A Celebration of Women Writers

"Influence of Great Women." by Mrs. Mary Newbury Adams (1837-1901).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 342-347.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 342] 



In our subject, "Influence of the Great Women of Yesterday and the Civilization of Today," we admit that greatness in womanhood is an ancient quality. We cannot look upon the recently unearthed statuary without this faith. She had a strength that was big with the future of mankind. She ventured, she dared, she had courage to begin new things. She had faith in her work and because she knew she worked for the good of her kind and from inborn instincts.

Let us know definitely what we mean by the word great. In primitive times they represented greatness by size. Their images of gods and goddesses were large, to indicate power and influence. The Egyptians in their art represented the women as of equal size with men to indicate the equality of influence and position in government and religion, and when thousands of years ago Egyptians wanted to leave an enduring record of their belief of the supremacy of man and woman over all natural things, over the earth, they built that statues of Memnon on the Nile. Human beings mountain high, great and big. Another method to express greatness and power was for God to speak from Mt. Zion or Mt. Sinai, a high place. Then, greatness was for a patriarch with many wives and much cattle, a terror to other tribes, whose one supreme will must be a law to many. But this was not the matriarchal idea of the great person. Womanhood called a great mind that could think, one that could reason, one that could invent, one that could have foresight, save the grain today to plant next season, plant the clover to keep bees and the cows close at hand; one was great who built the hut before the winter and storm came, or who carried the stone hatchet in case the wild beast is met. The mind that could collect experience and plan a better future, this mind could command respect for its strength in judgment, and was called great by woman. One with energy and courage to make successful an idea, be it for a basket, a canoe, or a treaty between enemies, or a migration to inaugurate new habits with the selected best, these were the great women who had an idea and could carry it out. Disciples of Minerva and Juno, people from Ephesus and Athens, women from Asia Minor, from the Isles of the Sea, from the halls where taught the white-robed Hypatia; when these spoke of great women it was quality of mind and tastes they referred to. Among the worshipers of Ceres, the goddess of [Page 343]  Agriculture and Commerce, greatness was shown in the discovery of new lands, fruits palatable, grains nutritious, and in the power of the will to direct energy to useful ends, to plow and plant, to save and sell, to make fruitful Earth serve the will and wish of the human mind; with them the great woman was one who had found a new grain that could be utilized for food of people that they might not be compelled to be marauding tribes, stealing cattle from other tribes for food. The mothers in council learned how to feed with grain their people quietly, peacefully, and gradually to work into the nerve of children and youth strength and reason, and thus check the ravenous dispositions and the roving, stealthy habits that always go with those who herd cattle, and are eaters of blood and sinew, the habits of patriarchs, and the people they herd and were shepherds of. The great women, mothers of commerce, of agriculture, of trade and ingenious workmanship, compared good with evil, and aspired to become self-directing, co-working with Creation and its laws. The same idea animates the highest civilization to-day, and it is our duty to find who the women were who helped to bring it about.

The methods for our enlightened life today were those of the great mothers in council, who were drawn by sympathy to help one another in distress, in sickness, at harvest, and in journeys for trade, not to slay or steal from other tribes, but to learn to exchange baskets for pots, minerals, shells and fiber to make into raiment. The great women of antiquity are those who aided the human mind to distinguish good from evil, and through habits of industry curb the powers of passion, and tame force and strength to serve the tribe under the direction of reason. She was great who could think some thought, do some deed to add to the experience of the world, to aid the next generation of women so they could be sure of a permanent home, sure of food and raiment and ability to make something to sell. The great souls were not the strong forces that destroyed enemies or beasts, but the inventive souls, the intuitive minds that circumvented evils, that brought positive good to a people. How? Not by conquering a neighbor and securing booty in land and cattle, but those who trained families to supply their own wants by work, to have an aim in life, to so order their ways that they could be imitated with advantage to the whole tribe; thus mankind could become by habit civilized, that is, to work together by free choice, that the work of each should be good for all. It is women who have brought these ideals into human life. Women have not been visionary but practical, unless the having a high ideal and working for a future better than the present can appreciate is visionary.

There is an irrepressible conflict between the patriarchal idea of greatness and the matriarchal. Since the re-discovery of the Western continent by Western Europeans four hundred years ago, and the discovery that the sphere was balanced by its own motion, and this motion intimately connected with life thereon, then began changes in governments and in religions, from the patriarchal to the matriarchal methods, and the laws of earth and woman have been honored. Woman began to be recognized as a sphere in society, gaining equilibrium, too, by her own reason and her motion of mind, and that intimately connected with her movement of mind was the equilibrium of society. The literature of Greece was revived because the methods, the principles, the ideals of goddesses, the matriarchal ideals, were to come forth in power to shape and direct the New World era And this republic is the result of matriarchal not patriarchal methods of life and in ideals. This is the influence we inherit. Have we knowledge to understand it?

