The Complexity of Activism

In the Broadway musical Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler demands that Thomas Jefferson “include women in the sequel” to the Declaration of Independence. While there is no evidence that Schuyler herself made this claim, American women of all races and classes have attempted to claim larger roles for themselves since the nation’s founding. This site charts the ways in which Philadelphia-area women did so between 1820–1920, the century leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which established women’s right to vote nationwide.

- essay by Christina Larocco, PhD.

The documents on the site encompass much more than the fight for suffrage. Putting women on equal footing with men required a broad transformation of law, culture, and society. Whether through moral reform, abolitionism, or civic activism, even women who were not explicitly pushing for suffrage—even, at times, those who actively opposed it—contributed to this transformation.

Our definition of activism is broad. As residents of the twenty-first century, it can be difficult to find words that accurately capture how women in the past felt about their lives and work. Nineteenth-century women certainly did not think about “agency” and not even necessarily about rights. The term “feminism” had barely entered the American lexicon in 1920, when this project ends. The activism we chart might best be thought of as an opening up of possibilities for women, be it in their personal lives, relationship to wage and other forms of labor, or participation in formal political processes. While not a zero-sum game, activism by one group of women could sometimes foreclose upon possibilities for others.

We attempt to traverse the gulf between ourselves and the women whose stories we tell through primary documents—letters, diaries, organizational reports, and other sources—which provide the best possibility we have of understanding their mindset. Visitors to this site are invited to use these resources to reach their own conclusions about some of the questions that continue to vex historians: Do the terms that the first post–second wave feminism generation of women’s historians coined to describe women’s lives and work, including republican motherhood and the cult of true womanhood, still have explanatory power? To what extent were women of different classes and races able to work together to expand possibilities for women? How coercive or benevolent were types of activism that, while motivated by a desire to do good work, attempted to control the behavior of others? Looking at women’s own writing helps us understand the complexity of their activism and the challenges inherent in answering these questions.

At the same time, visitors should be aware that we will never have all of the evidence we would need to answer these questions completely. Just as archivists long thought it was more important to collect and preserve men’s papers than women’s, so too were they more likely to save elite white women’s papers than those of other groups. Moreover, working-class and poor women and women of color were less likely to have the time and resources to produce written documents. In the mid-nineteenth century, paper was so expensive that even prosperous women used a technique called cross-hatch to use all available space on a piece of paper, writing in two different perpendicular directions. The resulting archival problem is a statement unto itself, leaving some voices unrecoverable.

In Philadelphia…

In Philadelphia more so than in other cities, problems of representation may be somewhat attenuated. Its large and relatively prosperous free black population made it a center of abolitionism, while Pennsylvania’s borders with slave states Maryland and Delaware made such activism particularly urgent. The Philadelphia area’s uniquely large Quaker population also set it apart from such similar American cities as New York and Boston, especially in the area of women’s rights. Unlike Boston’s Puritans, Quakers rejected hierarchy and embraced egalitarianism, including gender egalitarianism. Quaker women are thus well-represented in area archives.

Other factors, too, make Philadelphia a particularly rich site for studying women’s activism. Its role in the American Revolution made the ideas of freedom, democracy, and equality particularly relevant. The largest city in the United States until the second third of the nineteenth century, it was a major site of international trade and commerce and a key point in the transatlantic circulation of people, goods, and ideas. For these and other reasons, Philadelphia was a leader in scientific and educational advancements.

In Philadelphia as elsewhere, women’s lives and activism changed greatly between 1820–1920, with each era marked by its own conflicting ideologies, realities, and discourses. In the early national period, some women, like Judith Sargent Murray in On the Equality of the Sexes (1790), argued that ideas of freedom and equality should apply to women as well. Others, like Philadelphia physician and Patriot Benjamin Rush, were not willing to go this far, though they did grant an important role to some women. As Rush put it, “the equal share that every citizen has in the liberty and the possible share he may have in the government of our country make it necessary that our ladies should be qualified . . . to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government.”

