A Celebration of Women Writers

"Organized Motherhood." by Mrs. Lide Smith Meriweather (or Meriwether) (1829-).
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. 747-751.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 747] 



The word gospel means glad tidings. The gospel of organization is preached in all of nature's temples. "The locusts have no king, but they go forth in bands," and the whole country pays tribute to their needs. "The ants are a people not strong, but they prepare their meat in summer;" and not alone that, but they make war, take prisoners, keep them in servitude, and provide means of offense and defense by a systematized organization which no human ingenuity could improve upon. The birds accomplish their semi-annual migration in organized bands, and by preconcerted action. All animated nature, from the tiny ant beneath our feet to the huge bison of our Western plains, shows the unerring instinct that illustrates and emphasizes the inspired words. "In the multitude of council there is wisdom."

But the world of humanity has been slow to interpret nature's language, and only in these late December days the Christmas-tide of the nineteenth century, the shepherds on the plains of toil and the warders on the watch-towers of reform, alike have caught the seraph song, "Glory to God in the highest," for the work that brings surcease of sorrow, and the friendly clasp of organization's hand that yet shall bring "peace on earth, and good-will to all men."

Every era of the world has had its key-note rung out from the great clock of the centuries; these eras bring marked and open uprisings of forces for whose organized action the sentiment had been growing through long and silent years. Such an era was the fifteenth century, when Columbus found the new world, and Luther found the new faith, and the conquering career of printing began. All through these years another force had been gathering–the Brotherhood of Man. Today this vital force has woven its sensate wires in and out through all classes of men, making every pulse thrill at the electric touch of a clasping hand, and every heart respond to the "touch of human kindness, that makes all the world akin."

This same key-note sounds on, but another and yet clearer note is the voice of today. Time, touching the keys of the nineteenth century, has rung out, clear and strong, a sound all Christendom has heard, and whose echoes have reached the isles of the sea. All humanity knows it, for through it "hands grow more helpful, voices grow more tender." And this sound has reached woman's heart as it was never reached before, for "woman is the mother, the mother is life, and life is love." And thus we have climbed another round of the ladder, beyond the Brotherhood of Man, up to the Motherhood of Woman. How strange it seems to us, upon whose heads many winters have sifted their snows, to look back and realize that half a century ago [Page 748]  there was no such thing in our land as an organization of women, and the mere suggestion of such a possibility would have produced a moral earthquake in masculine ranks. Today there is not a home in America that has not felt the power of her organized motherhood. Women who sit in the darkness of Eastern despotism have felt the benediction of this mother-love. She has touched the doors of colleges and universities; the locks were rusty and the hinges creaked, but they have swung wide open that her daughters might walk in. And today those daughters are artists, sculptors, poets, novelists, and successful business women–ay, M. Ds. and D. Ds.–and nobody is hurt. In conference and convention these mother-hearts meet and discuss great social, moral, and political questions, and nobody marvels. Churches that but a few years ago would have been considered desecrated had a woman's gown but touched the pulpit floor now give her cordial welcome; sad eyes in prisons and asylums look up and smile beneath her motherly care; schools are made more practical by her oversight, and churches more charitable by her influence. The loving arms of organized motherhood have encircled the world.

These bands of organized mothers are known by many different titles: the Woman's Missionary Society, King's Daughters, Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Woman's Suffrage Association, Free Kindergarten, Working Woman's Guild, Association for Advancement of Women. These are but a few branches on the giant tree of organized motherhood; but by whatever name known, "their toils, their hopes, their aims are one"–the progress and elevation of the children of their love.

In the band of organized motherhood, of which this little white ribbon is the sign and seal of membership, the motherly arms are opened as wide as the world, the mother-heart bows in benediction over every son and daughter of Adam. This band is organized, armed and equipped with the weapons of offense and defense–first, against the three great dragons that devour humanity–Alcohol, Tobacco, Impurity–these three, and the greatest of these is alcohol, for in his slimy trail inevitably follow all the rest. Our great dominant issue is the extermination of the liquor traffic, whose baneful effects it is needless that I should tell you–not a man, woman or child in America but knows them. To this end we work along three great lines: Prevention, first and best of all, for that means educating all the children of the land scientifically against its baneful influence; next, reformation of the drunkard whenever, whatever, and by whatever means it may be possible; and, lastly, legislation as the only feasible means of making such reformation possible and permanent.

Could the individual efforts of these two hundred thousand women ever have wrought out one tithe of the marvelous results that have been achieved by the combined and systematic action of this great organization?

This mother-host takes into its loving care the entire child-life of the nation, from the day the baby first opens its wondering eyes upon the world until it reaches young manhood or womanhood, and is then transferred to the sheltering arms of the White Cross or the protecting ægis of the White Shield. First, for the baby, comes the crèche or day-nursery, where the children of wage-working mothers can be cared for while the mother goes out to work. Here all comforts are provided; the little one is bathed, dressed, fed, and cared for by kindly nurses. In the evening the mother comes and takes it home for the night. For this, if able, she pays ten cents a day; if not, the care is given free. In any case, the little fee is taken to foster an independent spirit in the mother.

