Mainstream nineteenth-century American society expected that women would remain within the confines of their domestic worlds and stay out of all aspects of public life, which was considered to be a masculine sphere. Women who refused to conform to such mainstream mandates helped bring about groundbreaking reforms that have had a lasting impact on American life. In the nineteenth century, many women, motivated by important personal and political convictions, stepped into the limelight of celebrity and public activism. They fought long, hard battles by writing, lecturing, and engaging in other publicly focused activities. Eventually, their efforts led to major changes in American law, politics, and society, especially the abolition of slavery and the improvement of women’s legal and political rights.


Phillis Wheatley. Pendleton's Lithography, 1834.

By 1834, when this print was created as a frontispiece for Phillis Wheatley’s memoir, Wheatley had already been famous on both sides of the Atlantic for some sixty years. This image was radical in its own right for its positive representation of an African and its depiction of an African woman embodying the highest ideals of womanhood. Most of Wheatley's published poems did not address her status as a slave, but the very publication of her work was a radical testament to the humanity of Africans and Americans of African descent. Wheatley received high praise from celebrated men such as George Washington and Voltaire, even though her work was famously denigrated by Thomas Jefferson.

Wheatley dedicated the following poem to William, Earl of Dartmouth, after learning that he was to become the new secretary of state for the British colonies in North America. Dartmouth was known to favor the abolition of slavery.

"To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of DARTMOUTH,"
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Detail from Phillis Wheatley
1834, 13 x 9 cm


Christ Blessing Little Children. c. 1850

This richly colored lithograph is meant to appeal to the female consumer. It is notable for the number of women and children who gather around to hear Jesus preach. This image tells of the extreme importance placed on women's piety, on their role as mothers, and on their responsibility to teach their children to adhere to nineteenth-century Christian ideals of behavior. This image also would have appealed to the large numbers of women who were involved in church-based reform movements to abolish slavery, prostitution, and the drinking of alcohol. The central importance of women in these public-minded reform pursuits is reflected in the presence of so many women, and in the absence of any man but Jesus in this scene. Female consumers who were concerned with embodying nineteenth-century notions of True Womanhood would have understood the implications in this scene.

Detail from Christ Blessing Little Children
c. 1850. 27 x 37 cm


New England Female Moral Reform Society. S. W. Chandler & Bro., Lith., between 1854 and 1856

This is a membership certificate for the New England Female Moral Reform Society, a society of evangelical Christian women dedicated to eradicating the prostitution trade and all forms of extramarital sexuality. The society's members saw themselves as exemplars of virtue, and aimed to make all women—and men—equally virtuous. Women active in moral reform movements placed high value on many of the qualities that nineteenth-century Americans associated with women, including piety, maternal responsibility, and social refinement within the private, domestic sphere.

Activist women also embraced an assertive and authoritative role in the public world. Though all women were expected to educate and shape their children into virtuous citizens, activist women took this mandate a step further, working hard to ensure that all Americans would conform to reformers’ understandings of Christian ideals of behavior.

The image is inspired by a biblical passage, John 4:5–42, which tells of a meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. The Samaritan was surprised when Jesus spoke to her, because at that time, Jews did not associate with Samaritans. The woman in the story was hardly a paragon of feminine virtue: she had been married five times and now lived with a man who was not her husband. The reference to this passage on a certificate for a moral reform society implies that the woman may have been a prostitute or, if not exactly that, not far removed. Either way, nineteenth-century evangelical Christians would have seen her as a representative of the type of woman who was in desperate need of being saved. Nevertheless, in this biblical passage, Jesus speaks of forgiveness and faith, and the woman declares him to be a prophet.

This image is much more than an illustration of a biblical verse, however. In fact, it pictorially reshapes the story, reversing the roles of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It is not Jesus who is preaching here; rather, he listens attentively while the woman lectures. This interpretation of the passage is meant to celebrate nineteenth-century women's power as social reformers and leaders of moral reform. Just as Christ (a Jew) reached out to a Samaritan (considered by Jews to be untouchable),  the New England Female Moral Reform Society advocated reaching out to members of society who were similarly considered untouchable. The pictorial references to this biblical tale may also suggest women's own sense of themselves as outcasts from the mainstream of American public life.

