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Female Social Reform in America in the 19th Century

Updated on September 5, 2010


In the years following the War of 1812, came a period of dynamic reform and religious fervor. These years, which came to be known as the Second Great Awakening, were formative ones for industry as well as for political activist groups, such as the Female Moral Reform Society.

The war and embargos had forced Americans to create a domestic market economy which launched US manufacturing in earnest. The 1820’s and 30’s saw a time of formidable economic growth. But growth was unstable and interrupted by periods of repression. A stretch of economic contraction known as the Panic of 1837, which continued through 1843, caused workers to feel themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The market economy was both a gift and a curse to the young nation. As the private sector grew more vigorous, entrepreneurs became numerous and corporations were born. The gap between rich and poor started to increase and social inequality became an issue.

The westward expansion was another important factor of this period. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the area of the United States and purchases in the 1840’s increased it even more. Population grew and the people were on the move toward the west coast. This was the beginning of land grants and credit.

With all this going on, many Americans had trouble keeping up with the rapid changes occurring around them and they no longer felt they were masters of their own fate. Anxiety about the current state of the country led to the impulse for social reform.

Religion was the strongest force motivating benevolent organizations and social activism. People turned to faith in times of uncertainty and the camaraderie of religious unity was reassuring. Protestants, in particular, were galvanized into action. This movement, which was called the Second Great Awakening, raised people’s hopes for the second coming of Christ.

More women then men answered the call, sustaining the movement with their devotion and zealotry. These religious gatherings led to Reform Groups, which represented most women’s first political involvement at a time when women were not allowed to vote. It also offered women communal ties with other women. These groups instigated religious and benevolent activity on an unprecedented scale.

One such group was the Female Moral Reform Society. Its origins go back to an expose by a divinity student named John R. McDowall who wrote about prostitution in New York City in 1830. Although the article was refuted and denied by politicians and businessmen of NY who were anxious to defend the cities good name, the controversy brought the situation to light and many women were moved by the plight of the young girls who were forced into lives of prostitution because they had no other options. They organized themselves to battle this sad institution, and the fight began in earnest by 1834.

The Female Morale Reform Society took a unique approach to fighting this social scourge. They saw the women as victims, rather than as sinners, as most men had labeled them in the past. Thus, the society focused their efforts on targeting the men who drove or seduced women into becoming prostitutes.

By 1840, it had 555 affiliated chapters across the nation. The Society also entered the political arena, and successfully lobbied for criminal sanctions against men who victimized these young women. They also organized shelters for refuge and employment agencies to help ex-prostitutes find work.

Their efforts were successful to an extent. Today, it remains a crime to solicit a hooker in the United States, or to be a ‘pimp’ who employs prostitutes. However, prostitution still exists as an institution and sadly, many women still see it as their only recourse to fend off poverty or homelessness. The law gives less emphasis to finding work for women involved in prostitution than it does to undercover operations to catch them in the act. Still, there are social workers who do help these women, to an extent.

Its laudable that the Reform Society had the ability to see the women as victims rather than as “fallen women” or “whores” as they were often labeled by a society with zero tolerance for such things. They were motivated by compassion, not by the desire for righteous punishment. Despite their biblical zealotry, they were true to the spirit but not the letter of their religious beliefs and saw the humans beneath the prostitutes.


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    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi; We have the same problem here with the masses falling under the thrall of the oligarchs who control the top one% of the economy.

      Thanks for readings,


    • conradofontanilla profile image

      conradofontanilla 6 years ago from Philippines


      I like the fact of women organizing themselves, and, or course, the causes they fought for.

      In my country, the masses fall easy prey to the oligarchs because they are disorganized. Constituting 70% of the population they have the power of the vote over that of the oligarchs that compose only 10% of the population.

      To turn the reform movement more effective there should be changes in structure within which they operate. To operate within the present structures intact reform movements may end in defeat. You have given a hint: institutionalize employment opportunities for women. Of course, there are alternatives.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Me too, habee. Thanks for the reading.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Great history lesson! Glad things have changed!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Thanks for the imput, Norah. Glad you liked it. I agree that the Second Great Awakening was more than a religious movement. As I said, it was a time of significant social reform. It was religiously motivated, but regardless of that, the changes in society as a result were important and permanent.

    • Norah Casey profile image

      Norah Casey 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Great Hub, Robwrite! I've always found the Second Great Awakening to be one of the most interesting social movements in US history. It was a big break from the Calvinist mode of thought that all things were predestined, therefore 'fallen women' were worth ignoring, as you described. The idea that both humans and society in general could be improved had never gained widespread attention until this point. This movement restarted some ambitious reform projects, like ending slavery, prostitution, and the consumption of alcohol. It was much more important than simply being a religious movement, as you have described.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      I think you're right.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Law enforcement does often ue the wrong approach to prostitution. They seem to arrest prostitutes for whatever reason, but seldom the pimps. In such a situation, I think it only enhances the power of the pimps, since the women are dependent on them to get them released. Or is this only in the movies?

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Glad you enjoyed it, HH.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for such a great hub. It was an interesting read and history lesson.