Book Review: Women's Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York 1822-1872
In Nancy Hewitt's Women's Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822-1872, the author explores the history of 19th century women's organizations in Rochester, New York, during the Jacksonian Era. Through this investigation, we learn a great deal more about the history of American women and their fight for equality, even in a time of economic elitism and the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). In essence, Hewitt's thesis is that there were three distinct groups who comprised the vast majority of women in Rochester during the 19th century - "benevolents," "perfectionists" and "ultras" - who volunteered in these organizations and contributed to the advancement of women's rights and activism, thus investigating and dispelling somewhat the notions of revivalism coming primarily from middle-class white women alone. According to Hewitt, women's groups in the Jacksonian Era were not all united in a kind of solidarity, but had their own disparate goals regarding race, religion and the role of women in social activism.
Hewitt investigates the activities of the Benevolent women, the Perfectionists and the Ultras through research of their organizational makeup, goals, ideologies and specific activities. Despite the fact that these women all belong to some member of the WASP spectrum, they all came from varying classes and geographical regions, and all had their distinguishing features throughout the 19th century. In the case of the Benevolent women, these consisted of the families and female members of the social and economic elite of Rochester - their work started in the 1820s, and worked to alter the perspective of the community on the real roles of women in the public eye. They had a hand in the city's social welfare organizations, acted as volunteer district administrators, and managed to find a balance between social welfare and social control. Despite their status as members of influential families, they believed that "the poor are always with us," and had discreet statuses within the public eye.
The other two groups are the Perfectionists and the Ultras; the Perfectionists started in the 1830s, and their perspective was to eliminate social vices like prostitution, alcoholism and slavery - their goal was to better the social environment around them. They were much more radicalized than the Benevolents, at least at first, but gradually adopted more conservative viewpoints, and worked with the Benevolents eventually. Though they actually placed divisions on which poor were worthy and unworthy of help, their positions still gravitated toward desegregation and abolition. These groups received help from men in terms of finances and social advances, but still largely remained isolated with regards to gender. The Ultras, on the other hand, started in the 1840s, and had much more lower-class backgrounds than the Benevolents or Perfectionists. In essence, they had less affluence (generally hailing from Quaker or farm families), and were not able to use male family members to exert influence. In Ultra communities, there was not as much gender inequality, as male advancement was just as rare as female progress. Ultra women often participated in labor along with men, making them a much more important factor in their community's lives. Their opinions toward race were similarly universal, seeing them as fellow workers who required organization in lieu of helpless victims. All three of these groups worked toward ostensibly similar goals, but Hewitt claims they had many separate (and often conflicting) objectives that saw them fighting for legitimacy and resources, both of which were limited.
Hewitt's strengths in her writing play within her descriptions of the interactions between these three groups. Detailed text, supplemented with easy to follow graphs and charts, note the ways in which these three groups were interrelated, as well as how they were differentiated. Hewitt's influence lies greatly in her quantitative methods of research, though her tables remain plain and uncomplicated. The narrative itself is presented chronologically, so that Hewitt can keep the interaction of these three groups in clear focus for the reader. Every society's leaders and membership is elucidated, using institutional records and secondary sources to create complete and comprehensive profiles of each of these disparate groups. Hewitt even notes the most significant and descriptive variables of the makeup of these organizations, including marital status, date of settlement in Rochester, economic class, race, number of children, and more, to demonstrate which of the three groups they enter into.
The only issues with Hewitt's research are of the lack of relation of these factors to causation; while we learn these factors and correlations quickly, we are not privy to why these factors cause some women to identify with some groups over others. However, despite these gaps in her research, it merely creates the invitation for further elaboration by other scholars; this work represents an important progression in the study of women's groups in this era. Hewitt takes the vital first step in recognizing just how different these women's groups are, and goes so far as to create a viable way to classify them in an easy to understand and codify way. This also creates a new host of questions relating to the ideas of "women's place" and how it relates to other socioeconomic factors like family, class and regional community.
Hewitt's book contributes significantly to the historiography of the Jacksonian Era, specifically as it relates to the growing women's rights and suffrage movements in the 19th century. Earlier works recounting the histories of female organizations during this time trace a straight line through evangelical ideas of womanhood, created in societies that segregated duties by sex, to feminist responses to that segregation. Hewitt's approach, on the other hand, expands similarly progressive research on the demographics of women's groups, both in America and New York state in particular, claiming disparate receptions, results and forms due to the different social and economic histories of these different groups (DuBois, 1978; Ryan, 1983). To that end, Hewitt emphasizes just how complex the makeup and motivation for these women's groups were, dispelling common wisdom in historiography that women's groups were all similarly populated and driven.
In conclusion, Hewitt provides a unique and well-researched investigation of women's studies and activism in the 19th century. By tracing the significantly disparate, yet interconnected sets of women's groups that were working to create a more active presence for women in Jacksonian Era New York, the author helps to demonstrate the significant social and economic demographical changes that were occurring at the time. During this era, minority groups (both gender and racial) were working to gain equal rights and representation within the government, and each of these groups has their own set of priorities and perspectives. Hewitt treats these classifications with the differences their wants warrant, challenging the pervading wisdom of historiography which heretofore painted a simplistic picture of women's desires for reform.
DuBois, E.C. (1978). Feminism and Sufferage: The Emergence of an Independent Woman's Movement in America, 1848-1869. Cornell University Press.
Hewitt, N.A. (1984). Women's Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York 1822-1872. Cornell University Press.
Ryan, M.P. (1983). Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790- 1865. Cambridge University Press.