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Women and Reform in a New England Community, 1815-1860

Women and Reform in a New England Community, 1815-1860

Carolyn J. Lawes
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Women and Reform in a New England Community, 1815-1860
    Book Description:

    Interpretations of women in the antebellum period have long dwelt upon the notion of public versus private gender spheres. As part of the ongoing reevaluation of the prehistory of the women's movement, Carolyn Lawes challenges this paradigm and the primacy of class motivation. She studies the women of antebellum Worcester, Massachusetts, discovering that whatever their economic background, women there publicly worked to remake and improve their community in their own image. Lawes analyzes the organized social activism of the mostly middle-class, urban, white women of Worcester and finds that they were at the center of community life and leadership. Drawing on rich local history collections, Lawes weaves together information from city and state documents, court cases, medical records, church collections, newspapers, and diaries and letters to create a portrait of a group of women for whom constant personal and social change was the norm. ThroughoutWomen and Reform in a New England Community, conventional women make seemingly unconventional choices. A wealthy Worcester matron helped spark a women-led rebellion against ministerial authority in the town's orthodox Calvinist church. Similarly, a close look at the town's sewing circles reveals that they were vehicles for political exchange as well as social gatherings that included men but intentionally restricted them to a subordinate role. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the women of Worcester had taken up explicitly political and social causes, such as an orphan asylum they founded, funded, and directed. Lawes argues that economic and personal instability rather than a desire for social control motivated women, even relatively privileged ones, into social activism. She concludes that the local activism of the women of Worcester stimulated, and was stimulated by, their interest in the first two national women's rights conventions, held in Worcester in 1850 and 1851. Far from being marginalized from the vital economic, social, and political issues of their day, the women of this antebellum New England community insisted upon being active and ongoing participants in the debates and decisions of their society and nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4818-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In 1835, Joseph Boyden, a Worcester, Massachusetts, jeweler and something of a local wag, remarked upon a common antebellum contradiction. On the one hand, American culture assumed that women—primarily middle-class, northern, urban white women, although this was usually left unstated—were wives and mothers and that they were at home. On the other hand, the reality was that although most antebellum women were indeed wives and mothers, they often were someplace else.Women and Reform in a New England Community, 1815–1860,explores that someplace else and argues that a close examination of the many organized activities of women...

  5. 1 Keeping the Faith Women’s Leadership in an Orthodox Congregational Church
    (pp. 9-44)

    It was half past nine on a quiet Monday night in April 1818. Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury, known throughout Worcester as “Madame Salisbury” in deference to her family’s wealth and social position, was passing a serene evening at home with her niece and adopted daughter, Eliza Weir. Her husband Stephen, a merchant and the town’s wealthiest citizen, was away on business. The Salisbury mansion’s drawing room was pleasant, graced by Elizabeth’s harp and a piano bought expressly for Eliza.¹

    Suddenly the peace was shattered as something crashed violently against the front window. Salisbury immediately “call’d in the people” (the servants) for...

  6. 2 Missionaries and More Women, Sewing, and the Antebellum Sewing Circle
    (pp. 45-82)

    “‘The ‘Sewing Circle’ has just departed, leaving nothing behind but confusion and disorder,” Caroline Barrett of Worcester wrote wearily in her diary in March 1850. Despite the disarray of her home, the twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher, newly arrived in the city, was pleased with the gathering. She noted reflectively, “I have formed some new and pleasant acquaintances ....” But the sewing circle whose untidiness Barrett lamented was not only an avenue for friendship; it would also introduce her to new ideas and experiences. The histories of several of the sewing circles of antebellum Worcester reveal that the circle functioned for women as...

  7. 3 Maternal Politics Gender and the Formation of the Worcester Children’s Friend Society
    (pp. 83-112)

    It was in the mid-1840s, Anstis Miles recalled, that her role as a city missionary led her into “abodes of poverty and wretchedness” where “she had witnessed the sad spectacle” of children learning from their parents not sound household management and good citizenship but lessons in immorality and intemperance. The scenes so haunted Miles “by night, and by day” that she felt compelled to take action. Familiar with children’s friend societies elsewhere, she proposed to form one in Worcester. Miles first appealed to local women but was rebuffed because her proposal seemed too “visionary.” Discouraged, Miles approached lawyer and Whig...

  8. 4 “Rachel Weeping for Her Children” Mothers, Children, and the Antebellum Foster Family
    (pp. 113-160)

    Organized in late 1848 by women familiar with motherhood and troubled times, the Worcester Children’s Friend Society received the blessing of the state to dispense charity to the needy of their community. But when the managers actually began to deal with poor families, the society took on a life of its own. The moral indignation that characterized the managers’ initial public posture ebbed when working with parents led them to unanticipated conclusions about the nature of poverty in their city. The problem, the women came to realize, was not that poor parents did not want to help themselves and their...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 From Feminism to Female Employment Organized Women in Worcester in the 1850s
    (pp. 161-180)

    In 1848, more than one hundred women and men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, to hold the first American convention dedicated to the advancement of the legal, political, and economic equality of women. Until the outbreak of the Civil War a dozen years later, women’s rights advocates assembled at least annually to analyze women’s position in society, rally the faithful, and debate the movement’s goals and tactics. In 1850, feminists met in Worcester for the movement’s first national convention and they returned to the city the following year. Although only a relative handful of the women ofWorcester appear to...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 181-184)

    The Civil War changed Worcester forever. A booming wartime economy drew thousands of eager workers and, by 1870, Worcester was a major manufacturing center and the second-largest city in Massachusetts. By 1880, Worcester ranked twenty-eighth in the nation. The mature industrial city of the late nineteenth century was a distant cousin of the prewar city, sharing a vague resemblance but with markedly different temperaments. Whereas antebellum Worcesterites described their city metaphorically as the “Heart of the Commonwealth,” the postbellum generation embraced the less lyrical “City of Diversified Industries.”¹

    The years of bloody internecine warfare, the unleashing of rampant greed and...

  12. Appendix: Statistical Data
    (pp. 185-188)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 189-236)
  14. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 237-258)
  15. Index
    (pp. 259-265)