Harriot Stanton Blatch ’1878
Born on January 20, 1856, in Seneca Falls, New York, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch was the second youngest of seven children of abolitionist Henry Brewster Stanton and woman suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her mother’s world of women’s rights activism marked Harriot’s childhood memories. Elizabeth Stanton occasionally recruited her children to assist her, and Harriot recalled in later life her mother’s “ready wit, her delicious humor” and her ability to transform any task into an adventure. “Our readiness to carry through the stint of daily labor,” she recalled, “would have soon waned if it had not been for my mother’s great gift as a conversationalist . . . . Her interesting stories, her amusing anecdotes made us forget the dullness of our job . . . . My mother was not beautiful but her blue eyes danced with life, with sympathy and understanding. She drew you to her service because of her abounding love.”
Harriot vividly remembered meeting such figures as Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. She and her siblings disliked Anthony, whom they considered a foil to their affectionate mother, and who disciplined the children harshly, once spanking Harriot’s brother. Anthony “won …more by compulsion than attraction,” Harriot remembered. “We were a bit afraid of her.” Harriot’s aversion to Anthony went beyond the suffragist’s harshness; she also believed Anthony to be partly responsible for her mother’s parental disengagement. Anthony’s “advent,” Harriot recalled, “meant that [our] resourceful mother was to retire as mentor and be entirely engrossed in writing a speech for Miss Anthony . . .while she kept [us] children out of sight and out of mind.” Harriot struggled with her mother’s frequent absence, recalling “many memories of separation from my mother,” and proclaiming that her “going away was always an acute pain to me.”
As a child, Harriot enjoyed a rich education at a variety of private institutions. A bright student, especially in language arts, she “possessed,” she recalled, “a knack of pronouncing correctly proper names and words I had never seen before and of whose meaning I had not the slightest idea.” She initially had her sights set on Cornell University, but her aunt, Harriet Cady Eaton, who funded her education, sent her to Vassar in 1874. Harriot resented much of that experience, calling Vassar “a slough of despond” and characterizing it as “an institution composed entirely of a disfranchised class which was definitely discouraged by the authorities from taking any interest whatsoever in its own political freedom.” Vassar lay in stark contrast to the “Cady-Stanton air” of her home life, which she described as “hot with discussion along every line,” with parents who encouraged their children to debate freely with them, challenging them in such subjects as politics and sociology.
Harriot responded by attempting to reform the institution. Elected president of the freshman class, she passed a regulation whereby students had to read the newspaper for 20 minutes each day or pay a fine. An avid supporter of New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, the 1876 Democratic presidential candidate, Harriot organized a Democratic Club. “This was the first time,” she later claimed, “politics had crossed the sacred threshold of this higher institution of learning. Our stirring appeals to non-voters for their indirect influence ended just before election day with a Tilden parade through the corridors of Old Main led by a vibrant comb and jews harp corps.” Tilden, the winner of the majority of the popular vote but the loser to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in electoral voting, sent a signed photograph to Harriot, expressing his appreciation. She continued to pursue her interest in politics at Vassar, founding both the Debating Club and the Vassar Political Club, persuading one of her professors to “get up a class in political economy,” and organizing a mock student election for the presidential election of 1876.
Despite her frustration with “immature” Vassar students, Harriot Stanton, who earned straight A’s in her junior year, established strong bonds with professors Truman Backus (English), Priscilla Braislin (Mathematics), and Maria Mitchell (Astronomy). In her memoir, she praises both Backus and Braislin, describing the latter as “a perfect teacher, the greatest gift in nature” and marveling at the “charming” personality of the former: “While I am grateful to him as a teacher, I am even more grateful to him for his gifts . . .as a social being.” She developed an interest in science, and a highlight of her Vassar education came when she enrolled in Mitchell’s astronomy course. According to Susan Anthony, Mitchell considered Harriot “the finest scholar in her classes.” In the summer of 1878, Mitchell invited Harriot to travel to Colorado, where she and five students would be official observers of the solar total eclipse. Harriot’s family, however, refused to allow her to attend, due to the expense. Nonetheless, Mitchell inspired in Harriot a passion for science. After graduation, she traveled extensively in pursuit of eclipses and examined the natural world, from mountains and lakes to geological formations sculpted by erosion, in her diary.
Over time, Harriot declared Vassar a “good institution.” She graduated with honors in 1878, and President Raymond told her mother that he had “rarely ever come in contact with such a clear, thinking, active, brilliant mind.” Harriot’s classmates also apparently held her in high esteem, predicting in the college yearbook that she might become the first female president.
Her mother wrote to Harriot frequently during her time at Vassar. These letters often proved obsequious and manipulative attempts to goad Harriot into writing more often. Stanton reminded Harriot to care for herself, not for her own benefit, but instead so that she could look after her mother in her elderly years. In an 1878 letter to Harriot, she wrote “I have made up my mind to stick to you henceforth like a burr. I must have something in human shape to love.”
Upon graduation, Harriot seemed prepared to appease her mother’s desire for an intimate relationship with her daughter. She enrolled in the Boston School of Oratory with the intention of eventually joining Stanton on her public lecture circuit. In her masterful biography, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage, Ellen DuBois, who spoke at Vassar in 1998 about Harriot’s time at the college, notes that “this plan met Elizabeth’s needs far better than it did Harriot’s. A future of mother and daughter traveling and speaking together reversed the psychological direction that Harriot had started to travel away from Elizabeth.” Her oratorical career proved short-lived, with audiences comparing her skills to those of her mother, who always came out on top. Harriot’s struggle to break from her mother’s shadow was intensified by the pressure Stanton placed on her daughter to follow in her footsteps as an activist. It took Harriot years to find her own unique—and prominent—place within the women’s rights movement.