Image of New England Female
Moral Reform Society

c. 1854-6. 46 x 39 cm

Detail from New England Female
Moral Reform Society

c. 1854-6. 46 x 39 cm


Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Authoress of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Leopold Grozelier, 1853.

Enriqueta Beecher Stowe. N. Gonzalez, Madrid, c. 1860s?

Harriet Beecher Stowe published her antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, and it quickly became a bestseller. In its first year alone, Americans purchased 300,000 copies. The book is credited with rousing widespread public outcry against American slavery. Legend has it that President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the beginning of the Civil War and declared, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!" Although there is no evidence that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a direct cause of the Civil War, certainly it furthered the abolitionist cause in the United States more than any other single published work. Stowe's novel went on to be published in some seventy-five languages and became a bestseller the world over.

By the 1860s, Stowe was famous enough in Spain for a printer there to anticipate that there might be a Spanish market for this large-size portrait of the author. As is true of other reform-minded women, Stowe's particular embodiment of virtuous womanhood led her beyond the traditional ideals of feminine behavior to a more active public role outside the home.

Image of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe
1853. 50 x 38 cm


Image of Enriqueta Beecher Stowe
c. 1860s? 30 x 22 cm


Representative women. L. Schamer, Louis Prang, 1870.

From its very founding, the United States had no place for women in political life. U. S. laws prevented women from exercising the most basic rights of citizenship, including voting. Women were denied the right to own property, make contracts, or bring legal suits. Gradually, throughout the nineteenth century, individual states began granting women some of the same basic rights accorded to men. Women across the United States were increasingly committed to achieving full legal equality, and their long, hard political struggle began in earnest in the 1840s. Still, the notion that women were entitled to full rights of citizenship remained a radical idea into the twentieth century.

This illustration glorifies seven important figures in the nineteenth-century fight for equal rights for women. The array includes Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, who remain well known in the present day. The rest are less frequently remembered today but were no less important or well known in their time. Lydia Maria Child was a prominent abolitionist, author and editor who is perhaps best known as the editor of Harriet Jacobs's autobiographical account, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Anna E. Dickinson was a lecturer, political campaigner, author, actress, abolitionist, and activist for women's rights and suffrage; and Grace Greenwood was the pseudonym adopted by Sarah Jane Clarke, who was a poet, author, editor, lecturer, and activist on behalf of women's rights, the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, and prison reform.

Detail from Representative Women
1870. 50 x 42 cm



Anna Dickenson, the Well Known Lecturess. J. H. Bufford's Sons Lith., c. 1873-1880.

Anna Dickinson was one of the most popular and well-known lecturers of the nineteenth century. Dickinson made a career out of traveling around the United States advocating the abolition of slavery and the expansion of women's rights. At the age of fourteen, she wrote an impassioned essay that argued for an end to slavery; it was published in The Liberator, perhaps the most radical and important of antebellum antislavery publications. During the Civil War, she campaigned for Republican Party candidates in various northeastern states, and in 1864, she became the first woman to address the U.S. House of Representatives (she received a standing ovation). After the Civil War, she continued to travel and lecture about rights for African Americans and women and about the importance of temperance reform.

Detail from Anna Dickenson, the Well Known
c. 1873-80. 30 x 22 cm


Ann Eliza Young, 19th Wife of Brigham Young. Joseph E. Baker, 1874 or 1875.

Ann Eliza Young was Brigham Young's last wife. She married him in 1868, when she was twenty-four and he was sixty-seven. She filed for divorce five years later, and in 1875 she published her story, Wife No. 19: or, the Story of a Life in Bondage. By then she had already embarked on a busy lecturing career, traveling across the United States to tell about her experiences and alert American audiences to the ways that polygamy endangered women's rights. Although she should probably be considered more of a celebrity than an activist, prominent temperance reformer John B. Gough praised here for being “wonderfully qualified” to help prevent “the sufferings of her sex." 1

Detail from Ann Eliza Young, 19th Wife of
Brigham Young
c. 1874-5. 30 x 22 cm



1. Young, Ann Eliza. Wife No. 19, or The Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormanism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy. Hartford, Conn.: Dustin, Gilman & Co., 1876.


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