The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2003

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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 I: Introduction

In 1833, the members of the First Maternal Association of Utica, New York, launched "a monthly periodical devoted to mothers." Among the remarkable aspects of this innovative publication was that it was intended to build a social movement. The magazine was designed "to lay before mothers the history, designs, and results of maternal associations," and stimulate the formation of new ones. Within a decade, Mother's Magazine was creating a network of communication by publishing reports from maternal associations in rural communities in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, and South Carolina, from the urban centers of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Richmond, and from London and Hawaii.

Other than the magazine, which within a year moved to New York City with its editor, First Maternal Association left few written records. The State Library in Albany has three papers that the Association appears to have published. One is a copy of its Constitution adopted June 30, 1824. At the end of this copy there is a resolution from the annual meeting of 1830, so that we may conclude that this copy of the Constitution was reprinted sometime after 1830. The library states that another paper was printed with this copy of the Constitution. The paper is entitled The Following Address to Mothers, Preceded the Constitution and Rules of the 'Maternal Association' of Portland, Maine, which was the first association of the kind, instituted in our country. We do not know whether this Address was originally printed with the Constitution, suggesting that Utica's Maternal Association may have been inspired by Portland's Association, or whether women in 1830 printed the paper with the Constitution; in any case, by 1830, it appears that women in these two maternal associations see themselves as part of a nascent social movement and that between the associations there is mutual reinforcement.

There is also a membership list for 1840 that provides the names of ninety members for the first sixteen years, not including "seventy [who] have removed or joined other associations." This list entitled Names of Mothers is page two of a twelve-page document. We do not have page one or pages three through five, but pages six and seven are a document entitled Subjects for Consideration at the Meetings of the First Maternal Association of Utica, for the year 1840, pages eight and nine are Maxims for Mothers, and ten through twelve, Maxims for Children.

In this study I seek to assess the construction of mothering within First Maternal Association from its founding through the first issue of its magazine, 1824-1833. In order to assess women's construction in 1824, I will attempt to establish mothering as they probably experienced it as children and the prescriptive model that men sought to perpetuate. The First Maternal Association was founded within the First Presbyterian Church of Utica. Under the Plan of Union of 1801, Congregationalists and Presbyterians had agreed that new churches founded in New York would be Presbyterian; therefore, Utica's Presbyterian church was part of the outreach of New England Puritanism that occurred following the Revolutionary War. It became a center of revivals in what is now termed the Second Great Awakening. Session records of First Presbyterian reaching back to 1797 are available and will provide some indication of how members practiced received doctrines. In addition to the association and church papers, I have consulted local histories, newspapers, state and federal censuses, and genealogical records.

This study would not have been undertaken without the path-breaking work of Mary P. Ryan. Although in several instances regarding the Association, I reach different conclusions from hers—the substantiation for her conclusions have not been published—it was her exciting work exploring class construction that first interested me in Utica and which has in many instances informed my thought, as I stand on her shoulders to see into what I take to be unexamined territory.

No historical study has yet focused upon either the Association or the magazine; two studies that include both have reached contradictory assessments regarding the religious orientation and goals of the organization and its periodical. In an earlier important article examining women's leadership and participation in Evangelical religious revivals in Utica the first four decades of the nineteenth century, and in her study of the construction of the middle class in Utica from 1790 to 1865, Ryan classified the Maternal Association as a reactionary attempt to buttress Puritan doctrine. "By turning their religious fervor as well as methods of childhood education on their own offspring," she wrote, "the women of the Maternal Association hoped to reinforce the Abrahamic Covenant against the assaults of a secular and individualistic culture."

