"The Ladies Are Coming!": A New History of Antebellum Temperance, Women’s Rights, and Political Activism

2018-12-03T00:00:00Z (GMT) by Dawn Winters
This dissertation reconfigures our knowledge about antebellum temperance activism, the origins and inflections of antebellum women’s rights, and the role of women in antebellum political culture. It charts women’s grassroots temperance activism over the 1840s and 1850s. Focusing on the Midwest, and also on the Northeast, it recovers a story that we have not known—one that revises a significant number of settled academic conclusions. First, where the historiography posits that women, because they were
disenfranchised, played only auxiliary roles in temperance after it shifted in the 1840s from moral suasion to legislative pressure, this dissertation finds just the opposite. In fact,
as women grew disillusioned with men’s political ineptitude, they seized control of political temperance, launching robust political pressure campaigns that were highly
effective. Moreover, they inflected temperance with a different set of concerns, centering a gendered analysis that focused on women’s legal and political disabilities. Secondly, where the historiography sees antebellum women’s rights growing
almost exclusively out of abolition (the campaign to end chattel slavery), this dissertation finds that an antebellum women’s rights movement grew just as powerfully out of
temperance activism. In fact, numerous temperance women began demanding the vote in 1846, a full two years before the supposed origin of that demand in 1848. At the same
time, temperance women across the Midwest also innovated and secured various forms of married women’s property rights—something that has remained completely unseen. Midwestern women’s rights organizations were also heavily populated by temperance women, who remained committed to both causes throughout the 1850s. Thirdly, where the historiography depicts antebellum women as genteel
supplicants, this dissertation recasts them as militant, aggressive, and violent political actors. Exasperated with men’s inaction and legislative failures, women took matters into their own hands. They bodily threatened and assaulted saloon owners, swung hatchets and destroyed liquor barrels, and leveled entire buildings. Over and over again. This coordinated, political violence waged by women in massive numbers upends our ideas about women’s roles in antebellum politics. And it situates women squarely within the violent political culture of the 1850s, something usually reserved to men.