Essay 1: Women’s Activism
As history is being "retold" to include the history of women, it becomes clear that they have been the driving force behind many changes in history. It seems that women throughout the nation’s history have kept a watchful eye on the society dominated by men’s influence. Whether working alone, in small localized groups, or in national networks, women have found ways to make a difference in their communities and society as a whole. This activist energy has been used by several different groups of women—of different social classes, races, and eras in American history.
It is a common misconception that women’s activism was confined to simply white women. Some of the earliest forms of such activism could be found among Native American women, long before white women had an established place in society. As their people were faced with the challenges of conducting positive relations with the new European invaders, Indian women often found ways of soothing tensions and communicating positively with the new settlers.
Though their activism was usually confined to individuals or small groups (with no formal organization), their efforts were still important to both settler and native communities. Women like Pocahontas and Sacagawea served as "cultural mediators" and often warded off violent confrontation between the two peoples. Pocahontas also offered some of the first charitable service—by bringing food and supplies to the starving of Jamestown—a characteristic of some later female activists. Other Indian women, like those from the Sauk tribe at Saukenuk, formed bands to protest that their cornfields (their very means of survival) had been taken from them. In each of these cases, Native American women recognized that their influence could have an effect on the relations of the two races.
White women began also began to recognize that they could make a difference in their communities. It was during this early stage in feminine activism that women felt the greatest, most patriotic action in society that they could take was to be good "Republican Mothers", instilling morals and a sense of duty in their sons. This was largely a construct of men, however; a tool to keep women content in their actual status of second-class citizens.
Women in the early republic, as the new market economy began to evolve, began to devote more time and effort to moral reform movements. "Modernization" created a new middle class, in which women were now "ladies", who no longer had to be directly involved in economic production in the family unit. Women considered themselves morally superior to men, and sought to remove "double-standards" from the behavior expectations between genders. White women, generally from the "middle class", formed some of the earliest activist groups within their local churches. As early as the late-18th century, women formed groups to accomplish benevolent (or even political) means.
Women’s sewing circles were often also charitable "societies", helping the poor, sick, and depraved of society. Women also began to realize the importance of improving the educational system, especially for females. Women in these various reform movements often held to the beliefs of millenialism—a religious belief that the world must be made perfect for the return of Christ. This belief perpetuated the formation of many national reform movements and organizations that would prove to be very influential.
The earliest women’s activists societies began to specialize, and two major movements—temperance and anti-slavery—began to emerge, during the 1830s and 1840s. Women like the Grimké sisters, and Lucretia Mott, and scores of other prominent women began to use the cause of antislavery to thrust themselves into the public eye. Not only did they advance their convictions on the evils of slavery and alcoholism, they also began to incorporate values of women’s rights as well in their lecture tours and publications. Although they made only limited gains—by no means changing the whole of society—they did provide a starting point and a model for women’s activism of the future. Women often overstepped the bounds of their "womanly spheres"—"ladies" speaking in public to mixed audiences became a controversy surrounding many of these women reformists. Their willingness to push the limits of traditional gender stereotypes allowed them to demonstrate their women’s rights cause along with their abolition or temperance convictions. In fact, contacts made between women in the various networks of volunteer activity lead to the planning of the Seneca Falls Convention (held in 1848, to discuss the demands of women for their basic rights of citizenship) by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The Civil War years, 1861-65, would serve to change the course of women’s organized volunteer activism. Especially when slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, and the abolition issue became obsolete, activist women shifted their focus to the war effort. In both the North and South, women organized groups to provide food and supplies to their soldiers. These home-front efforts were mostly on the local level in the South, but in the North a national organization—the Sanitary Commission—would emerge. This wartime agency was directed by men, but the majority of its work was done by females. Women reformers set aside their women’s rights agenda temporarily, and took part in an effort that provided fresh food, clothing, blankets, medical supplies and new medical technology, and employed agents to teach proper methods of sanitation in Union army camps. Women sewed the uniforms, raised the fresh vegetables, and raised money to employ doctors and nurses with large "Sanitary Fairs". The efforts of these women greatly improved the Union camps and living conditions of soldiers, providing a major boost in their military efforts.
Women from the North and South also served as nurses in army hospitals. This job was previously only held by males, as females were seen as too "fragile" to be exposed to the presence of badly injured or ill soldiers. Yet in spite of this obstacle, many women were recruited to serve as nurses during the Civil War. Women like Clara Barton and "Mother" Bickerdyke became well known in their positions as nurses and helped thousands of men despite the limitations of their positions.
After the war (and more specifically, after the 15th amendment) female activists were disappointed that their rights had not been enhanced as a result of all of their reform and aid efforts up until that point. Since black men could now vote (at least in theory), women were saddened that those they had fought to free now had precious citizenship rights that were still denied to all females. The women’s rights/ women’s suffrage effort was renewed, as female activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would begin a decades-long struggle for civil rights and female suffrage.
All of these women activists, in spite of adversity and sometimes ridicule, found ways to identify their goals, create networks with those of similar concerns, and put forth efforts for changes and reforms in society that they deemed important. Women identified problems or concerns that they had with aspects of society, much the way that Charlene Teters did when she identified the racial insensitivity of the sports mascot at the University of Illinois. Originally, she stood alone—motivated only by her concern for her children’s Native American identity and self-esteem. She eventually gained a following, and media coverage, and is at the head of a major activist movement in today’s society. Though her goals are different than female activists in the 19th century, her motivations are much the same. Her activism is to make the world a better, more just place for her children—something that many women activists worked towards for many generations.