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Social Reform Movements and Morality Practices: Christian Women's Impact on Benevolent Societies

Image of Belle Williams Belle Williams, a senior majoring in Sociology and Religious Studies, is currently researching “the many ways Christianity has historically supported women’s participation in social reform movements such as Women’s Rights movements, the Abolitionist movement, and the Civil rights movements.” She is especially interested in “the disconnect seen between the participation of Catholic women in social reform, compared to that of Protestant women.” Williams is researching these topics for her senior thesis in religious studies. “It is clear that Protestant women engaged in more progressive social reform movements for their time whereas Catholic women either did not participate or participated in reform movements that were not progressive for their time,” remarked Williams.   

“Starting in the 19th century with the Abolitionist movement and the umbrella of societal issues and movements encompassed under the term ‘women’s rights’ including suffrage, education, temperance, and working conditions, I am examining a list of Christian women leaders in social reform movements in the U.S. up to the 21st century. This list includes nine protestant women and two catholic women, in chronological order: Sarah Grimke, Angelina Grimke, Catharine Beecher, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Belle Harris Bennett, Grace Hoadley Dodge, Dorothy Day, Virginia Durr, Diane Nash, and Phyllis Schlafly,” explains Williams “The limited involvement of Catholic women in social reform movements during this time may provide an explanation as to why there are only two Catholic women to be examined in this list. Christian women participants in social reform movements of this proposed time period were, substantially Protestant.” Williams explains.

“In many cases women’s civil rights participation stemmed from women’s morality practices of the 19th and 20th century… Following the lead of Protestant churches, Catholic women created benevolent societies dedicated to helping the poor and morally fallen. Early women reformers were rooted in Protestant culture.” An excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America vol. 1.

Williams will defend her thesis in May and looks forward to graduating at the end of Winter 2022.


Media Contact: Kindra Martin, College of Arts and Humanities administrative assistant

Published: 4/19/2021

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