The Women’s Rights Movement The Nineteenth Century During the Colonial era and the first decades of the Republic, there were always women who strove to secure equal rights for themselves. Some assumed the business interests of a husband after his death. A few women challenged male domination of religious life, though they met with criticism from their communities — or banishment, as in the case of Anne Hutchinson. Women were also active in the fight against the Crown and organized boycotts of British goods. During the struggle for independence, prominent females such as Abigail Adams wrote and spoke privately about the need for male leaders to rectify the inferior position of women, promising rebellion if their words were not heeded. But only later, over the course of the nineteenth century, did women's demands for equal rights change from a series of isolated incidents to an organized movement. This movement was far from unified, however; strife and division often arose as activists faced the difficulties of meeting the diverse needs and priorities of the women of America. Enormous changes swept through the United States in the nineteenth century, altering the lives of women at all levels of society. The country moved away from an agrarian, home-based economy and became increasingly industrialized. Beginning in the 1820s, many white single women found work in the mills that opened across the Northeast, where they often lived in boarding houses owned by their employers. As working-class women and men of all classes began to work outside the home, middle-class women were increasingly associated with, and confined to, the domestic sphere. Prescriptive literature defined the ideal middle-class wife as pious, pure, and submissive. Her main responsibilities consisted of creating a haven away from the harsh workplace in which her husband toiled and raising virtuous, productive citizens of the Republic. The new century saw changes in the lives of female slaves as well, when on 1 January 1808 the importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed. In response, slaveowners placed increased pressure on enslaved women to produce children. They also subjected these women to sexual advances against which they had little defense. The changing nature of women's lives helped create the circumstances that allowed them to begin to act politically, on their own behalf and for others. "Mill girls" often worked long hours under dangerous conditions. By the 1830s female workers were organizing protests in an attempt to improve their work environment and wages. Middle-class women's role in the home, on the other hand, led them to develop a sense of themselves as members of a cohesive group; this consciousness would later translate, for some, into the idea that they could collectively demand rights. Concern about the urban poor, moreover, allowed middle-class women to engage in charity work and temperance campaigns, in which they saw themselves as working toward the "moral uplift" of society in the same way that they cared for the moral wellbeing of their families at home. While coded as
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