MoboReader > Literature > Eighty Years and More; Reminiscences 1815-1897

   Chapter 2 SCHOOL DAYS.

Eighty Years and More; Reminiscences 1815-1897 By Elizabeth Cady Stanton Characters: 24428

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

When I was eleven years old, two events occurred which changed considerably the current of my life. My only brother, who had just graduated from Union College, came home to die. A young man of great talent and promise, he was the pride of my father's heart. We early felt that this son filled a larger place in our father's affections and future plans than the five daughters together. Well do I remember how tenderly he watched my brother in his last illness, the sighs and tears he gave vent to as he slowly walked up and down the hall, and, when the last sad moment came, and we were all assembled to say farewell in the silent chamber of death, how broken were his utterances as he knelt and prayed for comfort and support. I still recall, too, going into the large darkened parlor to see my brother, and finding the casket, mirrors, and pictures all draped in white, and my father seated by his side, pale and immovable. As he took no notice of me, after standing a long while, I climbed upon his knee, when he mechanically put his arm about me and, with my head resting against his beating heart, we both sat in silence, he thinking of the wreck of all his hopes in the loss of a dear son, and I wondering what could be said or done to fill the void in his breast. At length he heaved a deep sigh and said: "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" Throwing my arms about his neck, I replied: "I will try to be all my brother was."

Then and there I resolved that I would not give so much time as heretofore to play, but would study and strive to be at the head of all my classes and thus delight my father's heart. All that day and far into the night I pondered the problem of boyhood. I thought that the chief thing to be done in order to equal boys was to be learned and courageous. So I decided to study Greek and learn to manage a horse. Having formed this conclusion I fell asleep. My resolutions, unlike many such made at night, did not vanish with the coming light. I arose early and hastened to put them into execution. They were resolutions never to be forgotten-destined to mold my character anew. As soon as I was dressed I hastened to our good pastor, Rev. Simon Hosack, who was always early at work in his garden.

"Doctor," said I, "which do you like best, boys or girls?"

"Why, girls, to be sure; I would not give you for all the boys in Christendom."

"My father," I replied, "prefers boys; he wishes I was one, and I intend to be as near like one as possible. I am going to ride on horseback and study Greek. Will you give me a Greek lesson now, doctor? I want to begin at once."

"Yes, child," said he, throwing down his hoe, "come into my library and we will begin without delay."

He entered fully into the feeling of suffering and sorrow which took possession of me when I discovered that a girl weighed less in the scale of being than a boy, and he praised my determination to prove the contrary. The old grammar which he had studied in the University of Glasgow was soon in my hands, and the Greek article was learned before breakfast.

Then came the sad pageantry of death, the weeping of friends, the dark rooms, the ghostly stillness, the exhortation to the living to prepare for death, the solemn prayer, the mournful chant, the funeral cortège, the solemn, tolling bell, the burial. How I suffered during those sad days! What strange undefined fears of the unknown took possession of me! For months afterward, at the twilight hour, I went with my father to the new-made grave. Near it stood two tall poplar trees, against one of which I leaned, while my father threw himself on the grave, with outstretched arms, as if to embrace his child. At last the frosts and storms of November came and threw a chilling barrier between the living and the dead, and we went there no more.

During all this time I kept up my lessons at the parsonage and made rapid progress. I surprised even my teacher, who thought me capable of doing anything. I learned to drive, and to leap a fence and ditch on horseback. I taxed every power, hoping some day to hear my father say: "Well, a girl is as good as a boy, after all." But he never said it. When the doctor came over to spend the evening with us, I would whisper in his ear: "Tell my father how fast I get on," and he would tell him, and was lavish in his praises. But my father only paced the room, sighed, and showed that he wished I were a boy; and I, not knowing why he felt thus, would hide my tears of vexation on the doctor's shoulder.

Soon after this I began to study Latin, Greek, and mathematics with a class of boys in the Academy, many of whom were much older than I. For three years one boy kept his place at the head of the class, and I always stood next. Two prizes were offered in Greek. I strove for one and took the second. How well I remember my joy in receiving that prize. There was no sentiment of ambition, rivalry, or triumph over my companions, nor feeling of satisfaction in receiving this honor in the presence of those assembled on the day of the exhibition. One thought alone filled my mind. "Now," said I, "my father will be satisfied with me." So, as soon as we were dismissed, I ran down the hill, rushed breathless into his office, laid the new Greek Testament, which was my prize, on his table and exclaimed: "There, I got it!" He took up the book, asked me some questions about the class, the teachers, the spectators, and, evidently pleased, handed it back to me. Then, while I stood looking and waiting for him to say something which would show that he recognized the equality of the daughter with the son, he kissed me on the forehead and exclaimed, with a sigh, "Ah, you should have been a boy!"