Virtue and republican motherhood

Rush’s words reflected a common fear. As citizens of the new nation rather than subjects of the crown, Americans grew concerned with the idea of virtue, which they defined as the ability to put aside individual needs and desires to focus on the common good. They believed that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people could only function as long as citizens were virtuous. Women were not included in the category of “citizen,” but elite, white women had a role to play in the new nation: what early women’s historians called republican motherhood. For the first time seen as more moral than men, these women would contribute to the civic life of the nation not by voting but by raising their sons to be good, virtuous republican citizens.

In the decades since historian Linda Kerber first coined this term, scholars have chipped away at its usefulness. While some have pointed to an analogous black republican motherhood among the African American elite, republican motherhood was largely a construction available only to elite white women. While imbuing women with morality might seem like an unambiguous step forward, it was not. As historian Clare Lyons has emphasized, it especially caused problems for those who transgressed increasingly strict sexual mores. Women who had children outside of marriage or who engaged in sex work were much more harshly judged in the early decades of the nineteenth century than they had been in the relatively open sexual culture of the 1790s.

Beyond the elite and roots of activism: religion, economics, education

Republicanism, moreover, was not the only factor motivating women’s activism. Religion did, too. The Second Great Awakening, which emphasized the need to work toward human perfection and took hold in the 1810s and 1820s, also shaped their work.. Starting in the 1790s, elite and middle-class women formed associations to combat poverty, end prostitution, evangelize among non-Christians, reform prisons, and end drinking, among other goals. Doing so demanded that they engage in explicitly political work, including raising money, seeking incorporated status, and appearing before politicians.

It is also helpful to look at this early national activism through an economic lens. Historians have long connected the Second Great Awakening to the disruptions of the market revolution, casting it as a way to make sense out of the resulting changes. In the decades to follow, the growth of wage work made the home, and the women in it, the moral center of society—at least ideologically. Conventional wisdom has held that the market revolution’s emphasis on cash invisibilized women’s unpaid labor. Yet an ideology that was supposed to restrict women to a domestic role actually cast them further into the world, where they increasingly participated in just the sort of formal financial transactions characterizing the market economy. Elite women’s growing focus on working women—those drawn into the wage-based economy—also testifies to the centrality of the market revolution to early women’s activism.

While not easy, it was relatively straightforward for elite white women to justify their actions in the public and political sphere either through Christian evangelicalism or women’s supposed special capacity for morality and nurturing. Though motivated by the same economic uncertainties as elite white women, working-class and African American women developed their own discourses and models of organizing. Along with Catholic, Jewish, and immigrant women, working-class and African American women often did not have the luxury of organizing solely for benevolent purposes. Instead, in founding unions and mutual aid societies, they put self-protection first, charity second. African American women in particular were more likely to focus on, as historian Anne Boylan puts it, “self-improvement, community service, and social reform.” The do-it-yourself orientation of such groups also reflected their lack of access to male legislators and other leaders, connections from which elite white women benefitted.

Many of the collections in the Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections document this early activism, allowing researchers to parse its material and ideological motivations along with its simultaneously benevolent and coercive nature. Quaker Rebecca Singer Collins, for example, used religion to justify her visits to prisons and almshouses, showing how religion pushed women to be involved in public life. Unfortunately, this is an area in which non-dominant voices are particularly difficult to capture, although the earliest records of the Hebrew Sunday School of Philadelphia at Temple University do provide a glimpse into activist work outside of the Protestant mainstream.

At the same time, the growth of women’s activism was also aided by expanding educational opportunities for women. In order to fulfill the indirect citizenship role advocated by Rush and others, women themselves needed to be educated, leading to the establishment of scores of women’s schools and academies, especially in the Northeast. There, women received the same education as men, learning to think of themselves as intellectual and, eventually, political equals. Many of the women educated in these institutions went on to become leaders in the nineteenth-century women’s movement.


