13 The Social Purity Movement

Khadija Tyson

Cassidy, Jessie and Carrie Catt, and National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, The Legal Status of Women, (New York: The National-American Woman Suffrage Association, 1897), 106.

The social purity movement began in the late 19th century along with other moral reform movements, such as abolitionism and the temperance movement. Rooted in Christian morality, the movement aimed to preserve feminine virtue and purity by protecting young women and girls from prostitution, contraception, abortions, and male sexual predators. As a self-proclaimed feminist[1], I wanted to analyze this movement to determine if it would be considered feminist in modern terms. On one hand, the social purity movement was a movement by women, for women, that protected young women and girls from older, male predators. It not only focused on regulating women, but also aimed to create purity societies to help boys and men resist sexual temptation. However, it also tried to heavily control female sexuality by deterring women from participating in sexual activities. It contributed to the notion that a woman’s “purity” corresponded to her value and self-respect. As a subordinate of the Christian movement, it also preached abstinence and aimed to make contraception and abortions illegal. Furthermore, social purists focused almost exclusively on middle-class and upper-class white women, especially disregarding minority women. During that time, it was not considered illegal for a white man to have intercourse with a young girl of color[2], and social purists did not work to fix that. The concept of intersectionality[3] hadn’t been established until third wave feminism in the 1990’s. Today, intersectional feminism is no longer a subcategory of the feminist movement, but is such a crucial aspect, that is an inherent characteristic of the entire movement. Because of my socialization as a young, black, radical feminist, I knew that there would be aspects of the 19th century movement I would not agree with. Knowing that the concept of feminism had only recently been born at the time of the social purity movement, and that feminist goals have evolved, I looked at some of their more timeless work to see if purists at least had the intention of female equality. To do this, I analyzed “Seduction a felony,”[4] an anonymous 1888 journal entry from the Philanthropist[5]. This journal entry discussed why the legal age of consent should be raised across the United States.

Transcription of “Seduction a Felony”

Author’s note: the source is transcribed here from the original.[6]

“Crimes against women and girls are of such frequent occurrence as to render obvious the urgent need or more adequate legal protection for womanhood and girlhood. Progress has been made latterly in this and several other states, in raising the “legal age” of consent, in cases of rape, from ten to sixteen years; in others to thirteen and fifteen; and in two or three states to eighteen. But, alas! In many states the legal age of protection is still at the shockingly low period of ten years, and in Delaware at SEVEN! One of these is Maryland, and a lady writing from Baltimore, mentions a recent case of a lovely young girl, the daughter of a poor widow, betrayed by one who should have been her protector, and when her friends determined to make an effort to have her destroyer brought to justice, and carried the matter to the court, they were coolly informed that nothing could be done, because the girl was over ten years of age. Another lady, writing from Ohio, says: “Even here; in our rural districts, we repeatedly mourn over instances of neglected and unprotected girlhood, and we have no recourse to law in case of seduction.”

In the state of New York, and most others, there is no penalty for seduction, except in cases of breach of promise of marriage. A man who would be subject to arrest and imprisonment if he should rob a girl or woman of her pocket book, may with comparative legal impunity seduce her and despoil her person. Libertines not unfrequently boast of the number of their sensual conquests. The loss of money is a trifling matter, compared with the loss of purity and honor. It is quite time that seduction as well as rape, should be made a punishable offense, and, as a felony, that it should legally subject men guilty thereof to both imprisonment and fine. Nor in this particular should men alone be held amenable to law. It sometimes happens that evil disposed women victimize young men and boys and lead them into vicious pathways. Such women should also be placed under legal restraint.

Of course we do not expect law wholly to take the place of right moral training for the individual, and a right popular education concerning an equal standard of morality for both men and women. It is, however, clearly within the proper province of government as declared by Mr. Gladstone, “to make it easy to do right and difficult to do wrong.”

In the forthcoming legislative season we hope a general and an effective movement may be inaugurated and prosecuted by women, and by true and honorable men to secure legislation which shall everywhere brand and punish seduction irrespective of age, a felony and crime.”

The journal entry appears to have feminist influences. The author begins the entry by acknowledging the frequency of injustices committed against women, and the deep emotional effects of those crimes. They argue that seduction[7], “be made a punishable offense, and, as a felony, that it should legally subject men guilty thereof to both imprisonment and fine.”[8] The author also acknowledged that while men are most often the perpetrators and therefore, should be the primary focus, it does sometimes occur that a women be the violator, and they too, should be held responsible for their crimes. In addition, they acknowledge that you cannot simply change the law to make things illegal without having proper moral education that supports the law. The author is supporting the idea that schools can replace the police.

