I am sitting in the rare manuscript reading room at the New York Public Library, drowning myself in cough drops to quiet my noisy cold when I turn the page of 19th century author, poet and women's rights lecturer Elizabeth Oakes Smith's tattered scrapbook to find a poem titled The Defrauded Soul. It begins with a quote:
"There is no crime, alas! so common, - no sin against God so black, -no outrage which the Angels so deplore, as pre-natal infanticide." - Dr. O'Leary
I think my gasp is audible, since I can hear the scratching of #2 pencils on scrap paper, the room is so quiet. I often wonder during my research of Elizabeth Oakes Smith if she ever addressed the life issue back in her day. In the 1800's it was a crime to have an abortion in the United States, and many women died painfully at the hands of inexperienced doctors. I wonder what side of the fence she sat on, being that she was pro-divorce and a very dedicated advocate of the poor.
It seems like every time a question regarding the character of Elizabeth Oakes Smith comes into my mind, an answer within the stacks of microfilm and scrapbooks pops out at me, and then I understand her a little better. Like the others, the poem is meticulously clipped out of a long-lost literary journal. Perhaps it was Godey's Lady's Book, Graham's American Monthly Magazine or the Southern Literary Messenger. Smith's poems, short stories, letters and essays were featured frequently in all of these publications. This strip of browning paper was taped into her own scrapbook and preserved for future generations. I'm sure Smith had her grand-daughters in mind when she wrote winding notes in the margins around the various clippings. Could she have imagined that she was saving her work for me also? I have a feeling she knew, and the words in the fourth stanza give me chills.
The beginning lines establish the story. A young woman is roaming around on a cold, rainy night, tormented by some unknown secret that forces her outdoors. She hears a baby crying from the ground, and suddenly it appears in her arms. The woman asks the child,
"Why dost thou call me- call me low?
Why do I hear thee, when I know
That thou art dead beneath the sod,
And thy dear soul at rest with God?
I hear thee sobbing, under the sod,
And I thought thy soul at home with God."The baby answers:
"O Cruel Mother! my Soul is robbed-
Robbed of the life that mine should be-
Robbed of the soul God meant for me:
I lie in the grave, and weep and sigh-
Alas that an Unborn babe should die!"
The child goes on to explain that it is stuck between two realms, seeing born children enter heaven and being barred from both worlds because of the mother's choice to abort. These lines reflect Elizabeth Oakes Smith's religious belief in the idea of souls in limbo.
The mother cries and sends a prayer up to heaven.
"Oh, God!" she cried, "the mystery! -
The mystery we little see,
Nor half our Motherhood implies,
Which we so wantonly despise;
The sacredness that round us lies;
The sacredness in all our Life;
The sacredness of Mother- Wife;
The foretaste in a holy love
Of God's sweet tenderness above!
Can fast and prayer, at any cost,
Retrieve the Unborn Soul that's lost?"
So the poem ends with a question, a mother's plan to change perspective, and right a wrong.
The Defrauded Soul is the first evidence I find proving Elizabeth Oakes Smith was clearly pro-life, like many of the early feminists. In fact, feminist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were very outspoken on the life issue.
Susan B. Anthony wrote in her publication The Revolution:
"Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; But oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime!"
Anthony charged men and women with a responsibility to respect unborn life. She goes on to write:
"All the articles on this subject that I have read have been from men. They denounce women as alone guilty, and never include man in any plans for the remedy."
Elizabeth Cady Stanton also wrote on this topic. She said,
These early feminists were pro-life, and pro-woman at the same time. And to think that some people do not think this is possible? Nat Hentoff, author of the article Revisionist: Her-Story in Boundless Webzine suggests that Ken Burns, producer of the documentary film Not For Ourselves Alone, a documentary on the lives of Stanton and Anthony, purposely left out the pro-life views of these prominent feminists. The film first aired on PBS.
I wonder if EOS would still be pro-life if she lived today? Would her ideas have changed as women gained equality in baby-steps? Would she view human rights for the unborn as a threat to women's rights? Everything I've read about her points to the idea that she was comfortable enough in her own skin, and perceptive enough spiritually to not feel threatened.
Read more at:
The article Revisionist: Her-Story is located at: http://www.boundless.org/2000/departments/isms/a0000260.html
Excerpts from The Defrauded Soul by Elizabeth Oakes Smith were copied from:
Box 3 F. 1 Scrapbook N.Y.P.L. Manuscript Division.
The image above is a copy of a portrait of Elizabeth Oakes Smith ca. 1845 by John Wesley Paradise, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton quote comes from: Letter to Julia Ward Howe, October 16, 1873, recorded in Howe's diary at Harvard University Library and The Revolution, 1(10):146-7 March 12, 1868
Susan B. Anthony quote comes from her publication: The Revolution, 4(1):4 July 8, 1869