The Protestant doctrine of the Abrahamic Covenant has been studied in great detail. Although Covenant theologians differed on fine points, and scholars continue to clarify these differences, those adhering to the Covenant had in common a new emphasis. The Protestant Reformation, especially that orientation led by John Calvin, emphasized the doctrine of infant depravity which was said to have been caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve. Covenant theologians constructed the doctrine that through extending the Abrahamic Covenant to Christians, God offered Protestants the basis for community and church organization and the hope of salvation. In order to participate in the Covenant, Christian fathers were required to dedicate their infant children to God through baptismal rites, just as the original followers of Abraham dedicated their sons through circumcision. The doctrine of infant depravity provided the rationale for the necessity of the Covenant. It explained why human beings were estranged from divine will in the first place. If, as Ryan states, the women of Utica's First Maternal Association are correctly understood as attempting to rear their children to perpetuate the Abrahamic Covenant, then they would accept the doctrine of original sin and infant depravity and their children would be presented to the church for baptism by their fathers.

Gerda Lerner in her work The Creation of Patriarchy concluded that the patriarchalization of society commodified children, turning them into the property of their fathers, and that the Abrahamic Covenant legitimated patriarchy's alienation of children from their mothers and from themselves. Lerner writes, "It is neither accidental nor insignificant that women are absent from the covenant in each of its aspects," and that the father is invested with the power to dispose of the child:

This is My covenant, which ye shall keep,
between Me and you and thy seed after thee:
every male among you shall be circumcised. And
ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin;
and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you.

Lerner explains that: "We must take note of the fact that Yahweh makes the covenant with Abraham alone, not including Sarah and that in so doing He gives divine sanction to the leadership of the patriarch over his family and tribe.... Sarah is mentioned in the covenant passage only as the bearer of Abraham's 'seed'.... Moreover, the community of the covenant is divinely defined as a male community, as can be seen by the selection of the symbol chosen as "token of the covenant."

Thus, if Ryan is correct, in her assessment that the women of Utica's First Maternal Association sought to strengthen the Abrahamic Covenant, then the Association can properly be understood as seeking to perpetuate patriarchy.

Ryan also asserted that the child-rearing methodology employed by the members of the Maternal Association was that designed to uphold the Abrahamic Covenant. Historians Philip Greven, Bernard Wishy and Charles McLaughlin have established that Calvinist child-rearing methodology set out to annihilate the wills of their infant children. "With remarkable consistency and persistence, Philip Greven writes, "evangelicals through the centuries insisted that parents must control and break the emerging will of children in the first few years of life. The central issue, as they perceived it, was this: the autonomous will and self-assertiveness of the child must be reduced to impotency, be utterly suppressed and contained, or the child ultimately would be damned for eternity. 'Break their wills,' urged John Wesley, 'that you may save their souls.'"

In order to destroy the innate depravity they believed to be the consequence of original sin, Calvinist parents attacked the core of their infant's selfhood. Individual desire was categorically rejected and repressed. Ryan does not substantiate her conclusions but if her assertions are correct, then the members of the Association gathered together to perfect their methods of annihilating their children's individual selfhood and to improve their methods of bringing their children to submission within the discipline of a covenanted church.

Yet in "Educating a Ministry of Mothers: Evangelical Maternal Associations, 1815-60," Richard Meckel writes that the transformation of Calvinist views of selfhood had occurred before maternal associations began. Thus, he found that Mothers' Magazine never disseminated the doctrine of infant depravity, that from its beginning the periodical promulgated a positive view of human identity. It carried "a concept of children and a psychology of early child development which were significantly at odds with the Calvinist vision of the young as innately depraved vessels of sin."

A third issue raised by the literature is whether members of First Maternal Association were concerned with social transformation. Ryan, who viewed Maternal Association members as primarily involved in constructing private, middle-class domesticity, construed women's interest in the nurturance of their children, in child-rearing methodology, as merely "personal." On the other hand, Richard Meckel argued that evangelical mothers aspired to social transformation: "In directing their evangelical energies toward themselves and their children," he wrote, "the women who formed maternal associations did not, however, abandon the millennial hope that the world could be transformed. Rather, they proposed that the theater of action most important to that transformation and to the advance of Christian civilization was not necessarily the foreign or domestic mission but was closer at hand—in the nursery of every home."

