Document 1

Author: Mary Priscilla Sawtelle

Title: “Appeal for the Education of Mothers”

Date: July 1886

Source: Oberlin College Archives, 30/145, Box No. 2, Other Individuals, Dr. A. Clair Siddall, folder 1

Document Type: Printed Document

This document, an article from the Medico-Literary Journal, was written by Dr. Mary Priscilla Avery Sawtelle. This journal provided articles concerning health, science, moral reform, temperance, and other subjects broadly related to women and health. Sawtelle was publisher and editor of the Journal while Sarah Furnas Wells was co-editor. Sawtelle met Wells when she studied under her at the New York Medical College for Women, from which she graduated in 1872. Sawtelle collaborated with Sarah Furnas Wells in the creation of one of the first all-women’s medical schools in the country, the Women’s Medical College of the Pacific Coast.

Indianapolis Sanitarium portrait page of Sarah Furnas Wells, from the July 1886 issue of the Medico Literary Compend: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Medicine, Science, Health, Literature, Temperance and Moral Reform.
Indianapolis Sanitarium portrait page of Sarah Furnas Wells, from the July 1886 issue of the Medico Literary Compend: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Medicine, Science, Health, Literature, Temperance and Moral Reform.

In this article, Sawtelle provided a perspective on the relationship of medicine to the moral and social implications of sanitation. Sawtelle argued that the dissemination of accurate, accessible health information was connected to the well-being of mothers and children, which in turn would improve people’s lives and behavior at large. She asked readers to recognize childbirth and motherhood for the significant efforts they are and to value mothers’ work at home as much as they did men’s efforts in their own “business.” In its early years, Oberlin was designed to turn out the sort of educated mothers Sawtelle envisioned; the school’s founders believed motherhood was a woman’s duty despite educating female students on a level comparable to males. Knowledge about their bodies and other topics would make them competent mothers. As child-rearers, women shaped the next generation.

Sawtelle made a reference to the poem “A Woman’s Worth,” said to be written by “The German of Schiller,” possibly German poet Friederich Schiller. Schiller portrayed women as content in a silent, attractive existence, and contrasted this delicacy with the life of men, whose education and sense of the world hardened them or made them less “pure” than women. Sawtelle likely quoted this poem to show how women’s real experiences as wives and mothers, characterized by restlessness and unhappiness, contradicted notions of women who felt content in their dependence. Although women doctors of this period tended to emphasize child-rearing as necessary for women, this text implied leniency on Sawtelle’s part. Sarah Furnas Wells never had children, and accomplished the majority of her career while married, so one could assume her opinion, like Sawtelle’s, differed from that of most health reformers.


       There is no physician but must deplore the constant recurring disease, the wretched deformity, insanity, criminality and helplessness of pauperism, with which he [sic] daily comes in contact. He must have some feeble desire to prevent as well as cure disease. Seeing that very much of this appalling misery was caused from ignorance of proper sanitary conditions, we believed that a journal devoted to the diffusion of sound sanitary principles would be encouraged by the better, more advanced, class of thinking minds, and we have not been mistaken. The medical exchanges that have been generously sent to us, from which we have culled largely for our readers, has been, we believe, very generally appreciated and read by a class of people who have not had their attention drawn to such topics, and had fancied, as the earlier Christians did, that they could not read, think and act for themselves in regard to matters pertaining to health. Men have every kind of instruction that the human mind can invent to teach them all the various industries, while a woman’s business is the most important in the world—that of rearing her children, for which she receives no instruction whatever. Their ignorance hits us every one, for we are all babies sometime, however humiliating the thought. One of the saddest things in life is to see a great, brave man, who goes out into the world every day, accumulating health, wealth, power and position, while the rosy bloom is gone from the woman he married so long ago; the love he bore her for it is one of the mistiest dreams of the past, while the mysteries of life and a dead love are deepening about her, perplexing the poor, narrowed limits of her untutored mind, until she sinks into a willing household drudge, without mind enough to keep the disgusting black tartar from accumulating upon her own or children’s teeth, and the poor fellow thinks that all women are afflicted with mental inferiority as soon as they are married, while she thinks that men are selfish, unloving, and wholly void of truth when she remembers the girlish faith she had in the promises that lured her to this drudge’s life, full of pain and heartaches, with no brightness in it. Strange that “she in her limits confined should be wiser by far than he, with his science and lights of the mind1.” All there is in life for woman is the promise of her children, and they die two hundred thousand annually, in the United States alone, under one year old, and it costs something to take the statistics of the dead children of the woman you love2. Better have spent some money for medical literature that she might learn how to care for her children, but your conscience is quite seared and soothed by the doctor’s bill; but what could the doctor do after her ignorance had killed her child? That was only a waste which should have been spent in instruction for her, that she might be saved the wounds of her heart that are worse than battle scars. No flaunting flags or sounding drums sooth the wails of these wronged women. The plummet of grief has sounded its depths; they can never be again the fond, hopeful women, and while they are blinded with tears for the dead, their living children are going astray at a fearful cost. Forty millions of dollars are spent annually to keep the criminal classes in prison pens in our country while our statesmen are contesting for place. Money spent in educating mothers would yield an immense profit here in the way of preventing crime, would open many a prison pen with the joy of a better life. Now, if we consider the insane asylums teeming full, the alms-houses, and then to understand that there is not a happy home in all the land but is continually blighted with sickness, which must be at so great a cost that it would stagger the mind of the greatest statician [sic] to compile it, and made us think that a reasonable amount spent in educating women in their legitimate work of rearing children would be a good outlay, and we decide to publish the MEDICO-LITERARY JOURNAL. The first number appeared September, 1878, and has had a steady increasing popularity ever since. It is published monthly, $3.00 a year, in advance, by Mrs. M. P. Sawtelle, M. D.

Transcribed by Mavis Corrigan

1A. H. Davis, “Anonymous, ‘The Worth of Woman,’” Ladies’ Magazine and Album 10-11 (1848), 139.

2Children’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, The Children’s Bureau Legacy:

Ensuring the Right to Childhood, chap. 1. Accessed 7 May 2015, web address. The United States Children’s Bureau estimates that child mortality rates were more than 17 percent higher in the 1890s than they had been forty years earlier. In 1900, one-fourth of all children died by the age of five. Sawtelle’s concern about higher child mortality during the Progressive Era must have been an urgent issue to be addressed.