I find the language of this entry very interesting. For one, the author uses a simile to describe sexual assault. The author compares the theft of a physical item, such as a pocketbook or money, to “the loss of a girl’s purity and honor.”[9] The author argues that the latter is much worse and should be legally punishable to the same extent. The author also uses intense diction to portray the magnitude of the crime to the readers. For example, the author uses phrases such as “her destroyer,” “evil disposed women,” and “vicious pathways.” Sometimes people attribute committing a sexual crime to a mistake or make excuses for the offender. Additionally, in many cases men, especially those who are wealthy or in positions of power, are excused from punishment because they can be considered otherwise good people. The author uses strong language so that the grave consequences of seduction are understood, and those crimes will be taken seriously. Because the author uses phrases such as “seduce her and despoil her person” and “loss of a girl’s purity,” they are talking specifically about the loss of a female’s virginity as a result of seduction. To me, this makes it seem as if an adult engaging in sexual activities with a child is problematic because the child is no longer a virgin, and therefore is no longer pure. When in fact, virginity is a social construct that has nothing to do with a person’s purity, worth, or value. To me, there should be a legal age of consent to prevent children from being in manipulative relationships or those with unbalanced power dynamics, that can cause emotional trauma. Furthermore, the author’s focus on virginity is dangerous because a woman’s previous unchastity could be used as a defense for assault[10]. By specifying the loss of virginity, the author is playing into that narrative. Another thing I wanted to analyze deeper was the mention of a recent case of a young girl who was betrayed by someone that was meant to protect her. When the case was brought to court, nothing could be done because the girl was over ten years of age. What I find particularly interesting, is the author’s language to describe the plaintiff, calling her “a lovely young girl” and “the daughter of a poor widow” [11]. The author is using pathos[12] so that the readers will sympathize with the girl. While I understand the reasoning of this is to make the reader feel like the girl didn’t deserve what happened to her, its unnecessary as no one ever deserves a sex crime that was committed against them.

Another thing I noticed was the similarity between the social purity goals of the 1880’s and the goals of today. It is still true that sexual assault crimes against women and girls occur very frequently, and that more legal action needs to be taken against perpetuators. Thinking about how the social purity movement has influenced the United States society, I find it interesting that while abstinence-only education and abortion restrictions took hold in the U.S., other major goals of the movement, such as male purity societies and moral education, did not. As women couldn’t even vote at the time, and there are still few women in government[13], it seems to me that while women came up with the ideas, men ultimately only approved what they wanted. That being said, as a result of the organizing of social purists, the legal age of consent is now higher than it was in 1888. While social purists were not able to achieve a national age of consent of 18, it is at least 16 in all fifty states.

Because of the many aspects and goals of the social purity movement, I was conflicted on whether to consider the movement feminist or not. Although I tried to determine if the purpose of the movement was to progress towards gender equality, rather than focusing too much on the specific actions, I still would not consider it a feminist movement. Raising the legal age of consent did help women, but I do not believe it combated the patriarchy or society’s view of women as inferior. Feminism goes further than simply women organizing or improving an aspect of women’s lives. I do not believe that the social purity movement was a feminist movement because I found social purists’ goals to be too focused on controlling female sexuality, and that they put too much importance on female virginity. Would you consider the social purity movement an example of feminist organizing?


Khadija Tyson is part of the graduating class of 2023 at Wake Forest University. She is majoring in psychology, debating between double majoring or minoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies, and minoring in health and human services. Her identity as a young feminist woman influences her view of the world and how she analyses sources.

  1. Feminism is the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way. “Feminism: Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed November 19, 2020. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/feminism.
  2. Porritt, Annie G, Carrie Chapman Catt, and National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, Laws Affecting Women and Children in the Suffrage and Non-Suffrage States, (New York City: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, 1917), 147.
  3. Intersectional Feminism highlights the voices of those experiencing coexisting forms of discrimination based on race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion, ethnicity, or immigration status, in order to understand how the intersection of those different factors can affect someone's life.
  4. Document 10: “Seduction a Felony” (Philanthropist, 1888), 4
  5. Philanthropist- The journal of the New York Committee for the Prevention of the State Regulation of Vice, a key organization in the social purity movement
  6. Document 10: “Seduction a Felony” (Philanthropist, 1888), 4
  7. Seduction- refers to sex, or losing of virginity, outside of marriage. It can be considered similar to grooming. Grooming refers to the building of trust with a child in order to get time alone with them. The child is often manipulated into becoming a cooperating participant which reduces the likelihood of them disclosing, and increases the likelihood that they will repeatedly return to the offender.
  8. Document 10: “Seduction a Felony”, 4
  9. Document 10: “Seduction a Felony”, 4
  10. ]Jessie Cassidy and Carrie Catt, The Legal Status of Women. 99.
  11. Document 10: “Seduction a Felony” (Philanthropist, 1888), p 4
  12. Pathos- evokes pity or compassion
  13. In 2020, women hold 23.7% of the seats in the United States Congress; 26% of the U.S. Senate seats, and 23.2% of the U.S. House of Representatives seats. “Women in the U.S. Congress 2020.” CAWP Center for American Women and Politics. Rutgers University, July 24, 2020.


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Khadija Tyson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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