American Social Thought on Women’s Rights

This paper compares and contrasts the arguments in favor of women’s rights made by three pioneering American feminists: Judith Sargent Murray, Sarah Grimke and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

This analysis reveals the centrality of religious argumentation to the feminism of all three. This paper discusses how Murray and Grimke were both converts to varieties of evangelical Protestantism who drew considerable intellectual and emotional nourishment from strands of Christianity, which encouraged, or at least did not discourage, their personal development. Unlike Murray and Grimke, however, Stanton did not convert to evangelicalism. The writer examines how Stanton, instead, launched upon a secularizing trajectory that took her beyond Christianity to Comtean Positivism and rationalism. Unlike Murray and Grimke, she acknowledged the problems inherent in any attempt to square Christianity with feminism. However, she never rejected the Bible completely, and she is appropriately viewed with respect today as a pioneer of feminist biblical criticism. The paper concludes that although feminist thought demonstrates considerable progress in the century between Murray and Stanton, this progress was at odds with the growing influence of evangelical Christianity in American life as a whole.
“In the above paper, we charted the development of nineteenth-century American feminist thought against the backdrop of American intellectual history as a whole. Yet although there is a clear sense of progress here, it has to be conceded that such progress was strictly internal to feminism. If one looks at the broader development of American intellectual life, however, it is apparent that, despite the demise of the state churches by 1833 (Isenberg 101), the serial religious revivals of the nineteenth century fostered greater national dependence on Christianity as a source of the country’s national ethos. The intensifying hegemony of evangelical Christianity made the Bible increasingly authoritative. The more authoritative the Bible became, the more entrenched its doctrines of female subordination became in the wider society.”