Hearts of Fire, by Kemp Battle is split into 9 polemical chapterkins detailing true life accounts of the women “of American Lore and Legend”. I’ve chosen the following extracts from the section entitled “The Hearth”.
Weighing the Baby (1848)
How many pounds does the baby weigh,
‘Baby, who came but a month ago;
How many pounds from the crowning curl
To the rosy point of the restless toe?
Grandfather ties the handkerchief’s knot,
Tenderly guides the swinging weight,
And carefully over his glasses peers
To read the record, “Only eight!”….
Nobody weighed the baby’s smile,
Or the love that came with the helpless one;
Nobody weighed the threads of care
From which a woman’s life is spun.
“He just ain’t going to do it.”
The following stories are grim reminders of the terrible price of slavery. The moment of freedom that a birth represents for a child and its mother was often brutally severed by the will of the slaveowner. The following accounts from former slaves highlight two kinds of griefs that could come to a mother and the precious baby she loved:
My mother told me that he owned a woman who was the mother of several children, and when her babies would get about a year or two of age he’d sell them, and it would break her heart. She never got to keep them. When her fourth baby was born and was about two months old, she just studied all the time about how she would have to give it up, and one day she said, “I just decided I’m not going to let Old Master sell this baby; he just ain’t going to do it.” She got up and give it something out of a bottle, and pretty soon it was dead. Course nobody did tell on her, or he’d of beat her nearly to death.
Diana and Her Baby
I heard the woman I lived with, a woman named Diana Wagner, tell me how her mistress said, “Come on, Diana, I want you to go with me down the road a piece.” And she went with her, and they got to a place where there was a whole lot of people. They were putting them up on a block and selling them just like cattle. She had a little nursing baby at home, and she broke away from her mistress and them and said, “I can’t go off and leave my baby.” And they had to git some men and throw her down and hold her to keep her from going back to the house. They sold her away from her baby boy. They didn’t let her go back to see him again. But she heard from him after he became a young man. Some one of her friends that knowed her and knowed she was sold away from her baby met up with this boy and got to questioning him about his mother. The white folks had told him his mother’s name and all. He told them, and they said, “Boy, I know your mother. She’s down in Newport.” And he wrote. And the white people said they heard such a hollering and shouting going on they said, “What’s the matter with Diana?” And they came over to see what was happening. And she said, “I got a letter from my boy that was sold from me when he was a nursing baby.” She had me write a letter to him. I did all her writing for her, and he came to see her. I didn’t get to see him. I was away when he come. She said she was willing to die that the Lord let her live to see her baby again and had taken care of him through all these years.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Lesson in Self-Reliance
Born in 1815, [Stanton] is best known as a feminist who worked to organize the first women’s convention in 1848 and led the women’s movement with Susan B. Anthony in the decades after the civil war. A gifted orator, she had the common touch and a tough, unflinching quality to her reasoning; she could silence a crowd with her eloquence and bring them to their feet with her humor. Stanton was convinced that modern women had two enemies to their progress: men (like the doctors in the following story) who think they know what is best for women, and women (like the nurse in the story) who accept this condition. Needless to say, Stanton was among those who argued persistently for women doctors.
Besides the obstinacy of the nurse, I had the ignorance of physicians to contend with. When the child was four days old we discovered that the collarbone was bent. The physician, wishing to get a pressure on the shoulder, braced the bandage around the wrist. “Leave that,” he said, “ten days, and then it will be allright.” Soon after he left I noticed the child’s hand was blue, showing that the circulation was impeded. “That will never do,” said I; “nurse, take it off.” “No indeed,” she answered, ” I shall never interfere with the doctor.” So I took it off myself, and sent for another doctor, who was said to know more of surgery. He expressed great surprise that the first physician called should have put on so severe a bandage. “That,” said he, “would do for a grown man, but ten days of it on a child would make him a cripple.” However, he did nearly the same thing, only fastening it round the hand instead of the wrist. I soon saw that the ends of the fingers were all purple, and that to leave that on ten days would be as dangerous as the first. So I took that off.
“What a woman,” exclaimed the nurse. “What do you propose to do?”
“Think out something better, myself; so brace me up with some pillows and give the baby to me.”
She looked at me aghast and said, “You’d better trust the doctors, or your child will be a helpless cripple.”
“Yes,” I replied. “He would be, if we had left either of those bandages on, but I have an idea of something better.”
“Now,” said I, talking partly to myself and partly to her, “what we want is a little pressure on that bone; that is what both those men aimed at. How can we get it without involving the arm, is the quesion?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said she, rubbing her hands and taking two or three brisk turns round the room.
“Well, bring me three strips of linen, four double.” I then folded one, wet in arnica and water, and laid it on the collarbone, put two other bands, like a pair of suspenders, over the shoulders, crossing them both in front and behind, pinning the ends to the diaper, which gave the needed pressure without impeding the circulation anywhere. As I finished she gave me a look of budding confidence, and seemed satisfied that all was well. Several times, night and day, we wet the compresses and readjusted the bands, until all appearances of inflammation had subsided.”
At the end of ten days the two sons of AEsculapius appeared and made their examinations and said all was right, whereupon I told them how badly their bandages worked and what I had done myself. They smiled at each other, and one said,
“Well, after all, a mother’s instinct is better than a man’s reason.”
“Thank you gentlemen, there was no instinct about it. I did some hard thinking before I saw I could get a pressure on the shoulder without impeding the circulation, as you did.”
Thus, in the supreme moment of a young mother’s life,when I needed tender care and attention, I felt the whole responsibility of my child’s supervision; but though uncertain at every step of my own knowledge, I learned another lesson in self-reliance. I trusted neither men nor books absolutely after this, either in regard to the heavens above or the earth beneath, but continued to use my “mother’s instinct”, if “reason” is too dignified a term to apply to women’s thoughts. My advice to every mother is, above all other arts and sciences, study first what relates to babyhood, as there is no department of human action in which there is such lamentable ignorance.”