essay: Empowerment of Women in Antebellum America: Beyond Domesticity to Abolish Slavery

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,422 (approx)
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  • Tags: Slavery essays

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The Second Great Awakening energized the numerous 19th-century reforms that were intended to change American society for the better. However, most people in Antebellum America, the period prior to the civil war, expected it to be no different than before; all matters- particularly political matters- would be handled by the men of the house and women would simply agree as they tended to their homes. Instead, Antebellum America was characterized by women becoming empowered to go outside of their predetermined "spheres". Middle and upper-class women in the 19th century became a part of the cult of domesticity, the new culture which redefined women's roles in the private, public, and political spheres.  American women in the 19th century felt inspired to stand up for their beliefs such as the abolition of slavery, even if it was considered to be beyond a woman's "sphere".

 To begin with, women in Antebellum America only wanted to abolish slavery- not reform society as a whole. They began to emphasize that they no longer wanted to be considered property and refused to be looked at as such. The women also began to realize that without their participation in the societal reforms happening in the 19th century, progress was "slow difficult, imperfect" (The First New England Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1832). Women started owning their power and stopped thinking that their voices were valueless and could not change anything. They began making political decisions for themselves such as their stance on slavery. When the women's movement to abolish slavery first began, the women weren't even able to create order during their meeting. An African American man named James McCrummel aided the women in organizing their meeting since no woman was capable of doing so and no white man would assist them.  This shows that African Americans and whites could come together as one to combat issues that they both were passionate about. Also, the assistance from McCrummel shows that Africans clearly were not inferior to whites if the African men had the same capabilities as white men- further proving that slavery was immoral and wrong. The Anti-Slavery society then became more organized with time and experience, and the women were even able to create annual reports; something that was completely out of the domestic sphere that women were used to (Weymouth and Braintree Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1848).  

Similarly, most women in Antebellum America supported the abolition of slavery for because they empathized with the slaves. In the document "Am I not a Women and a Sister?", it says "He can rouse the sluggish every where, He can break the fetters and release the oppressed slaves from the power of the cruel tyrant; then they will no longer be heard to groan under the lash of the unfeeling driver…". The author is implying that the white women think of African women as sisters rather than just "slaves" since they sympathize for the suffering and unjustness that they are forced to deal with. The women are advocating for their sisters to be freed. Furthermore, according to the "First New England Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1832", women felt for the slaves- particularly slaves that were mothers- because they were being ripped away from their children and most did not know where the children would go and who they would end up with. When the author states, "Think of the Frantic Mother, Lamenting for her child, Till falling lashes smother her cries of anguish wild! Shall we behold, unheeding, Life's holiest feelings crushed?…", she is showing emotional appeal towards the white women to strengthen their argument for the fight of emancipation since they tended to empathize with the slave mothers. The white women also felt for their "sisters" because they know what it is like to be a mother and they understand how devastating it can be to be apart from kids for a short time let alone forever.

Additionally, religion acted as a reason that women pushed for the emancipation of slaves. Based on the God wants slavery to be abolished and women, therefore, feel as though it is their moral duty to intervene in order to comply with God's desires by creating pro-abolition societies in which every woman contributes her greatest effort to abolish slavery by belittling the slaveholders and refraining from any immorality and oppression (Am I not a Women and a Sister). Moreover, in the document titled "The Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, 1837", it states: "the time has come for woman to move in that sphere which Providence has assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied in the circumscribed limits with which corrupt custom and a perverted application of Scripture have encircled her…" A.E Grimke is displaying that women have finally acknowledged their voices and it is God who is pushing them to do the morally correct thing which abolishes slavery through Providence and Scriptures. Also, according to "Woman's Right Petition to the New York Legislature, 1854", women were treated under the system of coverture, where women were legally considered their husband's property with no representation or property. However, the Antebellum American women felt a man could not be a Christian Republicans if he treated women like "… aliens, criminals, idiots, and minors, unfit to be their coequal citizens…" Elizabeth Cady writes "He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God." This is said with emphasis because it shows that men who are denying women to enter the social sphere and causing her to be solely dependent on men are actually defying God's will for women. However, according to "Report of the Select Committee in Assembly", there will always be inequalities among men and women because of God. God created men and women to have different spheres that have precedence over one another in various ways. Though God did not create those inequalities as a mean to oppress women, everyone should act in their parts to ensure society functions properly.

The Women's movement came along way since its start in 1832. In the "Letter from Angelina Grimke to Jane Smith, 1837", Grimke says that she could not "help smiling in the midst of ‘rhetorical flourishes' to witness their perfect amazement at hearing a woman speak in the churches. . ..". Grimke is showing that she is proud that 300 women "flocked to hear the eloquent sisters speak against slavery". The women have support from Quakers, the religious group who don't think of the women who have entered the political sphere as "promiscuous" but rather, they support the public role for women. However, the number in women who come to listen to Angelina and Sarah increased dramatically within five short months. The two women went from addressing just 300 men to over 40,000 people, filling eighty meeting spaces. Then, the Declaration of Sentiments was written by Elizabeth Cady in 1848. The Declaration of Sentiments was a dramatic change for women. The document is identical to the United States Constitution but with one major difference- it included both men and women rather than just men. Cady writes "…the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled." Elizabeth Cady is implying that under the Declaration of Sentiments, women have the right to be equal to me and no longer be suppressed under their authority. Women are entitled to their own politics, their own opinions, their own property, and so forth. This allows women to further push for abolition because they are now recognizing themselves as equal to men rather than just asking to be considered equal to men.  

 In conclusion, women in Antebellum America played a major role in the reforms of the 19th century. Women were major advocates for the abolition of slavery for many reasons. First, they related to slaves since neither had any rights and they were both oppressed on different levels by the head of the house. Second, they felt morally obligated to step in and fight for the abolition of slavery because of Christianity. Women felt empowered to step outside of their domestic sphere and enter the political sphere- something that has never been done before. Because of the active participation that took place, reforms in favor of women occurred such as the bill that protected women if the male leaves the family. All-in-all, as women advocated for the abolition of slavery, they were simultaneously gaining rights for themselves.

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