Review of Shaver’s Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society, 1834-1854

Review of Shaver’s Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society, 1834-1854

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Elizabethada Wright

Elizabethada Wright  is a Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth where she teaches in the Department of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies and also serves as coordinator for the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. Additionally, she is a member of the faculty at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ Literacy and Rhetorical Studies Program. She has published in <em>Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetoric Review, Markers: The Annual Journal for the Association of Gravestone Studies, Studies in the Literary Imagination,</em> as well as in a number of other journals and books.

Shaver, Lisa. Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society, 1834-1854. U of Pittsburgh P, 2018. 184 pages.

Cover of Shaver's book. The top half features artwork of 1800s women waiting in line outside a wine and liquor store. The bottom half has the title written in decorate white and yellow typeface on a green background.
Image from University of Pittsburgh Press website.

Since the publication of Carol Mattingly’s Well Tempered Women, feminist rhetoricians have begun to appreciate the discourse of women who engaged in reform that might not seem appealing through a 21st century lens. Though female temperance advocates might, at first glance, seem to be finger-wagging intolerants worthy of mockery, Mattingly convincingly illustrates how these women used their credibility to address the abuses of alcohol that were wreaking havoc on the lives of women and children. So, too, does Lisa Shaver bring into focus another such group, the American Female Moral Reform Society (AFMRS), a group that condemned forms of sexuality that harmed women. Though these women, too, could be perceived as self-righteous moralists, Shaver convincingly brings to light the important rhetorical work done by the organization and its leaders who took on the task of ending both prostitution and the double standards that punished women, but not men, for their sexuality.

Shaver’s focus answers Lindal Buchanan’s call for further recognition of specifically feminine methods of delivery by outlining ways in which leaders of AFMRS used and taught their members to use a variety of resources and strategies—including gender, the periodical, anger, presence, auxiliary societies, and institutional rhetoric—to achieve their ends. Noting, as does Wendy Sharer, that much scholarship on women’s organizations has privileged the individual speaker without exploring how collectives functioned, Shaver makes clear that the strong women who led AFMRS had a huge impact on white, middle-class American women. With over 50,000 members (including Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell) and with its publication being one of the most widely distributed reform periodicals, AFMRS most likely influenced the rhetoric of many other nineteenth-century reformers.

Shaver demonstrates that, unlike previous organizations that had addressed licentiousness, AFMRS was more than a benevolent society that tried to fix the harms done by society: AFMRS worked to address systemic problems. In so doing, AFMRS confronted enormous resistance, and, ultimately, their rhetoric did not achieve the members’ goals. Shaver makes this lack of success clear from her introduction’s epigraph—citing the sixth resolution of the Seneca Falls’ Declaration of Sentiments that observes the double standard for men’s and women’s “transgressions” of “virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior”—to the book’s conclusion, which repeats the resolution. With Shaver’s emphasis on this persistent contradiction, Shaver makes two important points:

  1. rhetoric that may not have been “successful” in achieving its purpose has nonetheless been influential and is worthy study, and
  2. women of the 21st century could learn much from the rhetorical approaches of AFMRS.

A running theme within Shaver’s analysis is her exploration of what she terms “gendering”: “women’s strategic use of societal gender distinctions assigned to them to garner ethos and power” (14). From AFMRS’s inception, its members used gendering to directly address the taboo subjects of sexuality and prostitution. AFMRS called out men who patronized brothels even as they ventured into the brothels, tracked men from brothels to their homes or places of business, rebuked those civic and religious leaders who refused to condemn these men, and even lambasted women who continued to support them. When censured for venturing into territory improper for women, members of AFMRS claimed their moral superiority: if no one else was going to address the problem, they had to in order to preserve women’s virtue. Claiming they took on the task of reform reluctantly and using the appropriately feminine medium of the periodical, members argued that it was their womanly Christian duty to protect society and women from widespread licentiousness. Additionally, Shaver discusses how AFMRS used “righteous anger” as a rhetorical tactic. While discussion of licentiousness in order to rid the world of it might be considered appropriately feminine, anger was usually denied women. However, with licentiousness run rampant, AFMRS argued that women had the exigence to get angry.

Another tactic Shaver discusses is “presence,” by which she means the strategy of inhabiting unlikely places and thus drawing societal attention to these places. Focusing within the third chapter on AFMRS first female missionary, Margaret Prior, Shaver illustrates how Prior’s background within the Methodist church gave her a situated ethos that enabled her to participate in the typically feminine practice of “visiting” homes. Though this chapter spotlights an individual, Shaver’s purpose is to use existent texts to extrapolate common practices within AFMRS. She argues that AFMRS members’ presence in places where “good” women would not normally venture enabled these women to hear and see the realities of licentiousness’s evils and report on them; specifically, Prior wrote regularly on these evils via AFMRS’s various publications. In other words, women’s situated ethos allowed AFMRS to extend its credibility by giving its members the means to report firsthand on these evils.

Shaver also discusses AFMRS’s use of auxiliary societies. These organizations, which were typically developed to support men’s organizations, served various rhetorical purposes for AFMRS. In the first place, these auxiliaries provided AFMRS with additional means of advocacy and financial assistance. Perhaps more importantly, they provided the auxiliary members a kind rhetorical education. With leaders in the national organization acting as mentors, auxiliary members were taught how to campaign door-to-door, petition, engage in correspondence regarding organization business, compose constitutions, present essays on the topic, and lead discussions about morality.

