Reformers also sought to expand public education during the antebellum era, because many at the time considered public schooling to be only for the poor. Wealthier Americans could pay for their children to attend private schools and academies but disdained the idea of paying higher taxes to educate the poor. Over the course of the antebellum period, however, more and more cities and states began to realize that education was essential to maintain a democracy.
Horace Mann was one of the greatest champions of public schools. As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann fought for higher teacher qualifications, better pay, newer school buildings, and better curriculum. Catherine Beecher, sister of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, also crusaded for education but believed that teachers should be women.
American women gained their first opportunities for higher education during this period. In 1837, feminist Mary Lyon established Mount Holyoke Seminary, the first college for women. That same year, Oberlin College became the first institution of higher learning to open on a coeducational basis.
In addition to educational opportunities, many women began to demand political rights, especially the right to vote, or women’s suffrage. Under leaders Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, the movement gained substantial momentum during the antebellum era. Stanton and Mott astounded Americans and Europeans alike when they organized the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. There, women leaders heard Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, declaring that women were equal to men in every way. Of the many sentiments declared, the most shocking was the call for full suffrage for all women.
Although there were a wide variety of reform movements in the antebellum period, they shared common characteristics. Most were rooted in the religious revivalism and new moralist beliefs of the age. Second, women dominated most reform movements. Finally, reformists were generally centered in the North, while the conservative South once again generally lagged behind. This disparity between North and South contributed further to the social and political tensions of the pre–Civil War years.