Social purity movement sheds light, cleans souls

January 26, 2005

In the readings from Mariana Valverde, The Age of Light, Soap and Water, along with Canadian Women: A History by Alison Prentice et. al., the social reform movement is examined from the 1870s through to the 1920s. Based on a moral and social agenda, these organizations consisting mostly of women, but included men, who worked to achieve the moral regeneration of the state, society, the family and individuals. Also known as the social purity movement, the ideology of these groups, made up of mainly middle-class church goers, educators, doctors and community/social workers, focused on ending prostitutions, divorce, illegitimacy, public education, obscene literature, rescuing fallen women and shelters for women and children, along with converting Native and Chinese cultures.
Valverde’s two chapters look specifically at the movement using race, gender and class as tools to interpret it, staying away from previous analysis focusing on the moral aspects, which often narrowly define the movements as Puritanical efforts at censorship and repression. Meanwhile, Prentice’s chapter takes a feminist interpretation, seeking to focus heavily on the organizations and the role of women, specifically Letitia Youmans and Lady Ishbel Marjoribanaks Gordon or Lady Aberdeen, among others. Through this reading, the emergence of the social purity movement is viewed as the incubator for feminism, evolving through the National Council of Women, and similar regional organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Institute, the Young Women’s’ Christian Association and others.

To read these offerings would leave the impression the social reform movement ended shortly after First World War and lacks a bridge to the movement that exist today. Organizations in the United States like the Moral Majority or, in Canada, people like Rev. Ken Campbell or television programs like 100 Huntley Street demonstrated this movement is far from dead. Campbell has spent more than 30 years working to stop abortion, teen pregnancy, pornography and similar issues through various programs paid for by his church. And the hosts on 100 Huntley Street preach a gospel aimed at social and political reform as much as spiritual salvation. On a less radical level, many local churches continue to work within communities, helping support food banks, providing soup kitchens, running homeless shelters, assisting the elderly and the list goes on. All these activity can trace their roots back to the movements described in the readings. It would be interesting to follow this evolution, which is currently gaining momentum in the United States and to a less extent in Canada.

It is noteworthy that both readings focus on the pre-First World War period, since it was the time when this movement was formed and was mostly likely its strongest. Neither reading fully what happens. It receives a passing comment from Valverde saying the Native population was marginalized, the economy shifted from agricultural to industrial and there was a migration from rural to urban life. Prentice uses the period to describe the roots of Canadian feminism, but we do not see the end result.

The question remains as to what forces grabbed hold of this social reform movement following this period. To what degree where these organizations successful in pushing municipal, provincial and federal governments to take over many of the responsibilities championed by these groups? And while many of the social services these organizations provided are currently being offered through governments, the moral aspects were never adopted. Why not? Hence, the modern versions continue to push their reform agenda within the context of a moral reform.

Finally, it is interesting to note in the United States, President George W. Bush is pursing policies to download social service programs to local churches, a move that harkens back to the early social reform period. Will Canada follow suit? Hardly, since the modern churches don’t have the same influence or the membership to maintain programs. But the success of neo-conservative, religious groups in the United States are definitely emboldening their Canadian counterparts, as exemplified in the recent debate over gay marriage.

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