Within her analysis of this rhetorical education, as well as of Prior’s and other AFMRS member’s rhetoric, Shaver notes how AFMRS continually used pathos in combination with ethos to move audiences. The more heart-rending the tale of victims of prostitution, the more likely it would move a reader and give AFMRS legitimacy for venturing into otherwise inappropriate territory. In its efforts to educate audiences about the many snares awaiting innocent women, AFMRS preferred telling of long-suffering women and children instead of happy resolutions that resulted from AFMRS’s efforts: the tales of suffering garnered more support than did those of success.

Though these rhetorical tactics granted women ethical means to discuss debauchery, Shaver makes clear AFMRS was not terribly successful in achieving its ends. Particularly troubling to AFMRS was the use of the word “morality” and the word’s implied self-righteousness. As Shaver lays out, the organization changed both its name and approaches in the latter part of its existence. Morphing into the American Female Guardian Society, the organization focused less on moral reform than on providing direct aid to victims of prostitution. Establishing the Home for the Friendless, this new organization continued many of its previous tactics but abandoned righteous anger and confrontation as it gained support from people who had shied away before. The new logic of the organization was that the Home could prevent moral corruption of innocent women and children. As institutional managers of the Home, the organization continued to tell pathetic tales of hardship as it also attempted to save the innocent—but it no longer confronted members of society about their hypocrisies. However, the organization did not entirely abandon an activist role, as it argued for more employment opportunities for women and for the protection of street children.

Within her discussions of the problems with AFMRS’s views of morality, one area that Shaver might have explored further is how the rhetorical tactics utilized by AFMRS were not only gendered but clearly reflected middle-class, Christian, white perspectives. While Shaver does acknowledge that she is examining the “rhetorical means available to white, middle-class women” (7), she does not sufficiently consider how their discourse impacted non-white, non-Christian women. For example, in discussing the institutionalized rhetoric of AFMRS after it morphed into the American Female Guardian Society, Shaver observes that an African American woman sought the advice of the organization when she was forced to give up her children. According to Shaver, the woman was advised that she could turn to the Colored Orphan Asylum, but Shaver does not explore what it meant for a black woman to give up her children when slave kidnappers where a constant threat to antebellum people of color in the Northern states. Similarly, in discussing how the Home for the Friendless enhanced its ethos by assisting women “worthy of assistance,” Shaver does note the fraught nature of determining such a characteristic; however, she could further explore how this judgment impacted non-white, non-Christian women. For instance, did AFMRS consider the many nineteenth-century Asian women who lived in New York as “worthy of assistance,” or did the societal hyper-sexualization of these women limit the aid they could receive from AFMRS because of their perceived unworthiness? Another element that would be worth exploring is the rhetoric AFMRS members utilized in their discussions of “worthiness.”

AFMRS’s move to utilize institutional rhetoric also raises the question of whether the organization continued to be one that required tactics rather than strategies. Throughout the text, Shaver relies on deCerteau’s distinctions between tactics and strategies, observing how the women within AFMRS were without power and therefore needed to find means to adapt the structures created by those with more power. In other words, they relied on tactics rather than strategies. However, with AFMRS’s move to institutional rhetoric and its practice of defining whom was “worthy of assistance,” the organization appears to have become a part of hegemonic power structures and its rhetoric less “timely, opportunistic, and agile” (7). Shaver’s use of deCerteau’s definitions, therefore, would be more compelling with an exploration of how an organization’s status moves its tactics to more hegemonic and less agile strategies.

Shaver’s discussion of an ethos of presence is one of the most unique contributions of this book, and it fits well with recent theories regarding feminist ecological rhetoric. According to Shaver, AFMRS missionary Margaret Prior best exemplifies this ethos of presence as Prior utilized and built on her credibility by going to physical locations where other white, middle-class women were loath to go. Prior’s goal of bringing Christian assistance to these locations legitimized both her visits to these places and her explicit descriptions of what she observed there. While Shaver’s analysis of Prior’s ethos is important, that analysis at times seems to grant Prior too much credibility. For example, in noting Prior’s attempts to build her ethos and garner emotional support for the women she served, Shaver quotes from Prior’s memoir where Prior describes her attempts to convert a man to Christianity. After Prior tries and seems to fail with the conversion, she notes that “on opening the door, the conviction was so strong that the Lord would have me pray with him,” and when she returned a few days later, the man had totally changed and repented (81). Certainly, this example illustrates how an ethos of presence legitimized such narratives: Prior was in the location with the man so people should believe what she said. However, Shaver’s discussion of Prior’s successes seems to grant too much credibility to Prior’s “conversion,” when Shaver could instead acknowledge how the narrative, with its ethical and pathetic elements, was constructed strategically to persuade Prior’s contemporaries.

Despite these concerns, Shaver’s text is a welcome addition to the growing literature on previously unconsidered groups of women who used “available means” of persuasion to advance their goals. Shaver’s book is especially compelling at this kairotic moment, as women again need to use all available means to address the systemic incongruities that limit women and their bodies even as men are granted license to women’s bodies. Though the rhetoric of AFMRS may not have succeeded, rhetoricians of the modern day can learn from Shaver’s analysis as they consider how to modify AFMRS’s rhetoric and continue the work of our brave foremothers.

Works Cited

Buchanan, Lindal. Regendering Delivery: The Fifth Canon and Antebellum Women Rhetors. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Mattingly, Carol. Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 1998.

Sharer, Wendy B. Vote and Voice: Women’s Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. Southern Illinois UP, 2004.

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