Histories heretofore have been written by men; Scriptures preserved by the high priests, the Druids, the patriarchs; reprinted and upheld by empires, religious and political. The true history of human progress from savagehood to enlightened civil life is yet to be written. Not till the spirit of archæology, philology and folk-lore was awakened did we have the material facts to reason from. Now, here, in the center of the oldest continent, we find Scripture fulfilled, and the last continent is found to be the first, and the rejected stones of the early Americans are to become the cornerstones of human history. [Page 344] 

The influence of the great women of the past is felt today, not by knowledge of their names and their individual work, or the time they lived, but by the things they started, the methods of activity they began; what they inaugurated by following their natural instinct to change the present, to secure the greater future, which we enjoy today.

We have heard only of the women of gayety at the courts; we need the lives of the great women who changed the history of their time by finding new fords, opening new fields for commerce.

Matilda of Scottish lineage was called Maude. She was the mother of Henry II. of England, and Hume says her son was the greatest prince of his time for wisdom, virtue and ability. She introduced the culture of broom corn. She built the first arch bridge in England, Bowbridge, made new roads, repaired Roman roads. She was prudent, and encouraged those things which educated and benefited the people. She was political, and to her we trace the constitutional blessing England enjoyed.

The arrangements for peace and progress, the law that the people could depend upon, based on principles of justice and reciprocation, she had written out into charters, and so established a precedent for the rulers that followed. She made history. Through her influence her son, called Henry Beauclerc, granted the important charter which was the model and precedent of the great Magna Charta.

English history is full of the greatness of the reign of Edward III., yet when Philippa died he brought forth only evil deeds, and what was good in his reign is owing almost wholly to the queen. Through her the shipbuilding and commerce began, the navy was established. With her own pin money she brought to England Froissart, to travel at her expense, so the French and English knowing one another better might have less wars, and that he might meet her charming young relative, Chaucer. With her own money she established the Flemish weavers and cotton and flax industries in Norfolk, built houses for these people she brought from her girlhood home. She began the great commerce of England. It would take volumes to tell all that Philippa did for England to civilize and enlighten it, and cause it to revolve about its own industrial life, instead of seeking to conquer its neighbors.

Margaret, born in 1353, in Denmark, daughter of Waldemar III., was married in 1373 to Haquin, King of Norway, in 1376 regent too, of Denmark. The year Catherine of Sienna died, 1380, she became Queen of Norway. Her son dying, she was acknowledged also sovereign of Denmark. At an assembly of the three countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark she held at Calmar in 1397 the famous treaty of peace between these contending countries, and formed the "Calmar Union." Her nephew appointed her successor.

The Woman's Peace at Cambrai, which held the domination of Venice in check and awakened and helped Western Europe, shows the moderate policy of women, their foresight, judgment and perseverance, higher qualities of mind than aggressive conquering wars.

Margaret, daughter of Ernest of Austria, born in 1416, died in 1486; married Frederick the Wise, of Saxony, and had eight children. She was a wise counselor in state affairs. Her husband accorded her the right, which she exercised, of coining money and to assist in governing the state. She contributed much by wise counsel in putting an end to wars. In 1467 her husband died, seventy years old. She was the first sovereign to provide public rooms where the poor could have opportunity to warm themselves during severe winters. Learning and public education by meetings and discourse were inaugurated by her. Poems were recited, the rude dramas and public fairs encouraged.

Ann of Denmark, wife of James I., demanded that the crown be put on her head as well as the king's. Her descendents were the powers to form the best civil life in Germany and England, and Elizabeth, the friend of Des Cartes, furthered the highest philosophic thought and practical education. [Page 345] 

"Mother Anna" of Saxony, born in 1531, daughter of Christian III. of Denmark, a protestant, humane and wise king. She was educated by her mother, Dorothea, and the chaplain. In 1548, when seventeen years old, married of August of Saxony, a wise ruler. She had fifteen children. She devoted herself to the moral and mental improvement of her people; she had faith in them and patience with the evil. She is called "the mother of her country." She multiplied schools for the people. The rich had tutors in their castles, but she raised the standard of education, making it practical. Under her direction waste land was cultivated, and new foods introduced suited to the soil. On one occasion she headed the pioneers with a spade, carrying it in the procession in order to patronize agriculture, which she did much more to improve. She devoted much time to chemistry, natural philosophy, botany, and studied for knowledge that her people needed; on all occasions tried to make her knowledge contribute to the happiness, comfort and wealth of her people. She did much not only to improve lands, but the houses of the poor. She aided her husband in welcoming and supporting Dutch exiles and the cloth and cotton weavers who were driven from their homes by Christian persecution from Holland and France. She accompanied her husband on his travels to learn of the condition of her people and other nations. She distributed the best seed to the people, and taught them how to save and preserve it. She induced her husband to pass a law that every newly married couple must plant and graft two fruit trees during the first year of their marriage. A wise mother of her large family, and a loving, devoted wife, "mother of her country, too," she is an example of the matriarchal ideal.

