Our Forgotten Foremothers
May 17, 1893 — Woman’s Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
In speaking of “Our Forgotten Foremothers” I shall begin with that great queen who, in some sort, may be considered not only as the foremother of this nation, but of the whole New World — Isabella of Castile. Her clear intellect first grasped the thought that there might be a continent to be discovered, when her husband, her councilors and her courtiers all derided the claims of Columbus as mere idle dreams. Her steadfastness sustained him through all his vicissitudes, and at last her action gave him the money with which to fit out the expedition. Next after our debt to the intrepid navigator, this country owes its gratitude to the brave queen. And yet how completely has she been forgotten in all the celebrations and festivities of this commemorative year! Orators speak of the great enterprise of Columbus, poets rhymed in his honor, but Isabella, the woman who made his expedition possible, was scarcely mentioned.
When New York City was arranging for the celebration last fall, our City League wished to do honor to the queen by some decorations at the stand we occupied. We tried in vain to find a picture of her. The city was filled with so-called portraits of Columbus. He was depicted in every possible way, old and young, bearded and close-shaved, smiling with an amiable fatuity of expression, or frowning as if he hated all worlds, both old and new. But nowhere could we find a likeness of Isabella at any price. High and low through the city and up and down the land, we searched in vain. A lithograph of Columbus could be purchased for two and a half cents, but no presentment of the queen at any price, and we finally had one painted — enlarged from a small picture in a book. Thus was this great woman forgotten.
Last winter, in New York, we honored the memory of the Pilgrim mothers by giving a dinner on the anniversary of the landing on Plymouth Rock. This was the first time in the history of the country that these noble women had been remembered. Year after year, the Sons of the Pilgrims, in the great New England societies of New York and Brooklyn, have never failed to hold a feast in honor of the Pilgrim fathers, but never before had the mothers been remembered. We wished to remind the world of their virtues, and of their daughters’, those noble women who have made New England what it is, who carried the piety, the heroism, the devotion of their ancestors to every part of our country. What fortitude, what self-sacrifice was required of those first women colonists! Many of them were nobly born and delicately nurtured, when, for conscience’ sake, they left home and friends and native land, to brave the dangers of a long voyage, the hardships of an hostile country and of an inhospitable clime. We who are the heirs of their labors and sacrifices should rejoice to render our tribute of honor to the Pilgrim Mothers.
It may be asked why we chose to celebrate the landing of the Pilgrims on the 23d of December instead of the 22d, the day honored by the men. Simply because the 23d was the actual day and date of the landing. You see men cannot even fix a date correctly without the aid of women. I carefully studied the journal of John Bradford, who was a young man on board the “Mayflower,” afterward the famous Governor of Massachusetts. He kept a careful record of the events of each day. On the 21st land having been sighted, a boat was sent to reconnoiter the shore. On the 22d the day being stormy, the ship lay off the coast, and the only event recorded is that a wife, her name is not given, descended into the valley of the shadow of death. On the 23d, the day we celebrated, there landed on Plymouth Rock thirty-two women accompanied by sixty-nine men and children. There was one advantage in holding our feast on the day after the feast given by the men, and that was it gave us the woman’s privilege of the last word. I carefully looked over the speeches given at the New England dinners, but as usual could find no mention whatsoever of anything that women had done. A noted educator spoke of New England as “she,” which, considering how all things feminine were ignored, seems a piece of presumption. The most appropriate toast given was that of one honored gentleman whose theme was “Their Selfishness.”
This forgetfulness of all that women have done for our country is only of a piece with the usual proceedings at those masculine feasts. Year after year they have assembled to do honor to men alone. Some time ago the late James G. Blaine, in an address at a New England dinner, said: “Men settled and built up the country, men struggled and labored; these good men were the progenitors of a great race.” As if men alone did everything — settled the country, founded the families, and reared the children.
On that bleak December day, two hundred and seventy-two years ago, one hundred and one persons came ashore on the cruel New England coast, of whom only forty-one were men, and yet, with the usual modesty of their sex, in talking of the deeds of these first settlers, their sons have followed the advice given last fall by the leader of one of the political parties and “claimed everything;” whereas, the real heroines and martyrs of those days were the women. What hardships confronted them in the awful winter that followed! Only try to fancy what they must have suffered! Living in a few huts — they could not be called houses — on that ice bound coast. Think of the storms that howled about their frail habitations, the snows that swept over them, the bitter cold that froze them! How helpless they were! On the one hand the inhospitable forest that encircled them, the lurking place of wild beasts and hostile Indians; on the other hand the wide ocean that stretched between them and their former homes. How chill they must have been with only open fires fed with green wood, with no clothing fitted for the rigors of that climate, with not enough food for them and their children! What these women must have had to bear of hardship, misery and home-sickness! No wonder they died and their deaths were scarce recorded. Bradford does not mention even the death of his own wife.