Despite Meckel's argument of the social goals of maternal associations and his assertion that Utica's organization was "destined to become one of the most influential in the country," historian Anne M. Boylan in her study of women's early 19th century benevolent organizations perpetuated the dichotomous assumption that the personal was not political. She writes that "Mary P. Ryan found that... maternal associations, ... were devoted to the essentially personal goal of improving women's parental abilities."

The intellectual construction that women's investigation of the relation of the mother to the child was of significance only to the individuals involved, and the perpetuation of this assumption despite the evidence of the Association's initiation of Mother's Magazine probably reflects the patriarchal construction of economic, political and cultural institutions to confine women to the "domestic" sphere. I make the assumption that mothering is political and I seek to understand in this essay the relation of mothering to the perpetuation of patriarchy. Scholarship exploring the relation of child rearing methodology to political behavior continues to develop attesting to the increasing interest that contemporary historians have in understanding how social reproduction has affected historical process. Historian Lloyd DeMause has led this effort with pathbreaking works on the history of childhood, and by pioneering "psychogenic theory," which he offers as: "A genuinely new paradigm for the study of history. It reverses the usual 'mind as tabula rasa,' and instead considers the 'world as tabula rasa,' with each generation born into a world of meaningless objects which are invested with meaning only if the child receives a certain kind of care. As soon as the mode of care changes for enough children, all the books and artifacts in the world are brushed aside as irrelevant to the purposes of the new generation, and society begins to move in unpredictable directions. How historical change is connected with changing child-care modes we have yet to spell out. If the measure of a theory's vitality is its ability to generate interesting problems, childhood history and psychogenic theory should have an exciting future."

A final issue in the literature is the class to which members of the Maternal Association belonged. Ryan concludes that in contrast to members of Utica's Female Missionary Society, members of the Maternal Association were "recruited" from a "distinct population" of artisans. Although she states that six women belonged to both groups, "professional families were, however, poorly represented in the general membership of the [Maternal] association. In fact, they were outnumbered more than two to one by the wives of artisans, who assumed the dominant position maintained by merchants' wives in the Missionary Society.....The Presbyterian Maternal Association was full of printers' wives.... Wives of clockmakers, shoe makers, bakers, and blacksmiths joined the congregation of mothers, making it an institutional expression of the old middle class. Most of these skilled mechanics operated their own small units of production and exchange, which employed only a few apprentices and kinsmen."

According to Ryan then, artisans' wives dominated the Maternal Association. The impression is thereby given that the Association in contrast to the Missionary Society was primarily composed of and dominated by women married to men of modest means who were not educated and who were not part of Utica's ruling elite. If this were true, then Utica's Maternal Association would have been an anomaly, for Boylan found in her study of women's benevolent organizations in New York City and Boston that "no matter what their interests, women founding societies in both cities before 1830 came primarily from families of upper- and middle-class merchants, shippers, professionals, and the ministers of the churches they attended." She noted without comment Ryan's exceptional findings regarding the class affiliations of members of Utica's First Maternal Association.

In this essay I will explore these issues raised by the literature. In addition, I will address the degree that women based in the First Presbyterian Church of Utica, New York in 1824, who attempted to form a movement of mothers, supported or subverted patriarchy. This study of the first Maternal Association of Utica, New York is an examination, I believe, of one part of the feminizing process that Barbara Welter and Ann Douglas have identified as transforming religion in the United States in the nineteenth century. The part of that process that this essay directly addresses is women's agency in transforming Calvinist hostility toward human selfhood into maternal nurturance of the individual. I will argue that within economic, political, social, and cultural male hegemony, the women of Utica set out, in Gerda Lerner's words, to authorize themselves, and to enable other women to become their own authorities. The organization was founded by women previously prominent in voluntary organizations who were married to powerful, prominent men. The organization was also composed primarily of elite women and continued to be dominated by them during the period studied. These women, I will argue, used their class privilege to erode patriarchy. That effort began the construction of a new female identity, and contributed to a widening trend toward a new supportive mode of social reproduction.

2003, Elizabeth Shanklin
Index to Authorizing Mothers
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