First, though, radical nineteenth-century women turned to abolitionism. Individual Quakers opposed slavery before the American Revolution, but antislavery thought became widespread within this group in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While the free black population served as the backbone of this movement, black and white women alike performed much of the day-to-day work of reform—raising money, creating and distributing propaganda, circulating and signing petitions, and lobbying legislatures. They had some success working across racial lines—the leadership of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was interracial from the start—although there were important differences. Black women were more concerned with the status of free blacks than were white women, and they were more inclined to cite racial responsibility than moral duty as the reason for their activism. Interracial friendships are documented not only in the papers of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, but also in letters that black abolitionist and educator Sarah Mapps Douglass wrote to her friend Rebecca White (included in the Josiah White Papers at Haverford) and in the friendship albums kept by Amy Matilda Cassey, Mary Anne Dickerson, and Martina Dickerson (Library Company of Philadelphia).

Women’s participation in abolitionism was controversial both inside and outside of the movement. One historian estimates that only around 20,000 people, or one percent of the population, were abolitionists in 1860. From the murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy (1837) to the burning of Pennsylvania Hall (1838), violence was always a possibility. However, abolitionist women also faced opposition from their male counterparts. Maria Stewart, a free black woman from Boston, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke, white southern women who left behind their slave-owning family and became abolitionists, were criticized for speaking in public. In 1840, women delegates were not allowed to be full participants in the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London. Later that decade, thirty-one prominent members of the American Anti-Slavery Society broke off to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, in part over Abby Kelley’s appointment to the business committee of the former.

This treatment helped galvanize an explicit commitment to women’s rights. Thanks in part to the work of historian Lisa Tetrault, scholars now know that the Seneca Falls convention, which took place eight years after abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attended the London convention, was not the first time women called for the right to vote and that its importance was likely exaggerated by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony after the Civil War, its insistence that “all men and women are created equal” still stands as an important moment in the early woman suffrage movement. Rich descriptions of women’s treatment at the 1840 convention, along with many other aspects of women’s participation in abolitionism, are included in the papers of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (part of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers at HSP) and in the Mott Manuscripts at FHL. FHL also includes the papers of a number of other area women who were involved in both abolitionism and the early suffrage movement.


Unfortunately, this coalition of abolitionists and suffragists did not hold. After holding a slew of conventions in the 1850s, the woman suffrage movement largely put aside its activism upon the outbreak of the Civil War, hoping that, if they could prove their loyalty and usefulness, they would be rewarded with full citizenships rights after the war. Instead, the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended voting rights only to black men. While some suffragists were content to celebrate this development and keep working to extend the franchise to women, others, including Stanton and Anthony, were incensed. They refused to support the Fifteenth Amendment, instead engaging in racist rhetoric to argue for their own rights—particularly poignant since it was Frederick Douglass who had insisted at the Seneca Falls Convention that women call for the right to vote. These two factions of the suffrage movement did not make amends until 1890, with the establishment of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

The post–Civil War era was also characterized by another wave of educational expansion. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act (1862), which mandated the sale of public lands to support state universities, opened up higher education to students who could not afford tuition at private colleges. Parents and state teachers’ associations argued that these state-funded schools should be available to young women, especially for teacher training. By the 1870s, women could attend state universities in the Midwest and West, although public colleges and universities in the Northeast and South largely remained closed to them. Some private colleges were coeducational from the start, and other universities began opening women’s annexes in this era. Finally, such women’s-only colleges as the Seven Sisters flourished. In the Philadelphia area, such schools as the coeducational Swarthmore College (1864) and the women’s only Bryn Mawr College (1885) greatly contributed to these increased educational opportunities. By 1920, women made up forty-seven percent of undergraduate students.

Women as professionals

In both coeducational and women’s-only colleges and universities, women received educations equal to men’s, and, as happened earlier in the nineteenth century, they gained confidence in their intellectual abilities and came to see themselves as men’s equals. At women-only colleges, students developed a shared sense of mission and a collective sense of their identities as women. They began to believe that they could lead full, enriching lives without dependence on men, and they began to imagine different possibilities for their lives. After forming close friendships, being exposed to new ideas, and being treated as equals, they did not want to return to the restricted lives of earlier generations. The special importance of women’s-only colleges is documented in many collections at Bryn Mawr, including the papers of its long-time president, M. Carey Thomas.

