Across the Generations: Exploring U.S. History Through Family Papers
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Social Awareness and Reform

The nineteenth century in America saw an explosion of organized reform movements in which both men and women played an active role. Fueled in part by the social impact of the industrial revolution, antebellum reform movements were also shaped by the spread of evangelical religion. Traditionally, women's participation in any activity outside the home was frowned upon. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, growing numbers of women, primarily white middle-class Northerners, used their culturally assigned role as care-givers to enter into public activities such as reform movements. The American abolitionist movement was certainly no exception.


According to biographer Henry Mayer, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) "inspired two generations of activists--female and male, black and white--and together they built a social movement which, like the civil rights movement of our own day, was a collaboration of ordinary people, stirred by injustice and committed to each other, who achieved a social change that conventional wisdom first condemned as wrong and ridiculed as impossible." 1 The following selections are from the Garrison Family Papers.

Executive Board of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, 1851

Executive Board of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, 1851
(rear, left to right): Mary Grew, E.M. Davis, Haworth Wetherald, Abby Kimber, J. Miller McKim, Sarah Pugh (front, left to right): Oliver Johnson, Mrs. Margaret Jones Burleigh, Benjamin C. Bacon, Robert Purvis, Lucretia Mott, James Mott. Photograph by F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia (copyright unknown)

Notice of the Fifth Anniversary of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, 1837

Notice of the Fifth Anniversary of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, 1837

Hattie Purvis, the daughter of Robert Purvis, a leader of the free black community in Philadelphia, met Ellen Wright, later the wife of William Lloyd Garrison (1838-1909), at school. Both girls attended the innovative Eagleswood School, founded by the abolitionist Theodore Weld at Raritan Bay Union, a cooperative community near Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The school's innovations extended beyond the curriculum. As the historian Gerda Lerner has noted, "Even more unusual was the coeducational and the interracial aspect of the school." 2 In a sense, the abolitionist movement itself can be seen as innovative in the ways in which, although not always harmoniously, it brought reformers together across race and gender lines.

Hattie Purvis, undated

Hattie Purvis, undated
Photograph by F. Gutekunst,
704 & 706 Arch St., Philadelphia (copyright unknown)

Hattie Purvis to Ellen Wright Garrison, 1856

"I have been teaching my little brothers and sister this winter, for there is no school here for them to go, except a Public School, and there they are made, [to] sit by their selvels [sic], because their faces are not as white as the rest of the scholars. Oh! Ellie how it makes my blood boil when I think of it. Dame Fortune has not been very good to us."

Letter from Hattie Purvis to Ellen Wright Garrison, 1856


Rebecca, Augusta and Rosa, Emancipated Slaves from New Orleans

"Rebecca, Augusta and Rosa, Emancipated
Slaves from New Orleans"
Photograph by Kimball, 477 Broadway, N.Y.; copyright 1863

(Text on reverse of photo: "The nett [sic] proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted exclusively to the education of colored people in the Department of the Gulf, now under the command of Major.-Gen. Banks.")

For more online documents see Relations between Abolitionist Women and Slaveholding Relatives on the Women and Social Movements Web site (documents selected from the Garrison Family Papers).


In 1865, after four bloody years of Civil War, African Americans were no longer held in slavery. But efforts to rebuild the South in the image of the free North were hampered from the outset by many factors. These included ingrained racism in both the North and the South, as well as the continued reliance on an economic system built upon the use of slave labor. In this letter to his son Carroll Dunham who's in Europe, Edward Wood Dunham describes the situation in the South and the politics of Reconstruction. As a Northerner, Edward Wood Dunham had his own biases, yet his compelling description of the South in 1867 vividly captures the turmoil of the Reconstruction era:

Edward Wood Dunham to his son, Carroll, 1867

"There is much suffering at the South in various ways, both by whites and blacks…. [T]he South must suffer long from the want of capital. Her own is mostly gone to support the rebellion, and the conduct of her citizens since the war ceased had been such that both Northern men and capital fear for their safety too much to venture there.…"

Edward Wood Dunham to his son, Carroll, 1867
Woman Suffrage

In 1848 Martha Coffin Wright, along with her sister Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Hunt, and Mary Ann McClintock, organized the Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Out of this meeting came the "Declaration of Sentiments," a plea for basic rights for women, modeled on the Declaration of Independence. Dedicated to the abolition of slavery, as well as to the securing of women's rights, these antebellum activists saw women's suffrage as vital to the attainment of full citizenship.

