On April 18, 2018, the United States Senate voted unanimously that both male and female senators could bring infants up to one year old into the chamber. This vote was prompted by Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s desire to come to the floor of the Senate to vote when her daughter, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, was only 10 days old. Despite the unanimous vote for the rule change, there was some concern, most notably from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch who asked, “But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?” Reportedly, there was also panic over whether or not senators would have to witness diaper changes and breastfeeding.
As a historian of the early American republic, I can tell you that political panic over babies and women as mothers is not a new thing. Before women won their right to vote and to hold office, women’s reproductive potential was used to invoke laughter or terror at the thought of women in positions of political power.
For me, Senator Hatch’s response was reminiscent of William Cobbett’s long letter to the editor of the American Monthly Review in 1795 entitled, “A Kick for a Bite; Or, Review Upon Review; With a Critical Essay, On the Works of Mrs. S. Rowson.” Cobbett was a crabby pamphleteer who wrote under the name Peter Porcupine and who was appalled by Susanna Rowson’s performance on the stage in Slaves in Algiers, a play she had also written. The play, a story about Americans held captive in North Africa, had premiered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1794.
Everything about Rowson alarmed Cobbett, but most of all was this: when the final curtain fell, Rowson rushed to the front of the stage to ask how “d’ye like my play?” She then claimed, “Women were born for universal sway;/ Men to adore, be silent, and obey.” In this moment, she took gender roles and turned them on their heads, claiming supremacy for women over men, claiming that men should be the silent sex, obeying women rather than vice versa.
While Rowson may have intended this to be played for a laugh, it disconcerted Cobbett. In his letter to the American Monthly Review, he steamed about Rowson’s claim that women were born for universal sway. He railed against the era’s marriage reform that meant some couples took the word “obey” out of the bride’s vows. He laughed at the possibility of women in the halls of Congress: “Who knows but our present house [sic] of Representatives, for instance, may be succeeded by members of the other sex?”
He continued, “If the speaker should happen to be with child that would be nothing to us, who have so long been accustomed to the sight; and if she should even lie in, during the sessions, her place might be supplied by her aunt or grandmother.”1 For Cobbett, women and their bodies, with all of their reproductive functions, did not belong in the halls of political power.
However, in late 18th-century North America, the question of whether women — bodies and all — should be completely left out of the body politic was hard to ignore. In a short piece of fiction, the author Charles Brockden Brown had his character Alcuin ask, “Shall the young, the poor, the stranger, and the females, be admitted, indiscriminately, to political privileges? Shall we annex no condition to a voter than he be a thing in human shape, not lunatic, and capable of locomotion?”2
Very few American citizens were in favor of letting anyone “indiscriminately” into the body politic, but what about letting people in using logical discrimination? In Alcuin, Brown’s character Mrs. Carter responded to the question with this: “All women, however, are not wives and wards. Granting that such are disqualified, what shall we say of those who are indisputably single, affluent and independent?”3
Many of those in power during the American Revolution and into the early republic, of course, thought that excluding women was natural and right. For these men and women, women’s bodies — in part because of their reproductive functions — needed to be protected from external dangers. In retelling a version of the American Revolution on July 4, 1802, Levi Glezen said that in 1776 Americans “had now assumed the voice and conduct of a man.”4
In manhood, they had risen up against the British injustices. Glezen listed these injustices and he included in the list that “women and children had been put to flight.”5 A year later, Robert Barnwell contrasted the civilized United States with unnamed others. He said, “In barbarous states, where courage alone is valued, where no law is acknowledged but that of force, and no appeal allowed but that of personal strength; there women becomes the degraded slave, and oft, too oft, the trembling victim of the brutal savage.”6
To these men, government existed, in part, to protect the bodies of women from those who wished to harm them.
These same men believed, however, that the government that protected women should not include them in positions of power. If women stepped outside their proper roles, they could be in danger of bodily changes. In 1774, when a group of women in Edenton, North Carolina publicly signed a complete ban on all trade between America and Great Britain as an act of protest against Parliament’s Coercive Acts, Philip Dawes drew a cartoon mocking the idea of women in politics and had it published in a London newspaper.
The thinking that this cartoon reflected continued, although not unchallenged, into the early republic. “Female politicians” as they were called, were unnatural and looked like men. The untended child toward the front of the cartoon speaks to these women’s neglect in their duties as mothers.7 Women had stepped outside of accepted public roles during and after the Revolution, becoming, according to their critics, unnatural creatures.
We should hope that the 243 years that have passed since that cartoon was published would mean that these attitudes have been left behind. Unfortunately, as the debate over Tammy Duckworth bringing her infant daughter to the Senate floor tells us, there remain some in our country whose thinking mirrors, too closely for my taste, that of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There are still people who find women, and particularly mothers, in the halls of political power unnatural.
But, as Tammy Duckworth wrote in a statement in which she thanked her colleagues, the Senate rules change helped to “bring the Senate into the 21st century by recognizing that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work.” Those expressing disapproval, who perhaps privately wished to not bring the Senate into the 21st century, tended to be older, male senators.
When senators like Orrin Hatch were in their child-rearing years, it was not only expected that they would be married to a person of the opposite sex, but it was also expected that their wives be full-time caregivers to their children. When Hatch entered the Senate in 1977, there were no female members of that body. Even today, less than a quarter of the Senate seats are held by women; this speaks to the ongoing political barriers women face as well as the continued expectation that women serve as the primary caregivers to children.
Legally, Cobbett-like arguments against women’s participation no longer stand; however, the thinking of some of our citizens still lags behind legislative changes. For those of us who understand, as Duckworth does, that sometimes parents (and not just new ones) have responsibilities, allowing children into the spaces where those responsibilities are carried out just makes sense.
As a professor who allows parents to bring children with them into the classroom when need be, I can tell Hatch and others that infants and children do not interfere with the workings of the classroom, nor would they interfere with the workings of the Senate. In my experience, the classroom environment becomes richer and healthier for the presence of children. Or, as Senator Amy Klobucher said, “We could only wish we had 10 babies on the floor. That would be a delight.”
- William Cobbett, “A Kick for a Bite; Or, Review Upon Review; With a Critical Essay, on the Works of Mrs. S. Rowson; In a Letter to the Editor, or Editors, of the American Monthly Review,” in David A. Wilson, Peter Porcupine in America: Pamphlets on Republicanism and Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 131. Return to text.
- Charles Brockden Brown, Alcuin: A Dialogue (New York: T & J Swords, 1798), 66. Return to text.
- Brown, Alcuin, 68. Return to text.
- Emphasis in the original. Levi Glezen, An Oration, Delivered before the Citizens of Lenox, on the Anniversary of American Independence, 1802 (Pittsfield: Phinehas Allen, 1802), 8. Return to text.
- Glezen, An Oration, 8. Return to text.
- Robert Barnwell, An Oration, Delivered before the Philomathean Society and Inhabitants of Beaufort, South Carolina (Charleston: John J. Evans & Co., 1803), 31. Return to text.
- Robert Sayer and John Bennett, Publisher, and Philip Dawe, A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina. London: Printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett, 1775, US Library of Congress. Return to text.