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Women, Abolitionism, and the Coming of the Civil War

Editor’s Note: WSKG has asked faculty and graduate students in the History Department at Binghamton University to explore the history behind PBS’s new drama Mercy Street. In today’s blog post, adjunct professor Kevin Murphy discusses the important role women played in the Abolition Movement.

Women, Abolitionism, and the Coming of the Civil War

While the miniseries Mercy Street largely focuses on the practices of wartime medicine, the creative team behind the show also exposes viewers to the integral role women played in nineteenth-century reform.

In the show’s opening scene, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a transplanted New Englander, is interviewed by Dorothea Dix(Cherry Jones), a leader in the fight to reform care for the mentally ill and the Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. To the middle-aged Dix, Phinney stands out as an assertive but uncontroversial figure, the perfect young woman to become head nurse at the Mansion House Hotel.Well, almost uncontroversial.Their exchange soon turns to slavery, the defining issue of the pre-Civil War United States. Dix is well aware of Mary’s support for the abolition movement and is content to offer the privileged widow some strong words.“Slavery, dear girl,” Dix states matter of factly, “is a matter more of prayer than protest.”More than any other issue, the continued presence of involuntary bondage and its geographical expansion over the first half of the 1800s created such controversy that it ultimately took disunion, war, and mass death to resolve. Slavery also provided a portion of American women opportunities to engage in political protest and redefine the tenets of femininity.

Revivalism and Reform

Dorothea Dix’s remark reveals the centrality of women to the abolition movement in the United States. However, female participation in the campaign to liberate the thousands of African Americans forced to perform unfree labor was just one way American women fought to improve society in the antebellum period.A host of reform endeavors developed between the 1820s and 1861, from improved education, missionary proselytizing, and the rehabilitation of prostitutes to temperance agitation, altered dietary practices, and utopian communalism. All of them aimed, in some way, shape, or form, to change or improve society.The roots of this reform impulse were religious. During the Second Great Awakening, a series of revivals that swept throughout the country in the early decades of the 1800s, ministers challenged Calvinist predestination theologyand offered individuals a stake in their own salvation. The revivals began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801 and eventually spread throughout the Northeast, including the so-called “burned over district” in Upstate New York.

Most importantly, revivalism unleashed a wave of social activism determined to perfect society and usher in the promised millennium with Christ’s triumphant return. Hundreds of converts began to view slavery as a sin that needed to be expunged from the nation. Many white women came to abolitionism through religion. Well-to-do female converts argued that they were justified in agitating for slavery’s end because of their superior morality and Christian piety.

The Evolution of American Abolitionism

The fight to eradicate chattel slavery began before American was even a country. The Quakers had first campaigned for its end during the colonial period. At the end of the eighteenth century, gradual emancipation was the preferred method for the removal of the South’s “peculiar institution.”The campaign continued into the nineteenth century with a financially unviable and racist  proposal by the members of the American Colonization Society to ship freed slaves to the African colony of Liberia.The next step in the evolution of abolitionism came in 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of The Liberator. The newspaper called for an immediate end to slavery through the use of moral suasion.All of these movements were run predominantly by white men. As historians like Shirley J. Yee and Julie Roy Jeffrey have shown, however, free blacks and everyday women were critical to the continued success of the abolition movement. Women held a range of responsibilities within the antislavery crusade, from the performance of mundane tasks to gathering petition signatures. Through their efforts, women sustained abolitionism from the antebellum period through the Civil War.


Not all male abolitionists were happy with the growing assertiveness of women within the ranks of the movement. Tensions came to a head during the 1840 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS).Members of a pro-Garrisonian faction elected Abigail Kelley Foster to sit on the executive committee. Incensed by the selection of Foster, a large number of attendees, including the wealthy New Yorker Lewis Tappan, stormed out of the convention hall.Tappan went on to establish the American & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, whose members gravitated toward formal political channels to achieve their means. In this famous moment, the “woman question” exposed both the promises and controversies surrounding women and their integral role in the abolition movement.

The Civil War and Beyond

The Civil War did not begin as a crusade to end slavery. That aim lay ahead. As the war dragged on, women continued to agitate for the eradication of involuntary bondage.Nurse Mary’s assertive remark to Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor) after tending to a wounded patient with the invaluable assistance of free black Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) attests to the continued significance of abolitionism in the midst of the sectional conflict, even in a more muted form.

Nurse Mary looks Dr. Foster, a physician from a slaveholding plantation in Maryland, square in the eye and declares, “If I may, by way of advice. Your views on race are unenlightened.”In the midst of the chaos and horror of the makeshift Civil War hospital, Phinney continues to show her commitment to the abolitionist cause.

The Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, represented the culmination of American abolitionism, but it also left a cadre of female reformers wondering what would come next. Women’s rights advocates within the abolitionist ranks questioned whether the issue of woman suffrage would now be addressed. It would not.In the minds of many abolitionists, the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction was the “Negro’s hour,” a time to work towards voting and citizenship rights for the county's black population. Nevertheless, female abolitionists learned the tactics and strategies that would play an integral role in the women's rights movement that emerged with renewed emphasis in the postwar period.

 Learn how the Civil War challenged the "Cult of True Womanhood."Read our other blog posts about Mercy Street.

Further ReadingBurin, Eric. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society.Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.Delbanco, Andrew. The Abolitionist Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,2012.Dorsey, Bruce. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.Ginzberg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.Goodman, Paul. Of One Blood: Abolitionists and the Origins of Racial Equality. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1998.Jeffrey, Julie Roy. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York,1815-1837. 25th Anniversary edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003. (originally published 1978)McDaniel, W. Caleb. The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,2013.Mintz, Steven. Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.Walters, Ronald G. American Reformers, 1815-1860. Revised edition. New York: Hill and Wang,1997 (originally published 1978)Yee, Shirley J. Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Kevin A. Murphy, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor and undergraduate advising assistant in the History Department at Binghamton University. His research focuses on the political and cultural significance of childhood in nineteenth-century America. His dissertation, “The Young Republic: Childhood in America, 1790-1860” examines the ways in which children’s authors drew on young people’s dependent status to argue for the importance of raising successful future citizens and highlights the central role that children played both as objects and agents of reform, including abolitionism.