Martha Coffin Wright, undated

Martha Coffin Wright, mother of Ellen Wright Garrison, undated (photographer unknown)

Like her mother Martha Coffin Wright, Ellen Wright Garrison was an advocate of women's rights, especially women's suffrage, and regularly attended conventions.

NAWSA membership certificate, 1900 National American Woman Suffrage Association membership certificate of Ellen Wright Garrison, 1900

"We had a wonderful meeting last eveg.-- The church was packed--seats, aisles, standing room and all-- It was most uncomfortable... The enthusiasm of the occasion made us at least try to forget our discomforts and the speeches were fine, as far as they went-- Hattie Stanton [Blatch] presented a well thought out little argument which was rather too studied and not sufficiently spontaneous. She was a little bit self conscious but she is a beauty and very graceful. She is growing stout and will be like her ma in time.... It is time we were starting for the Birthday p.m. meeting-- Poor SBA [Susan B. Anthony] will have to use her tired lungs anew-- She bears the strain wonderfully and Rev. Anna [Howard Shaw] is at her side every minute, tending her like a daughter--they are both darling dears and Anna is the levelest headed, if Susan is like a great Lion. She really does look like a lion!"

Ellen Wright Garrison to Agnes Garrison, 15 February 1900

Ellen's daughter, Eleanor Garrison, carried on the family fight for women's rights as a paid organizer for the National American Woman's Suffrage Association.

Isabella Mott (standing) and Eleanor Garrison in suffrage sashes, undatedIsabella Mott (standing) and Eleanor Garrison in suffrage sashes, undated (tintype; photographer unknown)

"I may be quite mistaken, but it seems to me that the Militant agitation appeals to you heart and soul.... On the other hand our constructive drudgery does not appeal to you. You want emotion, struggle, thrills. We do not have them to offer on our side.... Of course, I do not believe in militancy.... I have never publicly repudiated the Militants...[b]ut I do not, cannot believe that emotion, antagonism, hate, warfare can bring in their wake, much that is good. Yet I recognize that there are other temperaments and we must each follow our own.... So whether you choose to be a martyr in England, or a worker in America, I shall be reconciled to your decision.... [I]f you come, the work awaits you."

Carrie Chapman Catt to Eleanor Garrison, 1 August 1914

"She [Carrie Chapman Catt] is very particular about her organization now--no one that cannot "deliver the goods" is taken on to the force & I know she considers my specialty "agitating" & not organizing & as the agitation period is largely over I thought it quite likely she would let me go--so of course I was delighted to find I was scheduled to go through the campaign"

Eleanor Garrison to her mother, Ellen Wright Garrison, 13 February 1915

The struggle for women's suffrage finally ended with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The dedication of these activists who persevered through three generations epitomizes the suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony's famous quote, "Failure is impossible," was undoubtedly inspired by the persistence of countless women like the Wrights and Garrisons.

World War I

American women found new opportunities during World War I, especially in the types of jobs they could hold, even if only as volunteers. Theodora Dunham (Bodman) served as a volunteer driver for the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) from 1916 to 1917 delivering much-needed supplies to French hospitals and refugee camps.

Theodora Dunham and other AFFW volunteers in France, 1916

Theodora Dunham (front) with Dorothy Arnold, Miss Perry, Miss Thorp, and Theo's dog Tito in AFFW delivery truck, France, 1916 (photographer unknown)

Only twenty years old at the time, Theodora had embarked on an exciting, and potentially dangerous, adventure behind the lines of the French battlefields. Theodora's sense of purpose and her commitment to assisting those in need resonate in her correspondence from this period, as evidenced in the selection here:

Theodora Dunham to her mother, Mary Dows Dunham, 1917

"This week has been a hectic one. I must tell you first about the refugees, for that has been my principle [sic] work and I have just finished three solid hours of going over records, to find that in the last five days we have cared for 269 people and given out 1,362 pieces of clothing.... The people come in at all times during the day and night. They come in baggage cars, crowded in compartments, herded like cattle, with no wills of their own.... There was a little girl of 11 with thin and worn parents, whose right arm was paralyzed, and they said her head was queer from the terrible shock of seeing a companion shot down by the Germans. Poor little thing--we gave her a doll and she was so happy over it."

Theodora Dunham (Bodman) to her mother, Mary Dows Dunham, 16 April 1917

AFFW monthly report, 1917 Report of the American Fund for French Wounded, February 1917

See more pages

AFFW Citation to Theodora Dunham Citation given to Theodora Dunham for her work with the AFFW


1 Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. xiii.

2 Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Woman's Rights and Abolition (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 329.

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