The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2005

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Authorizing Mothers

A Study of the First Maternal Association of
Utica, New York, 1824 - 1833


Elizabeth Shanklin

Index to Authorizing Mothers

Part VII: The Maternal Association's Success

As members of the Association were not all members of the church and did not baptize all their children, the question remains of what the dominant image of the Association was. From published notices, we know the names of the officers from 1828 to 1834. The founders, members of the First Presbyterian, who baptized their children, dominated the Association for the first decade. As the Association grew from eight women in 1824, to forty-five in 1828, to 100 in 1832, the founders retained control of the organization at least until 1834. Jerusha Wells Clarke, a founder, was either president or superintendent for all the years in which officers of the Association are known, with the exception of 1832 when she was recording secretary. Jerusha Clarke joined First Presbyterian in 1815 by letter of transfer. At that time Mr. and Mrs. Clarke baptized two children and another in 1819, but Thomas Emmons Clarke was not a member of the Church. He did not convert until 1827. So it appears that in her family Jerusha Clarke was the leader upholding the Covenant.

Yet the Maternal Association consolidated women's power to determine childrearing methodology. By organizing women to examine issues of mothering, the founders either consciously or unconsciously subverted the Abrahamic Covenant which assigned ownership of children to their fathers and the divine father. The Constitution of the Maternal Association implied that women were empowered to make decisions regarding the best methods to rear children. The Constitution preamble reads:

Deeply impressed with the great importance of bringing up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, we, the subscribers, agree to associate for the purpose of devising and adopting such measures as may seem best calculated to assist us in the right performance of this duty.

This seemed innocuous enough. The language was the same as the Presbytery's covenant. Yet women were taking it upon themselves to decide for themselves how best to rear their children; their language masked their empowerment of themselves.

The Constitution specified meeting dates and times, that a collection would be taken at meetings for benevolent purposes. Meetings were to consist of discussions of readings, except that once a month members were to bring their children. At that time "the exercises shall be of such a nature as may seem best calculated to interest the feelings and instruct the minds of those chldren who attend." This determination no doubt arose from women's disapproval of Puritan practice of making chldren endure endless sermons that bore no relation to their felt needs. It implies respect for children's feelings. A member was committed to pray with and for her children, and was to consider herself within the framework of a covenant:

obligated by her baptismal covenant, in behalf of her children prayerfully and perseveringly to restrain them from every course that would naturally lead to pride, vanity or worldly mindedness; and shall look upon herself as renewing this covenant, at every meeting of the Society.

Thus, the Association appeared to both perpetuate the Presbyterian way by verbally upholding the covenant, while in practice subverting ministerial authority by implying a respectful attitude toward the selfhood of children. While upholding the covenant, the Maternal Association was also redefining it. There was no mention of repudiating the self, only repudiating the exaggerated focus on the self. The Maternal Association did not, however, challenge the mystified foundation of patriarchy. Ultimately, members acknowledged that their children had been alienated and belonged to God: "The promise is to us and our childen: We have publicly given them up to God. His holy name has been pronounced over them; let us see to it that we do not cause this sacred name to be treated with contempt."

Yet nowhere in the Constitution does the Association imply the wrathful and inscrutably vengeful God of the Abrahamic Covenant. Nowhere does it suggest that chldren should be reared to fear God. Instead the Constitution depicts divinity as accepting and gentle: "May He who 'giveth liberally and upbraideth not,' ever preside in our meetings, and grant unto each of us a teachable, affectionate, and humble temper, that no root of bitterness spring up to prevent our improvement or interrupt our devotions." This redefinition of divinity that provides the theological framework for the Constitution also shapes the 1840 Maxims for Mothers and Maxims for Children where no maxim suggests the need to fear divine wrath for the misdeed of original parents. Thus, in the midst of a church whose orthodox ministers preached the wrath of God, and sought to inspire terror in their listeners, women were reconstructing their relation to patriarchal theology, to clerical hierarchy, to paternal power, to their community, to themselves, and to their children. In the process they implied an emerging self-esteem and demonstrated self-assertion.

An Address to Mothers was appended to the Constitution of the Maternal Association. The Address had originally accompanied the Constitution of the Maternal Association of Portland, Maine, which was the first in the nation.This Address sets forth once again the doctrine legitimating the alienation of children from their mothers and themselves:

God is styled the Father of Spirits. He is, therefore, in an important sense, the Father of your children, and he considers them as his property. He created them for his own glory; he has given them an existence which will be lasting as his own; he considers them as more valuable than the world which they inhabit; and to your forming hands he first commits the precious deposit, saying in effect to every mother— "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages."

