Moral Reform: Societies and Temperance
Moral Reform Societies
Certificate from the American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless issued in 1857. The New York Female Moral Reform Society organized the home to assist women to reform sexual morals and behavior
Moving out from behind church walls, Christian women during the 1830s and 1840s realized that within their communities resided prostitutes, “fallen women,” alcoholics, abandoned or orphaned children, the neglected elderly, and the working poor. Calling forth their organizing talents and their evangelical zeal, women from northern churches formed Magdalene Societies to reform and rehabilitate prostitutes. They also created Female Moral Reform societies, the most important of which was the New York Moral Reform Society and its many branches with a membership of 15,000 in 1837. Female Moral Reform Societies worked to end the sexual double standard and they represented the first women’s social reform movement in the United States. Moral reforming women entered brothels and prayed and they lobbied state legislatures to outlaw men from soliciting women into prostitution. Their most effective weapon, however, was exposure, and these Christian women staked out houses of prostitution observing which prominent men frequented them. They then published the lists of “clients,” humiliating and embarrassing the men while at the same time offering rehabilitation to the women who they saw as victims of low-wage poverty. Female reformers blamed male industrialists, businessmen, and politicians for economic conditions against women. Discriminatory wages and lack of decent employment opportunities forced women to become prostitutes, they claimed. While their efforts did not end prostitution, they provided valuable lessons to reformers.
More extensive than Female Moral Reform societies were temperance societies that attempted to persuade people to stop drinking. Americans always drank alcoholic beverages but reformers in the early 1800s became increasingly concerned about the harmful affects of alcohol and were determined to curtail its usage. The problem of alcoholism was rampant in the antebellum years, because alcohol was cheap (a gallon cost 25 cents). Some people considered alcohol a health drink. Many workers took whiskey breaks instead of coffee breaks at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. Doctors prescribed it as a stimulant and used it as an anesthetic. Some people took a drink before breakfast or after dinner to aid digestion or to help them to go to sleep. Politicians gave away free whiskey and barbecue at their campaign rallies.
Women in the temperance movement. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
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Alcohol in the mid-nineteenth century was integrated into every part of daily life from log rolling to corn shuckings, from bier gartens for German immigrants, to saloons among the Irish. In 1820 an adult normally drank seven gallons of alcohol a year. When drinking led to habitual drunkenness, it caused innumerable hardships on women and children. Drunkenness often led to fights, criminal behavior, even murders. To be drunk while on the job endangered other employees and the efficiency of the work environment. To combat this, reformers created temperance societies. Women, especially wives, invested in the temperance movement. They saw themselves as protectors of the home because women could be severely affected by the control of an alcoholic husband. It was well proven that men who drank were often wife beaters, child abusers, and poor providers. Under antebellum laws, married women had few legal rights, yet they waged the first line of attack against drinking. Challenging laws that weakened married women’s legal status would come later with the women’s rights movement.
The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance began in 1826 and by 1835 had an estimated two million members. By 1851 Maine had enacted the first prohibition law, outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The Temperance Crusade, or the movement to temper the use of alcohol begun in earnest, and women took a lead in the movement. Reformers held revival-like meetings, distributed leaflets describing the dangers and evils of drink, and many Americans took the “cold water” pledge, promising to drink nothing stronger than cold water. Southern Protestants supported the concept of temperance in part because it was a means of protesting the growing influence of immigrants, mainly beer-drinking Germans and Roman Catholic Irish. By 1860 twelve states had passed prohibition laws, prohibiting the use of alcoholic beverages. None of these laws lasted for long, but the over-all movement did.
Abstinence Pledge, 1845. By the 1830s, reformist were no longer calling for moderation but for citizens to pledge their total abstinence form all liquor
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Learn more about the origins of the American Temperance Movement.
Temperance led to political activism when temperance lobbyists convinced state legislatures to pass laws against alcohol. When women formed the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874, they were also politicizing their reform goals. The Temperance Crusade culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, which prohibited the manufacture, transport, use, and sale of all alcoholic beverages.