Reforming Women

The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society, 1834-1854

Through its consideration of the women’s reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century, Shaver greatly expands our knowledge of women’s activism. As this study documents, reform society rhetors employed righteous anger, the claim of social responsibility, and other methods that impacted the campaigns for Prohibition and woman’s suffrage—and that can illuminate the choices of women speakers, and public responses to them, ever since.
Katherine H. Adams

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In Reforming Women, Lisa Shaver locates the emergence of a distinct women’s rhetoric and feminist consciousness in the American Female Moral Reform Society. Established in 1834, the society took aim at prostitution, brothels, and the lascivious behavior increasingly visible in America’s industrializing cities. In particular, female moral reformers contested the double standard that overlooked promiscuous behavior in men while harshly condemning women for the same offense. Their ardent rhetoric resonated with women across the country. With its widely-read periodical and auxiliary societies representing more than 50,000 women, the American Female Moral Reform Society became the first national reform movement organized, led, and comprised solely by women.

Drawing on an in-depth examination of the group’s periodical, Reforming Women delineates essential rhetorical tactics including women’s strategic use of gender, the periodical press, anger, presence, auxiliary societies, and institutional rhetoric—tactics women’s reform efforts would use throughout the nineteenth century. Almost two centuries later, female moral reformers’ rhetoric resonates today as our society continues to struggle with different moral expectations for men and women.

about the author

Lisa J. Shaver

Lisa Shaver is associate professor in professional writing and rhetoric and director of women’s and gender studies at Baylor University. She is the author of Beyond the Pulpit: Women’s Rhetorical Roles in the Antebellum Religious Press.

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Lisa J. Shaver