Next comes the baby hospital, where the sick baby is taken and given medical treatment without the mother. Dr. Sarah McNutt of New York, who founded the first baby hospital, has evolved a new idea in hospital life. Among the friends are many young girls, daughters of well-to-do or wealthy parents, whom she has organized into what she calls the petting committee. She maintains that petting is just as necessary to the health of a well baby or the care of a sick one as food, fire or medicine. So each day a certain detailed number of these girls go to the hospital, carrying toys, pictures, flowers, and such delicacies as the doctor will permit; then they carry, [Page 749]  play with and pet the babies–to the great delight of the little ones, and their manifest improvement as well. To my mind, that was the sweetest thought that ever entered the heart of woman. And yet some folks think that women have no business to study or to practice medicine.

Next for babyland comes the care of the little toddling waifs in the free kindergarten. The best physicians are not those who follow disease, but those who go ahead and prevent it. If the child is taught to be virtuous, self-governing, law-abiding, there will be no need to spend later years in re-formation. After nineteen centuries the "little child" still stands in our midst, and these loving mothers have taken him by the hand, and it is a pledge and prophecy of the coming of the blessed Master's kingdom.

After this comes the kitchen garden, where neglected girls from tenement-house districts of our cities are gathered and taught the rudiments of an education, also cooking, sewing, housework, and other means of making their homes brighter and better, or of making other homes pleasanter by becoming competent servants.

And for that great multitude, the poorest of all God's poor, that innumerable and sorrowful company who, even in years which my memory can recall, were deemed utterly lost and hopeless, whose name must never be breathed by a good woman, and for whom it was almost a crime to pray–for these outlawed and wandering ones the nation's motherhood has built the anchorage, the mission home, the refuge, the open door, wherein the best and brightest of these loving hearts preside, where the mother's welcoming hand is always outstretched, and her sweet voice is calling, day by day and night by night, to the weakest, the guiltiest, the most despairing, the most desperate "Come back, no matter how or from whence; here is home, here is mother, here is always 'a light in the window for thee.'"

Dear sister woman, you who have been standing afar off, folding idle hands and sitting "at ease in Zion," do you feel no pulse of pity for the great multitude who live and weep and sin and suffer all around you? Do you see nothing helpful, noble, grand in this great band of organized motherhood? Can you with a clear conscience longer sit with folded hands, turn deaf ears to their pleadings, and refuse to come up to their help? "Your days vanish as a tale that is told;" the sun of your years hastens toward its going down. Oh, kindle your zeal at the altars of their glowing example; let your faith be firm, your courage strong, your love limitless! Awake, arise, and fight the good fight ere yet your sun has set, that you go not down to the dark valley with the blood of souls resting upon your head.

Mother, do you see the great multitude whom no man can number standing outside the door of pity and protection with outstretched hands imploring help–the drunkard's wife, the convict's mother, the murderer's child, the poor, the weak, the ignorant, the guilty? Day by day, hour by hour, they call you. Will you come up to their help? And when you have crossed the swelling river and the pearly gates swing open, will you miss the blare of trumpets or the clash of cymbals, if only there shall stand within that radiant gateway the familiar face of some poor, sin-stained woman, whose bleeding feet you once helped to climb the shining stair? Will you sigh for the golden vesture or the jeweled crown if she but hold out toil-worn, welcoming hands, and, smiling, say: "Come over the threshold?"

Among the manifold works and ways of the organized motherhood of this land not the least important, and, I am grieved to say, by no means the least painful and pitiful, has been that of petition and legislation. This being interpreted, reads: The mothers' petitioning, and the fathers, in legislative hall convened, making of their petitions subjects for the amusement of the assembly. Nearly one-half the papers I pick up contain pointers on this subject. Should I try to use all I find I should be still talking to you at the day of dawn of 1893, which wouldn't be comfortable for you. So, leaving out all the rest, I take for illustration one near home. The issue of August 4 contains an account of a mothers' meeting, from which I quote this paragraph: [Page 750] 

"The scientific temperance course of instruction is now a part of the common school course in all our states save seven, Tennessee ranking the least hopeful of the seven in all movements of reform and advancement. Strenuous efforts were made during the last legislative session to introduce our scientific temperance educational bill, but it, as well as all the bills for promotion of social purity and other reforms, were deemed good jokes, and afforded occasion for great hilarity among our wise and honorable lawmakers."

My own experience among our legislative Solons, both state and national, has brought me to the conclusion that among all the feminine opponents of woman's ballot there is but one woman who claims my sincere sympathy, and she is the affectionate spouse of the politician who said: "No, John, I don't want any woman suffrage." "You don't? Why not?" "Well, John, just because if I had it I should always feel like voting for you, and I don't think I could conscientiously do it."