My joy was turned to sadness. I ran to my good doctor. He chased my bitter tears away, and soothed me with unbounded praises and visions of future success. He was then confined to the house with his last illness. He asked me that day if I would like to have, when he was gone, the old lexicon, Testament, and grammar that we had so often thumbed together. "Yes, but I would rather have you stay," I replied, "for what can I do when you are gone?" "Oh," said he tenderly, "I shall not be gone; my spirit will still be with you, watching you in all life's struggles." Noble, generous friend! He had but little on earth to bequeath to anyone, but when the last scene in his life was ended, and his will was opened, sure enough there was a clause saying: "My Greek lexicon, Testament, and grammar, and four volumes of Scott's commentaries, I will to Elizabeth Cady." I never look at these books without a feeling of thankfulness that in childhood I was blessed with such a friend and teacher.

I can truly say, after an experience of seventy years, that all the cares and anxieties, the trials and disappointments of my whole life, are light, when balanced with my sufferings in childhood and youth from the theological dogmas which I sincerely believed, and the gloom connected with everything associated with the name of religion, the church, the parsonage, the graveyard, and the solemn, tolling bell. Everything connected with death was then rendered inexpressibly dolorous. The body, covered with a black pall, was borne on the shoulders of men; the mourners were in crape and walked with bowed heads, while the neighbors who had tears to shed, did so copiously and summoned up their saddest facial expressions. At the grave came the sober warnings to the living and sometimes frightful prophesies as to the state of the dead. All this pageantry of woe and visions of the unknown land beyond the tomb, often haunted my midnight dreams and shadowed the sunshine of my days. The parsonage, with its bare walls and floors, its shriveled mistress and her blind sister, more like ghostly shadows than human flesh and blood; the two black servants, racked with rheumatism and odoriferous with a pungent oil they used in the vain hope of making their weary limbs more supple; the aged parson buried in his library in the midst of musty books and papers-all this only added to the gloom of my surroundings. The church, which was bare, with no furnace to warm us, no organ to gladden our hearts, no choir to lead our songs of praise in harmony, was sadly lacking in all attractions for the youthful mind. The preacher, shut up in an octagonal box high above our heads, gave us sermons over an hour long, and the chorister, in a similar box below him, intoned line after line of David's Psalms, while, like a flock of sheep at the heels of their shepherd, the congregation, without regard to time or tune, straggled after their leader.

Years later, the introduction of stoves, a violoncello, Wesley's hymns, and a choir split the church in twain. These old Scotch Presbyterians were opposed to all innovations that would afford their people paths of flowery ease on the road to Heaven. So, when the thermometer was twenty degrees below zero on the Johnstown Hills, four hundred feet above the Mohawk Valley, we trudged along through the snow, foot-stoves in hand, to the cold hospitalities of the "Lord's House," there to be chilled to the very core by listening to sermons on "predestination," "justification by faith," and "eternal damnation."

To be restless, or to fall asleep under such solemn circumstances was a sure evidence of total depravity, and of the machinations of the devil striving to turn one's heart from God and his ordinances. As I was guilty of these shortcomings and many more, I early believed myself a veritable child of the Evil One, and suffered endless fears lest he should come some night and claim me as his own. To me he was a personal, ever-present reality, crouching in a dark corner of the nursery. Ah! how many times I have stolen out of bed, and sat shivering on the stairs, where the hall lamp and the sound of voices from the parlor would, in a measure, mitigate my terror. Thanks to a vigorous constitution and overflowing animal spirits, I was able to endure for years the strain of these depressing influences, until my reasoning powers and common sense triumphed at last over my imagination. The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with any of the superstitions of the Christian religion. But there have been many changes, even in my native town, since those dark days. Our old church was turned into a mitten factory, and the pleasant hum of machinery and the glad faces of men and women have chased the evil spirits to their hiding places. One finds at Johnstown now, beautiful churches, ornamented cemeteries, and cheerful men and women, quite emancipated from the nonsense and terrors of the old theologies.

An important event in our family circle was the marriage of my oldest sister, Tryphena, to Edward Bayard of Wilmington, Delaware. He was a graduate of Union College, a classmate of my brother, and frequently visited at my father's house. At the end of his college course, he came with his brother Henry to study law in Johnstown. A quiet, retired little village was thought to be a good place in which to sequester young men bent on completing their education, as they were there safe from the temptations and distracting influences of large cities. In addition to this consideration, my father's reputation made his office a desirable resort for students, who, furthermore, not only improved their opportunities by reading Blackstone, Kent, and Story, but also by making love to the Judge's daughters. We thus had the advantage of many pleasant acquaintances from the leading families in the country, and, in this way, it was that four of the sisters eventually selected most worthy husbands.

Though only twenty-one years of age when married, Edward Bayard was a tall, fully developed man, remarkably fine looking, with cultivated literary taste and a profound knowledge of human nature. Warm and affectionate, generous to a fault in giving and serving, he was soon a great favorite in the family, and gradually filled the void made in all our hearts by the loss of the brother and son.

My father was so fully occupied with the duties of his profession, which often called him from

home, and my mother so weary with the cares of a large family, having had ten children, though only five survived at this time, that they were quite willing to shift their burdens to younger shoulders. Our eldest sister and her husband, therefore, soon became our counselors and advisers. They selected our clothing, books, schools, acquaintances, and directed our reading and amusements. Thus the reins of domestic government, little by little, passed into their hands, and the family arrangements were in a manner greatly improved in favor of greater liberty for the children.

The advent of Edward and Henry Bayard was an inestimable blessing to us. With them came an era of picnics, birthday parties, and endless amusements; the buying of pictures, fairy books, musical instruments and ponies, and frequent excursions with parties on horseback. Fresh from college, they made our lessons in Latin, Greek, and mathematics so easy that we studied with real pleasure and had more leisure for play. Henry Bayard's chief pleasures were walking, riding, and playing all manner of games, from jack-straws to chess, with the three younger sisters, and we have often said that the three years he passed in Johnstown were the most delightful of our girlhood.

Immediately after the death of my brother, a journey was planned to visit our grandmother Cady, who lived in Canaan, Columbia County, about twenty miles from Albany. My two younger sisters and myself had never been outside of our own county before, and the very thought of a journey roused our enthusiasm to the highest pitch. On a bright day in September we started, packed in two carriages. We were wild with delight as we drove down the Mohawk Valley, with its beautiful river and its many bridges and ferryboats. When we reached Schenectady, the first city we had ever seen, we stopped to dine at the old Given's Hotel, where we broke loose from all the moorings of propriety on beholding the paper on the dining-room wall, illustrating in brilliant colors the great events in sacred history. There were the Patriarchs, with flowing beards and in gorgeous attire; Abraham, offering up Isaac; Joseph, with his coat of many colors, thrown into a pit by his brethren; Noah's ark on an ocean of waters; Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea; Rebecca at the well, and Moses in the bulrushes. All these distinguished personages were familiar to us, and to see them here for the first time in living colors, made silence and eating impossible. We dashed around the room, calling to each other: "Oh, Kate, look here!" "Oh, Madge, look there!" "See little Moses!" "See the angels on Jacob's ladder!" Our exclamations could not be kept within bounds. The guests were amused beyond description, while my mother and elder sisters were equally mortified; but Mr. Bayard, who appreciated our childish surprise and delight, smiled and said: "I'll take them around and show them the pictures, and then they will be able to dine," which we finally did.

On our way to Albany we were forced to listen to no end of dissertations on manners, and severe criticisms on our behavior at the hotel, but we were too happy and astonished with all we saw to take a subjective view of ourselves. Even Peter in his new livery, who had not seen much more than we had, while looking out of the corners of his eyes, maintained a quiet dignity and conjured us "not to act as if we had just come out of the woods and had never seen anything before." However, there are conditions in the child soul in which repression is impossible, when the mind takes in nothing but its own enjoyment, and when even the sense of hearing is lost in that of sight. The whole party awoke to that fact at last. Children are not actors. We never had experienced anything like this journey, and how could we help being surprised and delighted?

When we drove into Albany, the first large city we had ever visited, we exclaimed, "Why, it's general training, here!" We had acquired our ideas of crowds from our country militia reviews. Fortunately, there was no pictorial wall paper in the old City Hotel. But the decree had gone forth that, on the remainder of the journey, our meals would be served in a private room, with Peter to wait on us. This seemed like going back to the nursery days and was very humiliating. But eating, even there, was difficult, as we could hear the band from the old museum, and, as our windows opened on the street, the continual panorama of people and carriages passing by was quite as enticing as the Bible scenes in Schenectady. In the evening we walked around to see the city lighted, to look into the shop windows, and to visit the museum. The next morning we started for Canaan, our enthusiasm still unabated, though strong hopes were expressed that we would be toned down with the fatigues of the first day's journey.

The large farm with its cattle, sheep, hens, ducks, turkeys, and geese; its creamery, looms, and spinning wheel; its fruits and vegetables; the drives among the grand old hills; the blessed old grandmother, and the many aunts, uncles, and cousins to kiss, all this kept us still in a whirlpool of excitement. Our joy bubbled over of itself; it was beyond our control. After spending a delightful week at Canaan, we departed, with an addition to our party, much to Peter's disgust, of a bright, coal-black boy of fifteen summers. Peter kept grumbling that he had children enough to look after already, but, as the boy was handsome and intelligent, could read, write, play on the jewsharp and banjo, sing, dance, and stand on his head, we were charmed with this new-found treasure, who proved later to be a great family blessing. We were less vivacious on the return trip. Whether this was due to Peter's untiring efforts to keep us within bounds, or whether the novelty of the journey was in a measure gone, it is difficult to determine, but we evidently were not so buoyant and were duly complimented on our good behavior.

