Women’s Rights: Lessons from Motherhood

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1857As we anticipate the February, 2017 centennial of women winning the vote in New York it’s a perfect time to focus on New York State’s women’s rights leaders as mothers. Some may ask: Why examine the woman’s rights leaders as mothers rather than speakers and writers? Or, why picture them at the hearth rather than the podium?

Years ago, I began researching the private lives of these women as a matter of survival in the classroom. After teaching women’s history at various colleges in New York through the 1990s and 2000’s, I became dismayed by the dry texts available to my students.

At SUNY Brockport in particular, where every student is required to take a three-credit course in women’s studies in order to graduate, I encountered resistance to dates and facts. I ended up assigning biographies and even dipped into popular history and juvenile texts like Miriam Gurko’s The Ladies of Seneca Falls.

I was determined to uncover material that would energize, not weary, young women and men who might never have another opportunity to learn what I think is a fascinating story: women obtaining their rights, especially the right to vote.

I turned to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who led the kind of life twenty-first-century women could not imagine. Mother to seven children, she found sufficient intellectual vigor to write pithy essays while her babies napped. She took short sabbaticals from negotiating the pranks of four young boys, first to organize the First Woman’s Rights Convention and later to address the New York State Legislature. She established herself as a leader in the Woman’s Rights Movement while raising her children at home, usually without the help of her traveling husband, Henry Stanton. Her father disapproved of her public speaking and her best friend Susan B. Anthony nagged her to attend conventions, but Elizabeth insisted she could do it all from home.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s memoir, Eighty Years and More, (1898) provides insight into her personal views of the women suffrage movement, but the section on motherhood convinced me that nineteenth-century mothers had something to teach us beyond politics. Her practical advice to contemporary mothers resembles that of Dr. Benjamin Spock in the 1950s and Dr. Terry Brazleton in the 1980s. I was eager to explore her relationships with her two daughters to see if she had special messages for them.

Elizabeth, pictured above in 1857 with her one-year-old daughter Harriot, whom she fondly called Hattie, bragged about her ability to deliver babies with little pain or fuss. All but the last of her seven births cost her little energy. Often she was up walking the next day. She believed in cold baths for both her and the babies, nursing exactly every two hours, and lots of fresh air in all kinds of weather. For Elizabeth, taking care of a baby was mostly common sense. But she agreed that there was insufficient advice for any problems that arose.

“Though motherhood is the most important of all the professions,” she wrote in Eight Years, “there is not sufficient attention given to the preparation for this office.” When people bought a plant from a horticulturist, they asked many questions about its needs. But “when we hold in our arms for the first time, a being of infinite possibilities, in whose wisdom may rest the destiny of a nation, we take it for granted that the laws governing its life, health, and happiness are intuitively understood, that there is nothing new to be learned in regard to it.” In reality, philosophers had given little attention to the science of mothering.

Elizabeth believed that newborns needed rest more than food because after the trauma of birth, they “are exhausted with the perilous journey.” Instead of tiring them with bathing and dressing, caretakers should quickly wash their face, eyes, and mouth, oil the rest of their body, and slip them into a soft pillow case wrapped in a blanket and lay them to sleep. “With its face uncovered in a cool, pure atmosphere, the baby would sleep twelve hours,” Elizabeth claimed to disbelieving mothers. “Then the mother should bathe, feed, and dress them. Lying still is what babies crave for the first six weeks.” (Eighty Years, 113)

Elizabeth also turned to experts, like so many of us do. “Having gone through the ordeal of bearing a child,” she wrote, “I was determined, if possible, to keep him, so I read everything I could find on the subject.” She found the literature “confusing and unsatisfactory.” Except for the work of Andrew Combe, whose sage advice Elizabeth even read to the nurse she hired. He would agree with her conclusion: “Above all other arts and sciences, study first what relates to babyhood, as there is no department of human action in which there is such lamentable ignorance.”

I hungered for more wisdom from Elizabeth, and I found other mother-daughter twosomes, in New York and neighboring states. They would invite me to view woman’s rights from a new viewpoint. I began my research with a set of expectations: surely woman’s rights leaders would encourage their daughters to follow in their activist footsteps. I discovered something entirely different.

In her seminal essay, “The Solitude of Self,” (1892) Elizabeth recommends: “Accompany your children through their lives in appropriate ways, but always remain an independent woman.”

I’ve discovered that the women I’m most interested in, did just that.


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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.

4 thoughts on “Women’s Rights: Lessons from Motherhood

    1. karen melnik

      Thanks for writing and sharing such a historical and informative piece. I am in awe of
      Elizabeth Cady Stanton and you, I would like to add, I have found strength by being a mother, nurse, counselor and educator at different times in my life.

      Karen Melnik

  1. Marguerite Kearns

    Excellent, Suzanne. This is a fascinating part of the suffrage story. Edna Kearns, a Votes for Women activist from Long Island, proposed mothering classes as part of her suffrage work and ended up having to go it alone. This was because a contingent of vocal Long Island suffragists believed that discussing issues of mothering simply undermined the single-focus attention needed to win the vote.

    Edna Kearns (one of tens of thousands of suffrage grassroots activists) is the inspiration for Suffrage Wagon News Channel (suffragewagon.org) and a presentation of the movement on the community level which mingles with contemporary news items, features, and events related to the suffrage movement.

    What a delight to see increasing references to the upcoming 2017 and 2020 centennials. Hopefully in 2014 we’ll find increased interest in these subjects in Congress and the NYS Legislature, so there’s enough time to prepare for these upcoming celebrations and take advantage of other benefits in terms of education and economic development.


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