I know a worker who once upon a time, when she was a trifle more verdant than she is today, carried a petition for better temperance legislation, signed by fifteen thousand women of her state, to a friend in the Senate, and asked him to present it. He declined. "Why, Mr B," said she, "I thought you believed in temperance." "Oh, so I do." "Well, don't you think this is a good bill?" "Yes–just between us." "Well, then, why don't you present it?" "Why, my dear friend, you know I am a politician. I don't expect to stop here. I am heading for Congress. Now, suppose I present this bill and champion it, some of my friends would not stand by me when that race comes off." "But we women will stand by you, every one, and here are fifteen thousand of us." Here he broke into a loud laugh. "My dear madam, did you say that ironically? It's capital if you did." "Ironically! Indeed I didn't; what do you mean?" "Oh, well, then, you're more innocent than I had supposed. My friend, how much do you suppose your fifteen thousand women would weigh in an election scale against two German votes?" Suppose these fifteen thousand women, wanting this voting well done, could have done it themselves, and so neutralized fifteen thousand German votes, would that gentleman have declined to present, plead, and vote for that bill? I trow not.

In the columns of the average newspaper, or the fulminations of the average orator, one can scarcely go amiss for censorious remarks regarding the "wild and fanatical female who is shrieking for the suffrage, for–she knows not what, expecting to be benefited–she knows not how." These gentlemen are either stubbornly or wilfully blind, or they have penetrated a very short distance into the tangled morass of woman's legal and political situation. Ask any widow in this state, whose wayward boy is daily and hourly being lured down to destruction, if she thinks her ballot would be of any benefit to her or her boy in an anti-saloon fight. Ask the tax-paying widow who sung and prayed and talked and worked and paid all through our late prohibition amendment campaign what she saw when she went to the polls on election day. She will tell you that she saw scores of male paupers, whom her quota of tax helped to feed and clothe and shelter, driven from the poorhouse to put in their ballots for the defeat of the amendment; but if she had attempted to cast a ballot it would have been tossed scornfully aside, and she would have been subject to punishment for illegal voting. Ask her, if, in the light of that experience, she thinks she "shrieks for–she knows not what."

During our legislative session–I mean during the brethren's legislative session of 1888–a bill was introduced "for the better protection of the property of married women." It was referred to a committee, recommended by that committee for rejection, and our honorable Solons promptly followed that advice.

Ask the drunkard's wife, who toils day and night for the support of her children, whose hard earnings may be taken any day, even to the table at which they eat and the bed from under them, to pay her husband's saloon bills–ask that woman, when she pleads for a voice in making the law or choosing the lawmakers, if she is clamoring for–"she knows not what." Go to the poor, barren tenement of the working girl, whose young life is dragged out in ceaseless drudgery, who toils month after [Page 751]  month for the merest pittance of starvation wages–ask the sad-eyed mother who watches her roses fade and her young strength fail, who knows the terrible temptations that daily beset her in that unequal race–ask her if, in pleading to be made a member of a representative, not a silent and subject class, she is asking for–"she knows not what." Ask that widowed mother, whose ceaseless "stitch, stitch, stitch" from day-dawn till midnight scarcely provides the coarsest and commonest food and shelter for herself and her little girl, who knows that after her tenth birthday no law stands between that baby-girl and the devouring wolf of legalized sensuality–ask that anxious heart if, when she prays for the day when she shall hold in her hand the only weapon with which she can protect that child she is sending up vain, ignorant petitions to a merciful Father pleading for–"she knows not what."

We read in olden story how a Scottish leader inclosed the heart of the hero of Bannockburn in a silver casket, and hurled it into the ranks of the enemy, that his devoted followers might rush after it with the instinctive battle-cry: "Heart of Bruce! I follow thee!"

Brothers! not the dead senseless ashes inclosed in silver shrine, but the living, bleeding, breaking heart of American motherhood lies trodden under foot in the ranks of the enemy. The chords that vibrated to sweetest melody when the eyes of her first-born son, the hope of her heart and house, smiled up into hers, lies torn and bleeding under the relentless tread of the legalized liquor traffic. The strings that were twined with a life and death clasp around the life and destiny of her little baby girl lie crushed and quivering in the devouring jaws of legalized and law-protected sensuality. The ebbing life blood oozes, drop by drop, as her fair young daughter, hounded on by the pursuing fiends of ill-paid labor, treachery and starvation, plunges over the fatal precipice and is lost in the black, fathomless abyss of moral and social degradation and death.

And as of old that Scottish leader stood, so stand I here today; and I call upon you, friends! brothers! fellow soldiers! knights of the nineteenth century! Let your battle-cry ring out so loud and clear that all the world shall hear it: "Mother heart! I follow thee!"

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Mrs. Lide Meriweather is a native of Virginia. She was born October 16, 1829. Her parents were Mays and Elizabeth Parker Smith of Accomac County, Va. She was educated at Washington, Pa., graduating from that institution in October, 1845. She married Mr. Niles Meriweather of Christian county, Ky., October 25, 1855. She interests herself largely in philanthropy, and social and political reform. Her principal literary works are "One or Two," a volume of poems, and "Soundings," a plea for erring women. She is a woman of liberal views and all-embracing charity. Postoffice address No. 14 Talbot Street, Memphis, Tenn.


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 Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom