A Winter Baby Girl, Harriot Eaton Stanton, 1856


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Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1857By the time Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave birth to her sixth child, Harriot Eaton Stanton, she had had plenty of practice. This winter baby would be her second daughter, but the first born in New York State’s frigid temperatures. It was January 24, 1856 and the Stanton family had resided in Seneca Falls and experienced its Januaries for almost ten years.

Within moments of Harriot’s birth, at home with a midwife as was the practice, Elizabeth forgot any ambivalence she might have felt about a child delaying her re-entry into the Woman’s Rights Movement. Clinging to the warmth of her fireplace, she discovered that she could not resist the allure of Harriot, whom she promptly dubbed Hattie.  She told her closest colleague, Susan B. Anthony, “Well I have got out the sixth edition of my admirable work. Another female child is born into the world! Last Sunday afternoon, Harriot Eaton Stanton – oh, the little heretic thus to desecrate that holy day – opened her soft blue eyes on the mundane sphere.” Elizabeth wrote, “I am very happy that the terrible ordeal is passed and that the result is another daughter.” She joked that instead of giving birth to a baby, “I might have been born an orator before spring, you acting as midwife.” Elizabeth was nevertheless reconciled to waiting for her “latent fires to burst forth.” She admitted that Hattie was worth delaying her re-entry into the public world and “it would not be in vain that I am held back.”

If Elizabeth planned to delay her professional life, she welcomed company in doing so, like women do currently. She told Susan that mothers must have time to cherish the young life in their households. Elizabeth’s close colleagues, Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, were among those whom Susan must respect. They had been working in the field for years and deserved time to “think great thoughts, but quietly, and for the future.” With Hattie cooing nearby and her sister Maggie still a toddler, Elizabeth adhered to her own advice: “We cannot bring about a moral revolution in a day or year,” she wrote to Susan. Now that Elizabeth had two daughters, she felt “fresh strength to work,” but bore in mind “the wearisome cares to which woman in her best estate is subject.”

Having taken a stand to become what many today call a “stay at home mother,” Elizabeth was determined to provide her daughters an example. Her husband Henry traveled often in his legal or political work, so was generally not present. Elizabeth in reality headed the household. She might spend most of her time at the hearthside, but she taught her children they must develop courage, independence, and responsibility to each other. As a familiar if not leading citizen in Seneca Falls through her pivotal role in the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention, Elizabeth continued to lend the community her expertise and untraditional parenting. She sometimes arbitrated neighborhood spats and other times spoke to church, temperance, or antislavery groups. She celebrated each child’s birth by flying a flag on her house and served as a neighborhood beacon for nearby children.

Except for occasional public appearances, Elizabeth relied on her pen to communicate with the world about woman’s rights. When Hattie was three, she and Maggie began to summer in Johnstown, New York, with their Grandma Margaret Cady. Here she began her lessons in independence.  Hattie treasured the long vacations with her grandmother, but missed her mother more than she could articulate. She told a story about Elizabeth coming to fetch her daughters after they had spent weeks in Johnstown. While Maggie greeted Elizabeth with hugs and kisses, Hattie “shyly edged toward her, slipped into her lap, buried my face in her bosom, and wept as if my heart would break.” This provides a rare glance into Hattie’s intimate feelings, which both she and her mother hid during most of their lives. Of all her children, Hattie was eventually to identify with her mother’s passion for woman’s rights more than any of the others, but she would travel a long journey before she conquered her emotional dilemmas.

Elizabeth, knowing how important it was for her daughters to be strong, began to teach that lesson when they were young. One time when Elizabeth was away from home, Harriot experienced a serious fall on her back. Her nursemaid, afraid of Elizabeth’s scolding, compelled Hattie not to tell.  Over the next year, Hattie developed a chronic backache and a reoccurring nightmare.  She dreamed of a suffering woman “whose spine was frozen because she ate too much ice cream.” When Elizabeth heard and analyzed the dream, she questioned her daughter closely. Hattie took the chance of losing the trust of her nursemaid and confessed what had transpired.  Elizabeth procured the medical treatment her daughter required.

Having four older brothers, who ranged from five to fourteen years her senior, prepared Harriot for the “rough and tumble” life of play. When a fifth brother, Bob, was born in 1859, Hattie welcomed a smaller boy as a playmate, but learned how gender roles dictated the childhood of her times. Her father was inclined to follow the decorum that demanded girls remain on the sidelines for much of the rambunctious activity boys enjoyed.  Harriot, with Elizabeth’s blessings, relished her brothers’ antics and took vicarious pleasure from them. Often the children congregated in the Seneca Falls garden, which covered some ten acres. Hattie’s older brothers used to climb two large cherry trees near the house and bring down baskets of the luscious fruit to their younger siblings, their “small worshippers.” Eventually Hattie, probably five or six, joined the climbing, which she adored. One day Henry, home for a rare period, happened to see his daughter high in the tree. He called with agitation, “My daughter, come down, you will fall.” Poised with confidence in the branch, Harriot retorted, “Why don’t you tell Bob to come down, he’s three years younger and one branch higher?”

Scenes like these three from Harriot’s childhood impressed her enough to be included in her memoirs. She faced each with her mother’s direct or indirect advice, overcoming the impediments they might have posed. Elizabeth’s pluck served as an example to Hattie, who imitated it as she resolved her own course. The independence she carved out of her home life would take her away from that house – to Vassar, to marriage and motherhood in England, and to eventual commitments that mirrored many of her mother’s.  Experiences of childhood provided a foundation that served her for life. Those of us wintering in New York State, or recalling such winters, surely attribute at least some of our own tenacity to January’s short days and cold mornings.

Happy Birthday, Hattie, and thanks for inspiring another generation of strong women.

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Suzanne Schnittman

About Suzanne Schnittman

Suzanne Schnittman received her PhD in American History from the University of Rochester, where she lives. She has been an educator for forty years, twenty at the college level. Currently an independent scholar, she is completing a book on four women’s rights leaders and their daughters, entitled "Raising Daughters: Founding Mothers as Role Models." A Catholic mother to two grown Jewish sons and grandmother to six, she writes frequently about women, interfaith families, and local history.

3 thoughts on “A Winter Baby Girl, Harriot Eaton Stanton, 1856

  1. Tanya Warren

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! Your writing style flows beautifully and will prompt me to grab a copy of your book as soon as it is available.

    From cold and snowy Seneca Falls-Tanya

    Reply
    1. Suzanne SchnittmanSuzanne Schnittman

      Dear Tanya, Thanks for your comment. I am happy to report that my book is complete and currently being peer reviewed. I’ll try to blog about each woman as they celebrate birthdays and other events. Suzanne Schnittman

      Reply
  2. Wanda BurchWanda Burch

    Dear Suzanne,
    I loved your article and posted a link to it on Facebook with a particular highlight of the dream, an interest of mine. I am writing a book on dreams in the letters of Civil War soldiers and posted a piece on those on this blog. I do have a question. I referenced the importance of working with children’s dreams and finding an effective solution to dreams indicating a waking problem. The dream references “ice cream.” Is there more detail on the dream in the written account? Was there significance to ice cream playing a role in the dream. Just curious?

    I am familiar with Johnstown and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton collection. I retired after 37 years as site manager of Johnson Hall and often partnered with Noel Levee and the Johnstown Historical Society. I still keep in touch via the Friends of Johnson Hall and keep up with the progress of the Women’s History Trail. Thanks for a terrific blog-piece; and I, too, look forward to the book.

    Reply

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