Historian Berg takes a new--and significant--look at American women in the first half of the 19th century. Challenging the usual view that American feminism and the women's rights movement were outgrowths of the abolition crusade, she places the origins of feminism decades earlier in the women's benevolent associations (such as the Female Moral Reform Society) organized by middle- and upper-class women to help their unfortunate sisters: orphans, widows, the aged and indigent, prostitutes, and criminals. The records and newsletters of the proliferating societies develop a sophisticated analysis of common female oppression and a clear sense of female identity, autonomy, worth, and sisterhood. All this happens in response to problems of urbanization and in reaction to an earlier trend also chronicled here, the growth of the ""woman-belle ideal."" (One wonders why this bumpy hyphenate replaces the usual designation ""lady."") The bored, useless ""woman-belle,"" whom Berg traces through her diaries, her sentimental novels, and the records of her invalidism, was man's creation assigned to ""emulate the serene garden"" of the country's mythical agrarian past and assuage his anxiety about competitive urban life. (She was also, as Berg contends, a far cry from actual 18th-century American women who pulled their own weight with a will.) Ex-belles who found something to do in the benevolent associations were reformers, not radicals, but before the Civil War they were touching the limits of ""voluntarism"" and talking about equality in the workplace. By the end of the century, however, the feminism of the benevolent societies' ""community of women"" lost out, Berg argues too briefly, to the narrow, elitist demand for suffrage. Berg's book is flawed by needless repetition--a compulsion to sum up--but her argument is important and convincingly (if too often) made.