And then it must be remembered, as Fanny Fern long ago wittily said, “These women had not only to endure all that the Pilgrim fathers had to endure, but they had to endure the Pilgrim fathers also.” And these worthy men must have been very trying, as all know that a cold house and a poor dinner does not conduce to any man’s amiability, and they were so censorious. A later chronicle records with displeasure that a certain Mrs. Johnson was “given to unseemly pride of apparel,” in that she wore whalebone in her sleeves. The Pilgrim fathers went a great deal further than their sons would like to go today, for they sat in solemn conclave to decide how many ribbons a woman might wear. Fancy the city fathers today holding sessions to discuss the width of a sash, and to decide whether or not certain styles of feminine apparel are consistent with “a godly walk and conversation.”
But to return to the first winter. Despite the effort made then, as now, to suppress the “skirt brigade,” some record has come to us of the deeds, the heroism and the noble self-sacrifice of the Pilgrim mothers. A woman’s money fitted out the ships that discovered the New World, and a woman’s money fitted out the “Mayflower.” Mrs. Winston, a lady of position and influence, gave of her substance to equip the vessel. Mrs. Carver’s steadfastness nerved her husband, the Rev. John Carver, to join the expedition. If it had not been for this grand woman, their “ghostly adviser” would have let the colonists sail without any ordained minister of the Gospel. Then there was Rose Standish, the dainty beauty of the expedition, a lovely, gentle flower of a noble English home, too delicate to bear the hardships of the cruel life they led, and who failed and died the first winter. But above all others should be mentioned Ann Brewster, who was the very guardian angel of the colonists. A woman of mighty energy and of dauntless courage, whose hope and faith never failed, even in the darkest hours, whose sturdy health sustained her even through the most severe privations, who encouraged the well, nursed the sick and comforted the dying, a heroine who never lost her confidence and her cheerfulness, and also in her tireless regard for others, her patience with illness and her fortitude in the presence of death displayed heroism of a higher order than that of the men who faced only the activities of outdoor life.
Yet the sons and the grandsons of these women have forgotten to do them honor. Their deeds have been unchronicled, their names unrecorded, and men have calmly claimed all achievements and all enterprises as their own. The whole history of our country has been written from man’s standpoint, and women, however great, however noble, have been ignored. Abigail Adams, the wise and witty wife of John Adams, who nerved him to action when he would have been indifferent, who gave him the courage to stand by the struggling nation when he would have deserted it, who is more than suspected of writing his speeches, is not mentioned. Mercy Otis Warren, the sister of James Otis and wife of General Warren, has no need of praise for her patriotic action in inspiring both brother and husband to do their duty. At a later period the achievements of men in ridding the country of the curse of slavery are vaunted and eulogized, while Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe have but scant praise. The heroes of the late war have monuments raised high in their honor; where are the tributes to the heroines? Dorothy Dix, Clara Barton and Mother Bickerdyke, the women who by their devotion sustained the army and nursed the soldiers — who remembers them?
Among those of other nations who have come to these shores to make the republic great, the stalwart German women, the thrifty French women, the intrepid Spanish women, where are the records of their deeds? The men of these nationalities have perpetuated their memory by giving their names to mountains and rivers and cities. What are the names of the women whose virtues, whose devotion made them what they are or were? And we have become so accustomed to this policy of silence that we are prone to submit to it, without even a protest, ourselves even forgetting to give honor where honor is due. We hear much of “self-made men,” when often if we looked into the history of such persons we would find that they should more properly be called “wife-made men,” for many and many a man has owed his prosperity, his success in life largely to the energy and intellect of his wife, though she, like her foremother, is forgotten.
Probably the culmination of the annihilation of the women of this country was reached in the declaration made by Judge Hoar, of Massachusetts, while presiding at the National Republican Convention in 1880, when he said, “The American people are gentlemen.”
Today we will not say that the American people are ladies. That would be too poor a way of putting it, but we will ask who are these who are thus forgotten? Are they so unworthy that their brave deeds may not entitle them to recognition? Certainly not! We ask that honor be done, not to the foolish and undeserving, but to the mothers of the race.
But turning from the scenes of the past, let us look forward to the swiftly coming time of our emancipation. The forgetfulness of the past is rapidly giving way to the acknowledgments of the present. Already government has honored women by equality of position in the great World’s Fair, and the time approaches rapidly when we shall have complete enfranchisement. To recall again the memory of the Pilgrim mothers, we find the contrast between woman’s position today and hers two hundred and seventy-two years ago, as great as that between the comforts and luxuries we enjoy and the hardships that the pioneers endured. Where they had cold and darkness and wretched habitations, we have warmth and light and the palaces of our great cities. Where our ancestors had oppression and subordination, we have opportunity and almost equality. The end is nearly in sight, and the time will surely come when the deeds and the achievements of the foremothers will be applauded with those of the forefathers, and the daughters and the sons of the Pilgrims will sit side by side in their councils and at their feasts.
Source: Blake, Lillie Devereux. “Our Forgotten Foremothers.” In The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893. (Chicago: Monarch Book Company,) 1894, pp. 841-842.