Unfortunately, women’s professional opportunities had not kept pace with their educational advancements. By 1890 women made up between fifteen and twenty percent of all medical students, but this percentage began to drop as the field continued to professionalize. Hull-House founder Jane Addams matriculated at Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1882, only to have family obligations and physical and mental health issues call her home to Illinois. Afterwards, she experienced a deep depression and feelings of uselessness. College-educated women were faced with a dilemma: they were armed with new experiences, new credentials, and new knowledge, but they were largely faced with the same choice between marriage and teaching that earlier generations of women had faced. In Philadelphia, the rich holdings of the Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center chart women’s attempts to navigate through education and the professions, documenting in particular the opposition they faced as women nurses, medical students, and doctors and the arguments they developed to justify their presence in these fields. Of special interest is the way they relied on women’s inherent nurturing nature to do so. The Mercy-Douglass Hospital Records (Barbara Bates Center, University of Pennsylvania) document the particular challenges African American women faced in crafting professional identities for themselves.

Women of Jane Addams’s generation found this situation unacceptable, and so they began to create new institutions—like settlement houses—and new professions—like social work—that allowed them to recreate the intensity and female camaraderie of their college lives while finding a way to make meaningful contributions to society. Swarthmore graduate Alice Paul, later a founder of the National Woman’s Party, worked in a settlement house as a young woman. In this way, the peculiar situation of educated, middle-class women led them to play a leading role in Progressivism—the broad-based attempt in the two decades on either side of the turn of the twentieth century to mitigate the harsh effects of industrialization and urbanization, particularly among immigrants and the poor. Often using what historians call maternalism—the idea that, as actual or potential mothers, women had a right and a duty to participate in politics, especially as it affected women and children—women of different races and classes fought for cleaner cities and streets, the expansion of municipal services, public health initiatives, an end to child labor, minimum wage and maximum hours laws, the recognition of labor unions, and mothers’ pensions. In a period characterized by a growing labor movement, working women themselves often led this fight. In 1903, longtime labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led a march of children mill workers and their adult supporters from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Long Island. In 1909–10, garment workers—the vast majority of them young immigrant women—went on strike in both New York and Philadelphia, demanding safer working conditions and union recognition. In Philadelphia, up to 2,000 young women took to the streets each day, despite regular arrests and violence from city police. As collections including the New Century Trust Records (HSP), the Jane Addams Collection (Swarthmore College Peace Collection), and many collections in the Temple University Urban Archives show, Progressive initiatives often engendered conflict between working-class and elite women.


Many Progressive women recognized that such reforms would not be possible without government intervention—both in the passage of protective laws and, ultimately, in enfranchising women. It was in this context that the final push for woman suffrage took place. The movement was rent with a number of internal controversies in these years, in particular whether to focus on securing suffrage through a state-by-state approach or through a federal amendment, the position suffragists should take toward preparedness and war, and the wisdom of pursuing militant, public protest. The Caroline Katzenstein Papers at HSP offer a particularly lively account of the conflict between the more moderate NAWSA and the radical National Woman’s Party. The relationship between the suffrage movement and the pacifist movement is well-documented in the collections of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, including the papers of the Woman’s Peace Party (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Collection) and the papers of Philadelphia activist Hannah Clothier Hull. External opposition was also fierce, with over 100 women serving prison sentences in 1917 for picketing the White House. In prison, they endured hunger strikes, force feeding, and other forms of violence. In letters to her family, National Woman’s Party member Dora Kelly Lewis, whose papers are at HSP, documents both the drama of arrests and imprisonment and the long, slow work of organizing. Particularly against the backdrop of a war ostensibly being fought to “make the world safe for democracy,” this treatment of women suffragists changed the minds of many Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, contributing to the 1919 passage and 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Women’s activism did not end in 1920, just as it did not begin in 1820. Yet, there are reasons to study this century as a unit, and not just because of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. This is especially true for a project using Philadelphia as a lens for understanding the trajectory of women’s activism. The explosion of reform movements in the early nineteenth century makes 1820 an apt starting point for an investigation women’s activism, particularly in a city influenced by Quakerism. Similarly, the decimation of the pacifist movement after World War I marks an appropriate endpoint. Like the narrative above, however, these assertions are based largely on the work of other historians. We hope that this project will allow researchers at all levels to examine the available evidence and reach their own conclusions.