Babies and balance have been on my mind recently. I’m five months pregnant, at a point where the reality of a new human, one I will be responsible for keeping healthy and happy and safe, is becoming ever stronger. This commitment is more lasting than marriage, as I can’t divorce myself from a bloodline I’ve created. I will never be able to declare myself not this child’s mother. How to define my relationship to this new human when my duties turn into something other than nurturing it via my placenta?
It was in this frame of mind that I came across “What Will Become of the Babies?”, a short essay published in 1868 by Eleanor Kirk, a now-forgotten suffragist who worked with such well-known names as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Motherhood is about making tough choices, and Kirk, who suffered an abusive first marriage and then the death of her second husband, had five children to look after. Rather than following Anthony—and perhaps achieving lasting notoriety—by taking the helm of the Working Women’s Association, which later became a central part of the National Women’s Suffrage Movement, Kirk focused her energies on her income-generating writing career. At a time when women didn’t have the right to vote or to have their voices heard within American democracy, she wrote impassioned words about the importance of women’s self-sufficiency to society as a whole, and she wrote from experience. Her newspaper columns on issues facing women grew in popularity and, when syndicated across the country, began to reach millions of Americans each week. Through writing these columns and a series of books, she was able to support her family on her own. She is sometimes appropriated as an icon for the present day pro-life feminist movement, which occasionally quotes statements from Kirk about the problems of abortion in her time. But from essays like “What Will Become of the Babies?”, reprinted in full below, it seems to me that Kirk’s overall priority was giving women more, not fewer, choices in their lives.
The realities of modern day life may be different from those Kirk tackles in the work that follows, but providing equal opportunities to women, especially in the context of employment and child-rearing, continues to be a battle in the United States today. I think of the debates over maternity leave, the move of some employers to pay for egg freezing (thereby extending the service of young women to their organization), and the countless women who work several minimum-wage jobs just to feed their children, and I wonder what Eleanor Kirk would have to say. I wonder what will become of my baby.
“But Frank and I have been thinking should women turn to politics and literature entirely, what will become of the babies?”
Eleanor Ames (1831—1908) was a suffragist who was the victim of an abusive first marriage. When her second husband died, leaving her with five children to support, she adopted the pen name Eleanor Kirk and reinvented herself as a reporter for The New York Standard. She also wrote essays for publications such as The Revolution, a weekly feminist newspaper established by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. By the 1880s, Kirk’s columns on women’s rights and parenting advice were being syndicated across 150 newspapers in the United States and read by millions.