These women did

"Mutually leaven
Strength of earth with grace of heaven."

The great women active from 1450 to 1600 will tell you why the eighteenth century was so vital with progress, knowledge, and demand for human rights. It was the renaissance of the matriarchal ideal–knowledge with opportunity to work unhindered by supreme authority.

That the matriarchal spirit arose in the last century is seen by the awakened curiosity for knowledge: the Encyclopædias began to collect;the British Museum was established 1753, and interest in Oriental languages began. Rollin's ancient history told us of past nations. Excavations began, and the statues of the great Egyptian women came into view, telling us of a civilization that taught Greeks, Hebrews and Romans.

Women have risen in influence with the rise of these matriarchal methods, and this wider knowledge of higher civilizations than Europe had ever had under patriarchal rule. A republic is but a political order of a matriarchal home, as an empire is a patriarchal ideal. The evolution of our republic, as a political organization with matriarchal rather than patriarchal ideals, is a most fruitful study of human activity. The states are a family of children, each have rights and are free to develop individuality, but all must be true to the home, the union of all, the central head; and mark, this is not to obey a patriarchal will, but to adjust their way to order as in a home. It was thus that the uniting in ancient times, of many with one purpose created a greater force than even one mighty man over many slaves obeying his will.

This was the first great step in civilization, when individual passion had to curb itself to obey the law of the whole tribe. That was the work of early women in matriarchal times, and today it has to be repeated in every household by the mother teaching the child's will that it must obey the laws of the family, its rules and regulations. Each family repeats this history of the world. Thus the influence and light from the great, courageous mothers of the past help women of today. We should realize that we are a part of the history of the world. Those early women were great because with no example, only their own instincts–they first taught and trained children and men in industry, economy and foresight–those traits which make us different from the brute. [Page 346] 

Civil life in a wide continent has to adopt the methods of the matriarchal systems, though they are despised by patriarchs. They are based on conference, councils, arbitration, and not commands from one. A patriarch does not confer with his people. He ruled and directed by his sovereign will and his wish. He claimed to be directed by his god, or his angel, or his high priest. Women were directed by their collected reason as to what was right. Their instincts were their authority; so they established the council as authority. Because they were not strong when isolated, they invented habitations that protected them from wild beasts and from lawless persons of their own and other tribes. Their method was the motto of one of the states of out republic: "United we stand, divided we fall." It was this uniting of the mothers to secure benefit to their families that began the method of councils and that introduced treaties for peace. Women, not being as strong in body as men, and with the care of their young, could not take risks of starvation or fight with enemies single-handed; so, from that comes from thought and invention. For this reason the matriarchal power is older than patriarchal. The mothers united in council and acted together. When they, from their grain fields, controlled the food supply and the sale of their baskets, trinkets, and religious vestments, then they were a power; for that one is master who supplies the food and raiment. Walled cities, large armies broke the matriarchal reign and established empires.

Let us turn back four hundred years: Constantinople was taken in 1453 by Mohammedans. In 1480 Columbus was starting for Portugal. Ferdinand and Isabella were in their prime, thirty years of age. Sir Thomas More, Margaret (daughter of Maximilian), and the Great Mary of Burgundy, were born this year. Sister Hadewych, a nun of Brabant, was collecting songs for the people in their own tongue, thus establishing a unity of the Dutch language. Anna Bljins, the first to write with grace and elegance that language, was writing for the good of people who could not read Latin.

From this time the matriarchal stream of thought and ideas have gradually eroded the walls and pillars of patriarchal power.

In 1480 the Continent of American was at peace, not yet found by the covetous, wrangling, fighting, stealing, persecuting Europeans. The women here on this continent had their harvest festivals, gathering their corn and potatoes, weaving baskets and making pottery, worshiping what helped them in life in their temples with reverence to sun moon and stars: their help and yet their mystery. They had learned that they were connected in some way in guiding and blessing their every-day life with light and growth. It was from their religious island that a woman held high the sacred torch of their worship that greeted Columbus in that dark night of despair with his frail boats on the unknown ocean. The incident is preserved by art in the woman's seal of the World's Columbian Exposition. It was the intuitive appreciation and generosity of women that gave Columbus the ability to do his work. The accumulated charts and geographical knowledge, and the fortune and estate of his wife in Porto Santo, and wisdom of her mother, were his opportunity and inspiration. The granddaughter of the great Queen Philippa of England was the mother and inspirer of Henry II. of Portugal, who gave Perestrello, the father of Columbus' wife, his knowledge and his estate. The great women of that time are a study of themselves. I leave them and go back a century before, to 1380, when closed the lives of two great women whose history remains to teach and inspire us today–Philippa of Hainault and St. Catherine of Sienna.

