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Interpretations of women in the antebellum period have long dwelt upon the notion of public versus private gender spheres. As part of the ongoing reevaluation of the prehistory of the women's movement, Carolyn Lawes challenges this paradigm and the primacy of class motivation. She studies the women of antebellum Worcester, Massachusetts, discovering that whatever their economic background, women there publicly worked to remake and improve their community in their own image. Lawes analyzes the organized social activism of the mostly middle-class, urban, white women of Worcester and finds that they were at the center of community life and leadership. Drawing on rich local history collections, Lawes weaves together information from city and state documents, court cases, medical records, church collections, newspapers, and diaries and letters to create a portrait of a group of women for whom constant personal and social change was the norm. Throughout Women and Reform in a New England Community , conventional women make seemingly unconventional choices. A wealthy Worcester matron helped spark a women-led rebellion against ministerial authority in the town's orthodox Calvinist church. Similarly, a close look at the town's sewing circles reveals that they were vehicles for political exchange as well as social gatherings that included men but intentionally restricted them to a subordinate role. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the women of Worcester had taken up explicitly political and social causes, such as an orphan asylum they founded, funded, and directed. Lawes argues that economic and personal instability rather than a desire for social control motivated women, even relatively privileged ones, into social activism. She concludes that the local activism of the women of Worcester stimulated, and was stimulated by, their interest in the first two national women's rights conventions, held in Worcester in 1850 and 1851. Far from being marginalized from the vital economic, social, and political issues of their day, the women of this antebellum New England community insisted upon being active and ongoing participants in the debates and decisions of their society and nation.

Able to show the way in which women’s groups that are not generally seen as having a high degree of political consciousness or agitating for social change did in fact contain elements of both. -- American Historical Review

Thoroughly researched and sensitively interpreted. . . . Writing with verve and style, Lawes vivifies antebellum Worcester women. -- Anne M. Boylan

Interesting, informative, and accessible. -- Choice

Lawes easily demonstrates [Worcester, Massachusetts’s] suitability as a test case for challenging some widely accepted generalizations about women’s roles in antebellum New York and New England. -- Connecticut History

Fine research into the gendered nuances of social activism in the antebellum period. -- Deborah Van Brockhoven

In this sensitively interpreted book, Lawes provides prospective on women’s role in shaping New England’s religious, charitable, and reform movements. -- Educational Book Review

An important book that enhances our understanding of women’s lived experiences in antebellum New England. -- History of Education Quarterly

A model social history that amply demonstrates the complex interplay between women’s domestic and civic work and the socioeconomic conditions of their time. -- H-Net Book Review

An insightful contribution to women’s history which argues that gendered interests characterized women’s activism and united women across class, religious, and (sometimes) racial boundaries in antebellum communities. -- H-Net Reviews

Argues the case for antebellum women’s public influence and cross-class gender solidarity. -- Journal of American History

Should be read by all who are interested in early American women’s history, especially those interested in women and poverty. -- Journal of the Early Republic

A well-written and persuasively argued contribution to women’s history in antebellum America. -- New England Quarterly

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Women social reformers, Women political activists, Women's rights, Worcester, Massachusetts, Politics, Government


Women's History

Women and Reform in a New England Community, 1815-1860
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