5.1B The Enlightenment and Movements of Liberation


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 5B

Explain how the Enlightenment affected societies over time.

Historical Development 1

Enlightenment ideas influenced various social reform movements, including women’s suffrage. The women’s suffrage movement challenged political and gender hierarchies.

Historical Development 2

Enlightenment ideas helped lead to the end of serfdom in Europe and the abolition of slavery.


Enlightenment Ideas Inspired the Struggle for Women's Rights

Main idea

Women organized and fought for increased social and political rights. Early feminists focused on expanding voting rights and women’s right to run for elected office to women. By the 1940s, most Western women had gained the vote.

Enlightenment ideas led to increasing numbers of women advocating for increased political and social rights for their gender. These early women’s rights activists built a strong foundation on which later feminists would continue fighting to achieve political and social improvements for women. 

The goals of early women’s rights activists: The early women’s rights movement focused on expanding the right to vote and hold elected office to women (women’s suffrage). These campaigners believed that nothing else could be achieved for women’s empowerment if women lacked political power.

Milestones in women’s suffrage: Most men were unwilling to give up control of social and political systems. Only after nearly 100 years of political struggle did women force change for western women.

  • 1848: The first major international women’s rights conference occurred in Seneca Falls, New York.

  • 1893: New Zealand became the first country to grant women the permanent right to vote. 

  • 1893: Colorado became the first U.S. state to give women the right to vote. 

  • 1906: Finland became the first European nation to grant women the vote and run for office. 

  • 1920: The United States granted full suffrage to women with the 19th constitutional amendment.

Significant women and events in the women's suffrage movement

Early women’s rights reformers had several goals. Some advocated for basic rights such as education for girls. Others took stronger positions demanding full social and political equality with men. The movement’s leaders decided to focus on first securing the vote for women. This choice prevented the movement from splitting between conservative and liberal factions.  

Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges (1749 – 1793) was a French writer and social reformer. She was passionate in her support for issues that affected women and children. She advocated for
  • The opening of maternity hospitals
  • Divorce rights for women
  • Legal protections to orphaned children and children born outside of marriage
In 1791, during the height of the French Revolution, de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen.
  • In this document, de Gouges stated that the French Revolution failed to achieve gender equality.
  • She demanded that the new revolutionary government grant women equal social and political rights to men.

The new government had no intention of meeting those demands. De Gouges was executed by Guillotine in 1793, becoming the only woman killed for her political beliefs during the French Revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer and philosopher in England in the late 18th century. In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791), Wollstonecraft argued against the belief that women were inferior to men, helpless, and best suited for domestic work. She wrote that creating an education system where women and men were equal would advance women’s causes because it would “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Seneca Falls 

The women’s rights movement took root on both sides of the Atlantic. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 – 1902) was one of America’s most prominent early feminist voices. She organized the Seneca Falls Convention (see below) and led several influential women’s suffrage organizations, such as the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).

The Seneca Falls Convention: In 1848, the world’s first large women’s rights gathering occurred in Seneca Falls, New York. The convention produced one of the most famous documents in the women’s suffrage movement, the Declaration of Sentiments—primarily written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Modeled after the American Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments opened by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal….”

Reactions to the women's rights movement

Significant opposition developed to the women’s suffrage movement, especially as women became more assertive in their demands.

Anti-suffrage leaders argued that 

  • women’s place was in the home, not in politics.

  • expanded social and political roles for women would damage their reproductive systems.

  • suffragists were “foreign” elements that were trying to weaken society.

  • the Bible did not support roles for women outside of motherhood and the home.

  • women’s duties at home did not allow them to stay updated and knowledgeable on political issues.

Anti-suffrage organizations: Various organizations were founded to oppose women’s suffrage, most led by women. In 1911, Josephine Dodge (1855-1928) founded National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS). 

The NAOWS argued that
  • most women did not want the vote.

  • women would vote how their husbands voted.

  • voting would put women in competition with men.

  • women voting could lead to female rule over society. 

Anti-Suffrage Political Cartoons

Click through the images below. Notice how the anti-suffragist political cartoons show suffragettes (women seeking the right to vote). 

The Enlightenment Inspired the Movement to Abolish Slavery

Main idea

Movements for the abolition of slavery organized and placed pressure on political leaders to end the slave trade. Once that goal was accomplished, they worked to outlaw slave labor. Abolitionism successfully ended the transatlantic slave trade by the end of the 19th century.

When Enlightenment thinkers spoke of liberty for “all men,” most meant white men of European ancestry. The founders of the American nation talked about freedom and equality. Yet, they built America on a foundation of white supremacy and stolen labor.

People increasingly viewed slavery as unjust: People in the late 18th and 19th centuries became increasingly critical of slavery. In the American Congress and various European parliaments, abolitionists spoke out against the evils of slavery. Protestant Quakers in the United States were some of the most vocal supporters of abolitionist causes. They viewed slavery as “repugnant to religion” and a “crime in the eyes of God.” Slavery increasingly began to be seen as a violation of human rights.

The abolitionist movement

Criticism of the Atlantic slave trade began soon after the first enslaved people arrived in the Americas in the 15th century. Over the next four hundred years, as knowledge of the brutality of the slave system spread, increasing numbers of people organized resistance movements to fight against slavery. Abolitionists first focused on ending the slave trade. Once that happened, they then fought to outlaw the use of slave labor. Techniques used by abolitionists included passing out pamphlets on the evils of slavery, boycotts against slave-produced products, and public meetings where the formerly enslaved described the horrors of their captivity.

Milestones in the abolition of slavery: Resistance to the Atlantic slave trade took hundreds of years to produce results. The first significant anti-slavery organizations arose in Europe in the 1780s. The first was the British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England in England and the Society of the Friends of Blacks in France.  

  • 1802: The state constitution of the American state of Ohio abolished slavery.
  • 1804: Haiti abolished slavery after rebelling against their French colonizers.
  • 1807: The British Parliament officially ended the trade in enslaved people in the British Empire. British boats patrolled the Atlantic and confiscated slave transport ships, and freed any enslaved people found on board. 
  • 1810: Mexico abolished slavery.  
  • 1834: Those still enslaved in Britain were emancipated (freed) in 1834.
  • 1863: The Emancipation Proclamation freed most enslaved people during the American Civil War.
  • 1888: Brazil becomes the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.

Number of Enslaved Africans Imported into the Americas (1500 – 1866)

No Data Found

Resistance to abolition: Those who benefited from slavery strongly resisted abolishing the practice. Slave traders and plantation owners viewed abolition as a direct threat to their business profits. Racism prevented other people not directly engaged in the slave system from wanting change. Anti-abolitionists made various ridiculous arguments to try and justify the continuation of slavery.

Anti-abolition arguments
Abolitionist responses
Slavery helped create wealth for nations.
There were economic alternatives to slavery.
Others will continue to use slavery even if “we” stop.
Slavery is wrong even if other people continue to engage in the practice.
Africa was also involved in the slave trade.
Slavery in the Americas was more brutal than previous forms of African slavery.
Slavery benefited Africa and the enslaved.
Only freedom benefits the enslaved, and the slave trade destroyed African communities.
Owners treated enslaved people well and took care of them.
Enslaved people are humans, and slavery treats them like animals.
The Bible justified slavery.
Slavery was not Christian and was against Jesus’ teachings.

Abolitionist and Pro-Slavery Political Cartoons

Move the slider to reveal both images. Notice how the political cartoonists depict the abolitionist and pro-slavery movements differently. 

Slave abolition slave abolition 2

The effects of the abolition of slavery

Formerly enslaved people and abolitionists had high expectations for blacks in former slave societies after the end of slavery–those expectations were unmet. 

Continued poverty: Most formerly enslaved people lived impoverished lives without land or jobs to sustain themselves and their families. Most worked for poverty wages on former slave plantations or in temporary day labor jobs. Only in a few places like Haiti were some formerly enslaved people given pieces of land.

New systems of exploitation replaced slavery: After slavery ended, many places in the Americas placed new restrictions on blacks’ civil rights. In the United States, Jim Crow laws segregated black from the white population and prevented newly freed blacks from voting or running for elected office. In the American south, the exploitation of black labor continued through sharecropping. This system allowed sharecroppers to stay on a piece of land by giving the landowner a portion of the crop. Many sharecroppers went into debt to the landlords whose land they sharecropped. Once in debt, you could not leave until the debt was paid, which was difficult to impossible. Over time, the system turned into debt servitude.

Increased migration from Asia: Many formerly enslaved people refused to work on plantations, which resulted in a labor shortage. Indentured servants from Asia increasingly moved to the Americas to provide plantation labor. While technically free, these indentured servants’ lives were as brutal as the formerly enslaved people they replaced. Large populations of Indians, Chinese, and Japanese arrived in the Americas through this system, especially across Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America.