The Antebellum Activists: Gender, Race, and Class in pre-Civil War America

The Antebellum Activists: Gender, Race, and Class in pre-Civil War America

The activism of the American Revolution, Antebellum and Civil War periods transformed the lives and cultures of women along all color lines and racial strata. 

| This article originally appeared on Mystic Politics / by Everett Tucker.

The American Revolution, Antebellum and Civil War periods were those of marked changes in the putative gender roles and ‘proper’ place of women in the United States, transforming the lives and cultures of women along all color lines and racial strata.

The cult of true womanhood, and more generally, Victorian domesticity, had the most sway over colonial culture before the insurrection of the American Revolution. The women who didn’t tag along with husbands on the front lines stayed home and maintained the households and businesses, presenting laborious first-hand examples that women can (and did) excel, not just in the private sphere, but more and more into the public, as well.

The American industrial revolution also affected women in that it saw droves of men, formerly doing skilled work out of home-based familial businesses, leaving for metropolitan factories and labor mills. This doubled-down women’s dominance in the domestic sphere, making them the steward of the house during working hours.

Manifest destiny, the theologically-justified American exceptionalist expansion into the west at the expense of indigenous inhabitants, worked, as usual, to the advantage of the white peoples, who sat atop the racial strata and had societal ascendancy in California, the newly acquired property of the United States.

Women, who had suffered along with their families in migrating westward along the newly forged Oregon Trail, found the novel frontier an apt locale to create their utopian domestic microcosm from the ground up. The liberal property rights of the original Mexican settlers in California initially benefited women in their holdings and inheritance, but California’s adoption into the Union culminated in a different hermeneutical reading of the law and subsequent forfeiture of rights.

This is not to say the western exodus was all bad for women. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill sent thousands flocking to the left-coast in hopes of striking it rich—although few actually did. The smart money was on selling food and supplies to the get-rich-quick crowd. The same domestic industriousness in the east was entrepreneurial opportunity for women in the west, as food and lodging were a huge industry that women were culturally prepared to exploit towards equality enabling entrepreneurialism and profits.

Back in the eastern states, antebellum activism was thriving with 10% of women active and focused on women’s rights, abolitionism, and women’s/universal suffrage. It is ironic that the metropolitan industrial revolution, facilitated by southern plantation resources and factors of production, instigated an objectivist or individualist masculinity which the ‘virtuous’ cult of domesticity then sought to rectify.

These ostensibly polarized ideological positions were actually co-dependent and inextricably linked. Northern workers banding together with liberal labor and unionizing ideals would be out of work if not for the plantation produced textiles they deftly crafted. Women would have had no vacuum to fill if not for the wage oriented labor shifting out of the home. It is amusing to think that cold technology may have had more to do with society’s progress than the best intentions of its civilians.

During this time we see Blacks and Whites working together for civil liberties—for the women’s / universal suffrage, for abolition of slavery, to fix the wrongs of American society instigated by Caribbean and Portuguese Grandee’s and their paternalistic paradigms. There was reticence on the part of Abolitionist ‘purists’ to use the ‘system’ (read- ‘the Man’) or extant political mechanisms to fight their cause—despite more and more progressive issues being debated and resolved via the institutionalized electoral venues.

There was also a rift among the activists regarding whether or not women’s rights were germane to abolitionism, and if the unification of them detracted from the black cause. As abolitionism became more of an acceptable political debate, women’s role was marginalized, naturally, because a lack of vote meant a lack of political power. The abolition and universal suffrage movements did shift towards civil liberties for ALL sexes and races, once the fundamentals of social activism were perfected by these domestic dissidents.

Fear about slavery spreading northward, or that this southern slave-owning aristocracy would achieve societal hegemony and ascendancy prompts the formation of first the Free Soil Party, and then the Republican Party. The election of (lukewarm) slavery critic Abraham Lincoln instigates the secession of South Carolina, and 5 months later the beginning of the civil war. The after-the-fact Emancipation Proclamation made the rift officially about slavery.

White women in the war served as nurses and worked as fledgling spies and would-be strategists. Very few saw battle, in that fighting required some masking of gender in the form of cross-dressing and some (I imagine) very –comical attempts at ‘deep’ speaking voices.

Black women and men didn’t see their position immediately improved by the war, being that there was extant federalized slave-hunting laws, and those that had defected to the north or under the auspices of the British found themselves doing work similar to their plantation ‘tasks’, or outright resold and shipped to non-American markets. Black women often had to do the work of their husbands while they were fighting.

It is interesting to reflect that how, eventually- painfully, slowly- the greatest chasm in American history fomented progress for women, both black and white, and how the clash over slavery created a void in institutionalized patriarchy that women filled with egalitarian activism, culminating in the civil rights, civil liberties, and freedom of conscience we experience today.

Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future journalistic hack work.

| Sources: Article (Everett Tucker) / Image (Seneca Falls Convention, July 19, 1848).

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