As a mom named Elizabeth was strategizing in her home office with her coworker about their next convention speech, balancing facts and statistics with philosophy and rhetoric, three of her sons, all under the age of 10, were concocting cockamamie experiments that involved their 18-month-old brother. They created a life-preserver out of corks, which they tied under his arms before putting him in the river behind their house to see if he would float. Though the baby kept his head above water and splashed happily, he was blue with cold when his mother rescued him. The next day, the same child was spotted perched on the chimney. A friend’s quick reflexes led to a safe landing. The older brothers’ final move was to lock the baby in the smoke house. By then, he had figured out how to protest loudly enough about his brothers’ schemes to be released before tragedy struck. At one point, to give this working mom a break, her colleague without kids took the older boys back to her farm in Rochester, New York, for a few days.
The mother was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her colleague, Susan B. Anthony, and her home office, the parlor in her Seneca Falls, New York, home. The women would spend over 50 years collaborating in such close contact that Stanton’s children—seven by 1859—knew Anthony as an aunt. Other contributors to the Women’s Rights Movement, such as Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, also frequently operated out of Stanton’s home. Of those harrowing days in the 1850s, Elizabeth wrote with dry humor: “This is a fair sample of the quiet happiness I enjoyed in the first years of motherhood. It was amid such exhilarating scenes that Miss Anthony and I wrote addresses for temperance, anti-slavery, educational and women’s rights conventions.”
When I read these words in the 1881 edition of History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 1 (by Stanton, Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Ida Husted Harper), I laughed out loud at Stanton’s description of her “three mischievous boys.” While my two daughters never put me through that level of anxiety, I knew all too well the machinations necessary to work from home with them. But I was also dismayed by the fact that Stanton, as one of the founders of the women’s movement, was juggling childcare issues and divided loyalties that sound too similar to the ones modern working mothers have been facing for decades.
August 18 marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote, a cause that Stanton and Anthony began working on together in 1851. How is it possible that nearly 170 years later working mothers, as compared to working fathers, are still disproportionately burdened at home and discriminated against at work?
The COVID-19 pandemic has only revealed how prevalent this discrepancy remains. According to new research from Washington University in St. Louis, between March and April, mothers’ work hours fell four to five times as much as fathers. Mothers scaled back their work hours about two a week, while fathers’ work hours remained largely stable. The greatest impact was among mothers with children around the ages of Stanton’s sons—those who need the most supervision.
That’s only likely to get worse unless America’s children can go back to school as normal this fall. Already mothers have been primarily responsible for homeschooling, according to a survey by the University of Utah. All of this impacts mothers’ income potential—and moms who work full-time outside the home already earn on average 70 cents on the dollar compared to fathers. Meanwhile, the Labor Department said nearly 60 percent of the more than 700,000 jobs that were eliminated in the first wave of pandemic layoffs in March were held by women.
Of course, Stanton was a woman of means; she didn’t have to work and she had help at home. She didn’t refer to herself as a working mother; that was my conceit. The fight to change laws so women could vote, own property, go to college, retain custody of their children in a divorce and have the equal right to pursue careers of their choice were passion projects for her, albeit lifelong. Usually it was Anthony, who remained single, who took their speeches on the road so Stanton could stay home with her five sons and two daughters. But when Stanton could get away, she was expected to take her brood with her. At one point, after delivering a New York legislative speech, female audience members questioned her derisively about who was taking care of her children. She told them their questions were in fact delaying her from getting back to them since they were nearby with their “faithful nurse” and doing just fine. (Working mothers still get questioned about their kids’ wellbeing, but that’s a separate story.)
As a working mother of two now-adult daughters who have their own careers, I recently discovered the details of Stanton’s life while researching a middle grade book for Harper Collins about Amelia Bloomer. Bloomer, another early women’s rights activist, was the first in the world to own, edit and publish a newspaper for women and about women’s causes, The Lily. She is also the one who introduced her two friends, Stanton and Anthony, who formed such a deep working partnership that Stanton called it “like a marriage.” Stanton died in 1902, four years before Anthony; neither lived to see the passage of the Women’s Voting Act. I’m in awe of them and their female “coworkers” for their determination when they were mocked, threatened and ignored. But as we near the centennial of their crowning achievement, I can’t help but be disheartened that while our nation debates whether or not it’s safe to send kids back to school, the needs of working mothers continue to be taken for granted as they were nearly two centuries ago.
Advocacy for human rights has never been a quick process. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. summarized the hopeful 1853 quote by abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (whose services Stanton had attended), “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And we have come far from the days when the sight of Bloomer, Stanton and Anthony giving speeches about temperance and women’s rights was so shocking that police had to be called to monitor the crowds. But we live in a country where women still struggle for full equality in pay and employment.
After casting her first vote in 1920, women’s rights activist Alice Paul said, “It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun.” But surely she didn’t anticipate that 100 years later we’d still be asking: When will it be done?
Liza N. Burby is an award-winning journalist who has been published in over 50 newspapers and magazines and numerous websites. She is also the author of 44 books, including the upcoming middle grade Incredible Lives: Amelia Bloomer (HarperCollins) and How to Publish Your Children’s Book, 2nd edition (Square One Publishers).