When we reached home and told our village companions what we had seen in our extensive travels (just seventy miles from home) they were filled with wonder, and we became heroines in their estimation. After this we took frequent journeys to Saratoga, the Northern Lakes, Utica, and Peterboro, but were never again so entirely swept from our feet as with the biblical illustrations in the dining room of the old Given's Hotel.

As my father's office joined the house, I spent there much of my time, when out of school, listening to the clients stating their cases, talking with the students, and reading the laws in regard to woman. In our Scotch neighborhood many men still retained the old feudal ideas of women and property. Fathers, at their death, would will the bulk of their property to the eldest son, with the proviso that the mother was to have a home with him. Hence it was not unusual for the mother, who had brought all the property into the family, to be made an unhappy dependent on the bounty of an uncongenial daughter-in-law and a dissipated son. The tears and complaints of the women who came to my father for legal advice touched my heart and early drew my attention to the injustice and cruelty of the laws. As the practice of the law was my father's business, I could not exactly understand why he could not alleviate the sufferings of these women. So, in order to enlighten me, he would take down his books and show me the inexorable statutes. The students, observing my interest, would amuse themselves by reading to me all the worst laws they could find, over which I would laugh and cry by turns. One Christmas morning I went into the office to show them, among other of my presents, a new coral necklace and bracelets. They all admired the jewelry and then began to tease me with hypothetical cases of future ownership. "Now," said Henry Bayard, "if in due time you should be my wife, those ornaments would be mine; I could take them and lock them up, and you could never wear them except with my permission. I could even exchange them for a box of cigars, and you could watch them evaporate in smoke."

With this constant bantering from students and the sad complaints of the women, my mind was sorely perplexed. So when, from time to time, my attention was called to these odious laws, I would mark them with a pencil, and becoming more and more convinced of the necessity of taking some active measures against these unjust provisions, I resolved to seize the first opportunity, when alone in the office, to cut every one of them out of the books; supposing my father and his library were the beginning and the end of the law. However, this mutilation of his volumes was never accomplished, for dear old Flora Campbell, to whom I confided my plan for the amelioration of the wrongs of my unhappy sex, warned my father of what I proposed to do. Without letting me know that he had discovered my secret, he explained to me one evening how laws were made, the large number of lawyers and libraries there were all over the State, and that if his library should burn up it would make no difference in woman's condition. "When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech," said he, "you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators; tell them all you have seen in this office-the sufferings of these Scotchwomen, robbed of their inheritance and left dependent on their unworthy sons, and, if you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter." Thus was the future object of my life foreshadowed and my duty plainly outlined by him who was most opposed to my public career when, in due time, I entered upon it.

Until I was sixteen years old, I was a faithful student in the Johnstown Academy with a class of boys. Though I was the only girl in the higher classes of mathematics and the languages, yet, in our plays, all the girls and boys mingled freely together. In running races, sliding downhill, and snowballing, we made no distinction of sex. True, the boys would carry the school books and pull the sleighs up hill for their favorite girls, but equality was the general basis of our school relations. I dare say the boys did not make their snowballs quite so hard when pelting the girls, nor wash their faces with the same vehemence as they did each other's, but there was no public evidence of partiality. However, if any boy was too rough or took advantage of a girl smaller than himself, he was promptly thrashed by his fellows. There was an unwritten law and public sentiment in that little Academy world that enabled us to study and play together with the greatest freedom and harmony.

From the academy the boys of my class went to Union College at Schenectady. When those with whom I had studied and contended for prizes for five years came to bid me good-by, and I learned of the barrier that prevented me from following in their footsteps-"no girls admitted here"-my vexation and mortification knew no bounds. I remember, now, how proud and handsome the boys looked in their new clothes, as they jumped into the old stage coach and drove off, and how lonely I felt when they were gone and I had nothing to do, for the plans for my future were yet undetermined. Again I felt more keenly than ever the humiliation of the distinctions made on the ground of sex.

My time was now occupied with riding on horseback, studying the game of chess, and continually squabbling with the law students over the rights of women. Something was always coming up in the experiences of everyday life, or in the books we were reading, to give us fresh topics for argument. They would read passages from the British classics quite as aggravating as the laws. They delighted in extracts from Shakespeare, especially from "The Taming of the Shrew," an admirable satire in itself on the old common law of England. I hated Petruchio as if he were a real man. Young Bayard would recite with unction the famous reply of Milton's ideal woman to Adam: "God thy law, thou mine." The Bible, too, was brought into requisition. In fact it seemed to me that every book taught the "divinely ordained" headship of man; but my mind never yielded to this popular heresy.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top