Even so, mothering in this Address displaced the church. The Address, assimilating enlightenment and romantic child-development theory and language, spoke of the mother's "instamping on the minds of these immortal beings the earliest, and consequently the most lasting impressions which they will ever receive." The rituals of Christianity, the Abrahamic Covenant for example, were never mentioned; the means of a child's salvation was clearly the mother:

the soul presents itself to your hand like wax to the seal, and the judicious, heaven-taught mother may trace upon it almost whatever she pleases. True, you cannot renovate the heart, or make your children heirs of salvation; but you may use means which have a tendency to produce this most desirable effect, and which will almost infallibly secure the blessing of heaven.

Yet while the Address granted that maternal affection was the means that God had used to excite a mother's concern for her child, the writer, (who signed him/herself "A Mother"), set out to convince mothers that their affection was no guide; it gained legitimacy only when it led mothers to rear children through sado-masochistic means to serve the patriarchal God. Maternal affection ought not to

be pleaded, as it too often is, as an excuse of neglecting those duties which it was designed to aid you in performing, and which you cannot but allow to be infinitely important…Let us not blindly prefer the present gratification to the future and eternal happiness of our children; nor dread the infliction of momentary pain more than their everlasting ruin.

Thus, members of First Maternal Association, who had no legal right to protect their children from practices that sought to instill self-loathing, contending no doubt with their own damaged selfhoods, also contended with patriarchal religious ideology that denied the validity of any bonds of affection that might have arisen from their biological relation to their children unless they led to support the Calvinist precepts. Their children were alienated from them by the economic, political and cultural institutions of their society while they were attempting to use the language provided them by these same interested institutions to understand and reconstruct mothering.

In 1832 the Maternal Asssociaton made a bold decision to begin a magazine for mothers not limited to the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church. It was to be edited by Abigail Goodrich Whittelsey who offered the magazine as a forum where a range of differing perspectives on mothering were to be considered. The range was limited to the language of theology, but within that range those who viewed the self as depraved were published along with Lydia Hunt Sigourney who viewed the human body as the temple of the Holy Ghost. English Evangelical feminist Elizabeth Hamilton was published along with orthodox Calvinist cleric John Abbott. The magazine was intended to stimlulate and educate while generating maternal associations and facilitating communication between them by publishing their reports and concerns. It was a triumph for the women of First Presbyterian who had overcome the disabling conditions of their own crippling heritage to generously offer a means of growth to others. They used their resources to achieve the publication: Sophia Wells Williams's printer-publisher husband, William Williams, printed the magazine for the Association.

Perhaps a periodical had been Abigail Goodrich Whittelsey's idea. The first issue states that First Maternal Association deemed it "expedient" that responsibility for the magazine be given to one person. That too may have been Abigail Whiittelsey's idea. The following year, she and her husband—who under the laws of coverture actually owned the magazine from its birth—moved the publication to New York City, thus severing its ties with its founders. Abigail Goodrich Wittelsey would have appeared eminently capable to Maternal Associaton members. In addition to having established a young ladies' seminary, her lineage was most impressive. She was a descendant of English royalty; of Charles Chauncey, the second president of Harvard; and was a relative of the 18th-century liberal Bostonian, Charles Chauncey whom historian Jay Fliegelman found to have been foremost in revising Calvinist conceptions of Jehovah. She was the sister of two of the most prolific authors in the United States: Samuel Griswold Goodrich, the author-editor of 170 volumes during his lifetime and Charles A. Goodrich, the author of 72 items. It was expedient then for the Association to send their magazine on its way with Abigail Goodrich Whittelsey. With her editorial guidance, the Association told women something quite remarkable in the first issue of its magazine. The editor informed prospective subscribers that the magazine would "embrace a variety of topics, upon each of which there may be expected the best information that can be obtained from our resources; such as our own experience…."

The Association was leading women to authorize themselves as they set out "to advocate kind and proper treatment of infants." The women of First Maternal Association in authorizing themselves and seeking to authorize others were transforming their relations with themselves, their children, their mates, and with the institutions that oppressed them.

While Fliegelman may be correct that "the most important historical phenomenon in the eighteenth century [was] the ongoing rejection of the theory of innate and transmitted depravity," it seems that it was not dead in Utica in the early national period: ministers and members of Uica's First Presbyterian Church sought to restablish that doctrine if not actual theocracy. They attempted to use female members as mothers to perpetuate Calvinist orthodoxy. That orientation was doomed in the early Republic as commerce grew at a rapid pace sidelining the clergy. Women used the auspices of First Presbyterian Church to sponsor their activities and took advantage of ministerial disarray; women sponsored revivals and created a maternal association in which they struggled through received ideology to begin to authorize themselves as mothers.

Although the members of first Maternal Association necessarily struggled thoughout their lives with an inherited theology that confused and oppressed them, they were learning to use this language and their class privilege to achieve their own goals; ultimately, they opened a forum where they offered to others the authority of women's experience as they struggled to affirm the value of their own selfhood and the selfhood of their children. In these ways, the members of First Maternal Association of Utica, New York, were subverting patriarchy.

© 2003, Elizabeth Shanklin
Index to Authorizing Mothers
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