Marcus Aurelius commends the precept of Themistocles to have before the mind some of the many men of antiquity who illustrated by their lives the greatness possible to men. It is equally a benefit for women. Too long we have been kept on history written and illustrated by men's lives; now we want to know the spinners of the fiber of individual character; the knitters who have formed the social life; the weavers who have held together by principles and laws the passions of people, so that the strength of each will reveal the evolution of the growth of civil life, though men's lives may [Page 347]  illustrate the revolutions against enemies and usurpers. Plutarch's lives of the great Greeks were powerful in inspiration to the eighteenth century. They were a renaissance in themselves. This century needs the history of womanhood in civilization.

The study of womanhood of women in high position, in governments, the queens and princesses of Europe, will exert a beneficial influence on all women, for they will learn that the state is but the larger household; and if the study of society, of industries, commerce, religious and educational methods, or the study of government, is elevating and ennobling for queens; if the study of how to adjust difficulties, develop and rule people is suited for royal families, then it is suited for all families in a republic where people are sovereigns. It will be a study equally elevating for American women and her family in a republic. The women who, against the prejudice of patriarchal ideals, have tried to bring into this republic recognition of womanhood and matriarchal methods, have been working on the Divine plan of Providence and in the true history of mankind.

When the Spaniards came to Peru, South America, they found a learned woman–Capillano. She was born 1500-1541. Her manuscripts and paintings are in the Dominicans' Library there now. They represent ancient Peruvian monuments, with historical explanations. There are representations of their plants and the curious dissertations on their properties. The lives of such women are a part of the history of America; but more, they are part of the history of womanhood, as well as of the world. Humanity is not bound by geographical lines. We are interested in what woman has wanted to do and how she has done it. We need to study not only women like ourselves, but those places in all the various phases of life. The means they may have employed may have been different from our ancestors, but what was their womanhood? That we need to know. There have been elect women in all days who have felt impelled to do and dare, and to bring a higher state of affairs on earth–to work out their ideals of what ought to be into a reality. Have they not always aimed for what they thought was good for mankind?

Woman has made her love "the ladder for her faith, and climbs above on the rounds of her best instincts."

We know that there were great and good women here in America in prehistoric times. Their works prove it. The fanatical discoverers were too barbaric to appreciate them. They judged a people by their ability to kill and fight and to resist an enemy.

Their temples they tried to utterly destroy, and stripped from them gold and silver adornments sacred offerings and buried the stones, defacing them. We lose the true record of the life lived here; but the work of their hands come forth from their hidden tombs. There is much to bear witness that there were great women who labored for beauty, for peace, comfort, and an orderly life. We want now a sacred, safe place to gather and preserve, as fast as found the record, the work of these early great women on this oldest continent. We must prove we value knowledge, that we want opportunity to compare what has been evil with what has been good. Then women in the future can write a true history.

What will the Exposition do for us? It will carry us forward to new convictions for duty and elevate the rule of life.

Here we have met companions who were truly such, who enjoy what we enjoy, and are inspirations as well as fellowship to us.

Our horizon has broadened, and the little we know is put into comparison with the infinite we do not know. This collection from all lands, from all races, with exhibition of their endeavors to civilize and attain enlightened humanity, would be a childish, summer play of the nations if it were not a profound examination of civilization, its causes, and its growth.

"The soul of man is widening toward the past,
More largely conscious of the life that was."

"Here is the pulse of all mankind
Feeding an embryo future."     

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Mrs. Mary Newbury Adams is a native of Peru, Ind. She was born October 17, 1837. Her parents were Rev. Samuel Newbury and Mrs. Mary Ann Sergeant Newbury. She received her early education at home private schools; graduated from Cleveland public schools later, and from Troy, Tenn., Seminary in 1857. She married Austin Adams, Esq., who was afterward twelve years judge of the Supreme Court of Iowa. She takes great interest in the history and study of humanity, particularly woman's work in civilization. Her principle literary works are numerous essays, lectures, sermons, and newspaper articles. Her profession is housekeeper and home-keeper. In religious faith she is a Cosmopolitan Unitarian. Mrs. Adams is a member of the National Women's Suffrage Association and many archæological and historical societies. In personal appearance she is stately, dignified and commanding. Mrs. Adams' parents and ancestors were ministers, judges, physicians, and seven of her grandmothers daughters of professional men. Her line of thought and work has been inherited, and is not military nor business. Her postoffice address is Dubuque, Iowa.

* The original title of the address delivered before the Congress was, "Influence of the Great Women of Yesterday on the Great Women of Today."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom