In the period from about 1820 to 1860 female associations proliferated with a wide variety of purposes, some more radical than others. Women justified their involvement in the activities of these associations in terms of their innate female moral authority and difference from men and the duty this put on them to safeguard the moral standards of society. As a number of historians have shown, their efforts were part of the wider process by which the emerging middle class sought to establish its cultural dominance in the rapidly changing world. Middle-class women participated in this process through their own organizations, which gave them independence from male authority and the ability to pursue their own gender-specific goals. Women, in their independent benevolent associations, were an important force in providing charitable aid and demanding moral reform. In the ante-bellum years, middle-class women developed a reform tradition based upon a gendered discourse, which emphasized their moral authority and their ability to speak for the needs of women of other races and classes.

This led them to become involved, sometimes as the female auxiliary societies to male reform organizations, in the agitation for reforms, which included temperance and moral reform and, more controversially, abolitionism. Some women even went so far as to demand rights for women. The majority of women involved in benevolent associations were, though, involved in projects on a less ambitious scale, mainly consisting of friendly visiting among the poor and attempts to reform society through moral suasion. Most were expressly non-political, since involvement in politics was believed to undermine their specifically female mission. Between about 1820 and 1860, white middle-class women working within the parameters of their prescribed sphere built vital and autonomous associations heavily involved in grassroots social activism. The tradition of female voluntarism continued during the Civil War and afterwards.

Many women volunteers, both North and South, raised funds for the opposing armies. In communities across the North, where there was a greater tradition of female organization and activism, women, trained in the ante-bellum female benevolent associations, became involved in Soldiers' Aid Societies. Many also participated in the work of a semi-public agency, the U. S. Sanitary Commission. Women helped to organize and distribute supplies to the Union troops through the Sanitary Commission and played a large part in the Northern war effort as fund-raisers and volunteer workers.

In the South, too, where the tradition of female associations was not as strong, women contributed to the Confederate war effort in sewing circles and through thousands of relief associations and Soldiers' Aid Societies. In the immediate post-war period, some Northern women participated directly in the reconstruction process in the South as teachers in schools for the children of the ex-slaves, while others helped through fund-raising activities in the North. For most middle-class women though, the end of the war meant a return to their pre-war voluntary activities. The 1870 s and 1880 s saw a greater diversity of female organizations, with the creation of vast numbers of new women's agencies - cultural clubs, civic improvement associations, and even professional women's societies - not all directly related to voluntary activism.

Many women were also attracted by the great moral crusades of the period, most notably the national temperance crusade of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which built upon the ante-bellum tradition of women's moral reform. A female reform tradition consequently developed during the nineteenth century, which arose out of certain perceptions of 'woman's place'. From the early nineteenth century onwards, it drew upon assumptions about female moral authority and superiority, together with the ability of middle-class white women to speak for other women. Though in theory such women were limited to the confines of their own homes, in practice many middle-class women were involved in social activism to varying degrees. Grassroots female associations organized the raising of funds for charitable purposes, visited the poor, and generally attempted to improve society through moral suasion. There was, too, a more radical and controversial brand of women's activism which sought women's rights and a greater role for women in society, but which challenged established prescriptions for women's behavior.

Yet this attracted only a small minority of women activists. For the most part, female social activism remained within the confines of women's sphere and utilized a discourse, which emphasized women's difference from men.