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The establishment of the U.S. as a republic and its effect with regard to the separation of church and state as an instrument of impetus for the feminist movement.
One of the greatest contributing factors to the feminist cause stepped silently to the foreground of history with the separation of church and state in the early U.S. republic. The separation of church and state in early North American colonies came about of necessity as a means of forming a cohesive bond between the colonies which having been founded on the premise of religious freedom, nonetheless, saw the necessity of political, economic and military ties amongst each other. The fact however remained that the colonies themselves held radically divided religious belief systems within a Christian ethos. While the New England colonies where predominantly Puritan, the members of Chesapeake colonies strongly favored the Church of England, while in Pennsylvania, the Quakers had stronghold (Seat). As such, in order to unify the colonies it was decided that the most beneficial position with respect to a united government was the separation of church and state. This decision would be the germination point which would eventually carry the seeds of the women’s rights movement, as male leadership in the church would decline in favor of political/governmental power and women would gain hitherto unprecedented access within the church and would become in essence the moral guardians of the new republic. This new ideal of Republican Womanhood would later become enmeshed with the ideals of True Womanhood and late Victorian gender roles.
The late Victorian time period has been associated with what Barbara Welter termed the “feminization of American religion” (DeBerg. p. 21). Contrary to early colonist views (particularly Puritan) women were no longer seen as gateways to evil, rather, the late Victorian ideal of womanhood placed women above men in terms of moral superiority (DeBerg. p. 21.). Furthermore, while the doctrine of separate spheres relegated women’s place to the domestic realm, late Victorian models of womanhood also placed her piety within the religious realm as well. The hitherto unfamiliar coupling of women, the domestic realm, and the Church, would prove to be a powerful social tool for change as well as elevating the traditional status of women. Consequently the union forged between the Church and women was to become something of such power by the late Victorian period that no man with an interest in self-preservation, within the social and political structure of the times could afford to ignore it (DeBerg p. 19). This new focus of power stemmed from the Victorian ideal of womanhood, and would in latter times come to be referred to as the “cult of true womanhood.” The four basic tenements surrounding this ideal of “true womanhood” rested on the assumptions that, there existed a “sharp dichotomy between the home and the economic world outside that paralleled a sharp contrast between female and male natures, the designation of the home as the females only proper sphere, the moral superiority of women, and the idealization of her function as mother” (DeBerg p. 19). Placed in this relatively new position (given the historic context of womanhood in western history) to champion moral virtues, women (mainly the white, protestant middle-class) became increasingly aware that in order to facilitate change they as women needed to band together. This had begun happening in the early nineteenth-century, when as one minister of the times stated; “performing one’s Christian and female duty led women to […] “associate themselves” in a variety of ways” (Ginzberg p. 20).
As women (with the encouragement of the religious community) began to band together and form prayer groups and community outreach programs, so to did women begin to form independent auxiliary and charity organizations, which, initially went “virtually unnoticed and unremarked” (Ginzberg p. 21). The significance of this being that it was through the collective power that these women’s groups came to hold within the community which would hold the seeds of early women’s rights organizations. In sum, “Victorian gender ideology contained within it the seeds of its own destruction” (DeBerg p. 24). “Increasingly, in a political world, women and the church stood out as anti-political forces” in the emerging materialistic society spawned by the industrial revolution (DeBerg p. 22). In this brave new world, women, operating in accordance with the predominant sociological male directive had gained control of the household, and through it more power within the institution of marriage as itself. The significant impact of this was felt most noticeably by “middle-class women, with leisure time, money, and experience in organizing (which) they had received at home and in their church work, (who) broke out of their domestic sphere into the public, and supposedly all-male world of politics, education, professions, and business (DeBerg p. 24). These women’s experiences with male oppression and the gender gap would lead them to from collective bodies in protest. The organizations these women conceived would find their first causes in various forms of social reform, as those who had, sought means of providing for those who were less advantaged.
Among the most significant moral reform movements to sweep the country was that of temperance. The temperance movement was the social reform movement to capture the protestant middle class, and had its roots in the antebellum period, however, it did not end there, but continued to gain strength and by the late Victorian period was one of the great causes linked to moral and social reform. Unlike immorality and poverty, the issue of drink was a concrete behavior, which could be (in the minds of reformers) linked conclusively to moral and social decline, as such it presented a strong cause from which to draw backing (Ginzberg p. 33). As the late nineteenth-century drew to a close many felt that society itself stood in jeopardy as new forms of Capitalist market economy and industrialization took precedence over traditional labor ways and markets, the displacement of workers, and mass poverty in contrast to extreme wealth promoted notions in favor of Bolshevism and Socialism. With all of these combined factors threatening the traditional order, the model of late Victorian womanhood came to represent the values of decency, order and rationality in a world that was spinning out of control. Seeking refuge, American men choose to place the burden of responsibility in providing for these on the women in their lives and rested in the assurance that their purity and self-restraint would save and provide shelter for them in the changing context of history (DeBerg p. 23-24).
Protestant reform movements spearheaded by women offered up temperance as a solution to the ills that plagued society. Despite fierce resistance from big business, women’s influence, the perception of their moral superiority and their control of the home, combined with their ability to lobby effectively resulted in the ratification of the18th Amendment, also known as “Prohibition” in the year 1919(Prohibition). Historically the temperance movement would serve as both a social and political platform on which to do battle, and would become the training ground for women’s initiation into the male political realm (Ginzberg p. 37). Women who had previously viewed the political realm as male, had come to realize that political involvement was of necessity should they desire to change the established gender norms and inequalities of the times (Ginzberg p. 102). Thus while many early reformers, particularly those in the antebellum period had recoiled from “political association” and seen it as corruptive (Ginzberg p. 52-53) within less than a century, the battle ground of the sexes and women’s understanding of what the fight for equal rights would entail had changed. Women had taken the lessons of this fight, its successes and failures, and adopted them to effective use. Within a year of the enactment of the 18th Amendment, the 19th Amendment to The Constitution, which secured women’s the right to vote, was passed on August 26th 1920 (Find law). The seed sown with the separation of church and state, started within early colonial America as a means of unifying colonies with different religious ideologies to form a stronger union had blossomed into a tree, which its forbearers could have had no intention of knowing at the time.
DeBerg, Betty A. (2000). Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism. (New Edition). Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.
Find law. 18th Amendment. [Online]. Available: http//caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment.18 [2003. April 3].
Ginzberg, Lori D. (2000). Women in Antebellum Reform. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson.
Prohibition. History 102 lecture 17: The Politics of Prohibition: The 1920s. [Online]. Available: http;//us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/lectures/lecture17.html
Seat, Dr. Karen. (2003). Lecture. 2/25/03 REL/WS 324. University of Arizona. Spring 2003.