In the early 1830s, a self-described phalanx of 20,000 angry women rose from the tumult of Jacksonian America. Enraged at the prevalence of urban prostitution and the casual acceptance of male licentiousness, they spoke out. Loudly, fiercely, they railed against the double standard that punished women but not men for promiscuity and involvement in prostitution. The radical organization they founded, the New York Female Moral Reform Society (NYFMRS), shocked contemporaries and challenged traditional Victorian gender roles.
Recently, I sat down with celebrated historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg to discuss the Reform Society, their motivations, and why it is worth revisiting one hundred and eighty-five years after their founding. Smith-Rosenberg first encountered the NYFMRS in the New-York Historical Society Library as a graduate student in the 1950s. She was captivated by the organization’s all-female structure and radical rhetoric, especially their brazenly anti-male sentiments. Though women’s history was not yet an accepted field (and her advisor was initially skeptical), Smith-Rosenberg knew she had stumbled onto something significant. Today, she credits her discovery of the NYFMRS with making her a historian of women.
Since then, Smith-Rosenberg has written about the Reform Society extensively in classic works such as Disorderly Conduct. For her, the NYFMRS underscored how integral women’s voices are to the larger narrative. We cannot understand broader historical transformations, she explains, if we do not explore them from a woman’s perspective and ask about women’s experiences.
The NYFMRS was established in the spring of 1834, the first organization of its kind and one of the earliest examples of all-female activism. Men were not admitted as members, and by 1838, it had committed to hiring only women for administrative roles. Its members were overwhelmingly urban, middle-class, educated, and white. They were wives and mothers, devout Protestants, and respectable community members. And they were passionate, outspoken radicals. Smith-Rosenberg calls their founding goals of eradicating prostitution and challenging men’s sexual conduct “shocking” in an era when “genteel women did not discuss sexuality, much less prostitution – certainly they did not accuse respectable men of licentious behavior.”
The female moral reformers did both. They stormed brothels. They gathered outside, triumphantly taking down the names of visitors. They published the names of outed “libertines” in their journal, The Advocate of Moral Reform, circulating details of bad behavior to their tens of thousands of subscribers. They lobbed vicious insults at high-standing members of the community, calling them destructive, vile, devious, and unfit for their positions. They argued that men who frequented brothels deserved no more respect than the women inside, and chastised the male libertine for his “effrontery to claim that he is not to be treated according to fact (The Advocate, November 1837).” They continually spoke and wrote about the seduction of young women by supposedly respectable gentlemen. Even as the group shifted its focus toward securing professional training and employment for disadvantaged women, The Advocate never softened its stinging indictment of male offenders, frequently calling them out by name.
What empowered these women to use such forceful rhetoric? What emboldened their actions? In our conversation, Smith-Rosenberg identified multiple factors.
First, they claimed an urgent religious imperative. They believed it their Christian duty to purge sin from the world. Smith-Rosenberg explains, “the women who founded the NYFMRS were converts of one of America’s leading evangelical preachers, Charles Finney, whose city-wide revivals in the early 1830s swept them up into the millennial fervor of the Second Great Awakening.” With religious fervor, they sought to prepare America for the millennium: the imminent second coming of Christ. For believers, a perfect society was not only possible – it was crucial. But male debauchery—and the cities that enabled their sins—stood directly in the path of purity. Attacks on men who visited brothels or were accused of seduction were endowed with religious obligation. It was necessary, for God and for all humanity, to speak out against those who sinned.
Second, members saw themselves as bulwarks against a lapsed male morality. Nineteenth-century gender ideals cast women as the moral center of the home and men as protectors shielding domestic, submissive wives and daughters from the evils of society. The NYFMRS turned that narrative on its head. Men were aggressors, not protectors, corrupting and endangering naïve young girls. It was, therefore, up to virtuous middle class women to expose and eradicate sinfulness: to not do so would be an affront to their roles as mothers and moral guardians. Using this logic, says Smith-Rosenberg, “no topic was too salacious for women millennial warriors to address, no place too dangerous for them to occupy.” Further, “no son was too young to be instructed. No husband too authoritative to be reprimanded and reformed.” This turned gendered power dynamics inside out. The female moral reformers claimed authority to govern within the home and become advocates outside of it.
Ultimately, their anger was concentrated on power and powerlessness. Middle class women’s influence had traditionally involved community monitoring. The rapid urbanization of the 1830s–1850s made that increasingly difficult. In the anonymity of the city, it seemed men could get away with loathsome behavior, flouting decency toward wives and ruining young, newly urban girls. Male sexual privilege was a continual reminder of their social and economic control. Society members longed for a nostalgic version of community-centered rural life, where they could be respected civic guardians. Instead, they faced daily a city of sin and a bitter double standard that kept them, and those they sought to help, subordinate.
But amidst the upheavals of urbanization and industrialization, there was, in Smith-Rosenberg’s words, “a bubbling up throughout society of discontent with the old systems and excitement about the possibility of shaping new systems.” Rage became action. Linking economic and sexual exploitation, they provided marginalized women paths toward respectable, gainful employment. They presented legislative initiatives, lobbying to make seduction a crime. Through their work, the NYFMRS envisioned a “new, virtuous female-controlled class structure,” a radical proposition that contested the basis of male power and centered women’s place in society.
During our conversation, Smith-Rosenberg mentioned being struck by the parallels between the female moral reformers and the #metoo movement. Then, as now, sexual exploitation was widespread, and many women found themselves in positions of vulnerability. While The Advocate’s formulaic seduction narratives may sometimes read as fabrications, they stemmed from a genuine place of frustration. We have to really listen carefully and trust the voices of women, Smith-Rosenberg told me. In admonishing men’s sexual behavior, they were critiquing women’s lack of power and expressing bitter resentment toward largely unquestioned male economic and social privilege.
Although many of the NYFMRS’s goals seem far removed from those of current activists, their methods are familiar. Identifying abusers has become a powerful method to hold exploitative, dangerous people accountable. Publicly calling out the double standard has prompted more nuanced conversations around structural sexism in public spaces and in the home. And channeling rage into action has brought a new, ever-growing phalanx of activists into the streets.
Though divergent in ideology and separated by more than a century, both the female moral reformers and the far more diverse community of modern-day feminist activists have drawn from similar reserves of anger to challenge—and change—the status quo. My conversation with Carroll Smith-Rosenberg highlighted these similarities, underscoring one of the many reasons why uncovering women’s voices in the archive matters.
— Madelin DeDe-Panken, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow, Center for Women’s History
Carroll Smith-Rosenberg is the Mary Frances Berry Collegiate Professor of History, Women’s Studies and American Culture, University of Michigan, Emerita. She is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Committee at the Center for Women’s History. You can hear her discussing the Female Moral Reform Society in our online course, “Women Have Always Worked,” produced in collaboration with Columbia University.
Top image credit: The Advocate of Moral Reform and Family Guardian, March 15, 1854. New-York Historical Society Library.