By Cat Clark
Mattie Brinkerhoff is the author of one of the most resonant passages regarding women and abortion that have survived from the 19th century; a passage linking early feminist battles for women’s rights with that century’s debate about the persistent evils of abortion and infanticide.
“When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society—so when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged,” Brinkerhoff wrote in an 1869 essay in The Revolution, the newspaper published by more famous suffragists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Mattie (Martha) Brinkerhoff was a popular suffrage lecturer in the American Midwest. As a young woman, she toured Kansas in 1867 with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Olympia Brown, and in 1868 began to deliver speeches on women’s suffrage in Iowa, where she had her greatest success. At the same time, Brinkerhoff sought new subscribers to Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution, to which she herself contributed articles and notes from the lecture field. In a report to the American Equal Rights Association in 1869, she said her greatest difficulty was not having enough time to accept all the invitations to speak.
According to Louise Noun’s Strong-Minded Women, the Dubuque Herald (Iowa) applauded that “Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s [discourse] was logical, not sensational but earnest and truthful. What she says will be remembered.” Yet memorable as her words were to audiences, little may be found about Brinkerhoff’s work and life in histories of women’s suffrage. She was born in Missouri and lived, at least for a time, in Illinois. She was married, a mother, and her husband accompanied her on her tour of Iowa. There is evidence that she lectured in Wisconsin. Mary Newbury Adams wrote to Amelia Bloomer that Brinkerhoff’s divorce and remarriage around 1880 caused a scandal that Adams believed “hurt our cause here [in Iowa].” Noun suggests this scandal is the reason she is so little mentioned in history books.
Among the words that will be remembered is an 1869 article Brinkerhoff wrote for The Revolution, “Woman and Motherhood.” She argued for the elimination of coercive pressures that drive women to abortion, for the right of women to refuse the sexual demands of their husbands, for the education and enfranchisement of women, for women’s custody rights; in other words, for the freedom that comes with the creation and expansion of nonviolent choices for women.
Feminists for Life, like Mattie Brinkerhoff, recognizes that abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Circumstances have changed since 1869, but pregnant women still face tremendous challenges. Frederica Mathewes-Green shared Brinkerhoff’s concerns in one of FFL’s Sisterlife newsletters: “For the question remains, do women want abortion? Not like she [sic] wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate.”
For this reason, Feminists for Life is dedicated to systematically eliminating the root causes that drive women to abortion. Women deserve better.
Louise Noun, Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (The Iowa State University Press, 1969)
Mary Krane Derr, Rachel MacNair, and Linda Naranjo-Huebl, ProLife Feminism Yesterday & Today: Expanded Second Edition (Xlibris, 2005)
The Revolution (suffragist newspaper, New York, 1868-1869)
Cat Clark is author of "The Truth About Susan B. Anthony: Did One of America's First Feminists Oppose Abortion?" the feature story in the Spring 2007 issue of The American Feminist,® and "Herstory" on Pearl Buck (http://www.feministsforlife.org/taf/2004/spring/Spring04.pdf), and has served as a past editor of The American Feminist.®