In her search for an alternate vocation, Harriot approached her mother’s mentor, the social reformer and editor William Lloyd Garrison. He advised her to “Seize the first bit of work that offers, if it is honest and honorable. It will lead to something better.” Following Garrison’s recommendation, she accompanied two American girls on an extended trip to Germany as their paid companion and tutor in 1880. While Harriot welcomed a new adventure, her mother once again struggled with separation from her daughter, perhaps feeling remorse at her own preoccupation with work during much of Harriot’s childhood. In Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815–1897, Stanton regretted “how much more I might have done for the perfect development of my children.”
After two years, Harriot returned home in 1882 to nurse her ailing mother. Despite its unfortunate provocation, her return to America proved to be doubly auspicious. First, on the boat to America Harriot met William Henry Blatch, Jr., an English businessman who was later to become her husband. Also, arriving home, Harriot wrote the 120-page concluding chapter in volume 2 of History of Woman Suffrage, the multi-volume project undertaken by her mother, Susan Anthony, and others in 1876. When Stanton recovered, she and Harriot sailed to France, for a mother-daughter vacation of sorts. Harriot was pleased to have Stanton join an adventure she had crafted for herself as opposed to again following her mother’s path.
In France, Harriot married William Henry Blatch. Throughout her adolescence and early adulthood, she had entertained concerns about marriage, fearing confinement to domestic life. William, however, devoted himself to Harriot’s success outside the home. He had few social activities or involvements in political reform and remained content to simply support his wife’s career. Settled in England, Harriot gave birth to their first child, Nora Stanton Blatch, in September of 1883.
Elizabeth Stanton stayed by her daughter’s side throughout the pregnancy and left one month after Nora’s birth. Despite their separation, Stanton remained involved in the lives of both her daughter and granddaughter. Ellen DuBois suggests that now Harriot’s and Stanton’s relationship “was set in the context of Elizabeth’s overarching presence and Harriot’s continuing sense of her own daughterhood.”
The Blatch family remained for 20 years in England, where Harriot began to devote herself wholeheartedly to woman suffrage. In 1889, alongside British suffrage campaigner Elizabeth Wolstoneholme-Elmy, she co-founded the Women’s Franchise League, later the Women’s Political Union. Concerned with both woman suffrage and freedom from coverture—the assumption in English common law of a woman’s legal rights into those of her husband—the League engaged in party politics, local government, and Fabian socialism. During this time Harriot began to openly disagree with her mother on whether women of all classes should have the vote. While Stanton feared “the ignorant vote” and advocated for ballot literacy restrictions, Harriot insisted that “the proletariat, whether able to read or not, can give a more valuable opinion than any other class.” Publishing in a prominent American women’s rights journal an emphatic public letter wherein she disagreed with her mother’s point of view, Harriot boldly and publically defied her mother’s perspective, illustrating both her willful independence and her newfound maturity. In 1894, Harriot’s statistical study of the rural poor living in English villages earned her a master’s degree in mathematics from Vassar, which she received at the college’s 28th Commencement.
Harriot Stanton Blatch was one of the first prominent women in the British Fabian Society, a socialist organization founded in 1884 and dedicated to non-violent but politically radical social change. The society provided her two new mandates for women’s liberation: modern, upper-class women must learn to balance life in both the private and public spheres, and working-class women should serve as valuable models and leaders for doing so, ultimately creating a new vision of female emancipation and empowerment. Harriot herself had to find this balance between domestic life and her career as an activist. She waited eight years before giving birth, in 1892, to her second child, Helen Stanton Blatch, who died tragically of whooping cough at age four.
After 20 years in England, the Blatches moved back to New York. With the health of her 86-year-old mother in rapid decline, Harriot wrote in a letter to Susan Anthony, “I am so glad to be with Mother again.” In her final days, Elizabeth Stanton attempted to gain a place for Harriot in the suffrage movement after her death. Fearing New York suffrage leaders’ jealousy toward Harriot, Stanton requested that Anthony ensure her official invitation to all important suffrage conventions. Elizabeth Cady Stanton passed away on October 26, 1902, and Harriot, who planned the private funeral, responded to her mother’s passing with acceptance and resilience. In The Free Thought Magazine, the author Alice Chenoweth published, under the pen name Helen H. Gardener, Harriot’s account of her mother’s dying: “She drew herself up very erect (the doctor said the muscular strength was extraordinary) and there she stood for seven or eight minutes, steadily looking out, proudly before her . . . . When we urged her to sit down she fell asleep. Two hours later . . .we lifted her to her bed, and she slipped away peacefully in a few minutes.”
Harriot continued to battle tirelessly for woman suffrage. She joined the Equal Suffrage and Trade Union Leagues and the American Suffragettes, formed the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women to engage working-class women in suffrage, marched in parades and presented lectures, participated in lobbying and poll watching, organized the US speaking tour of British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankurst, and created her own newspaper, Women’s Political World. Focusing on legislative policies, Harriot maintained a reputation for disrespecting existing authority.
Harriot spoke several times at Vassar around the turn of the century. In 1894, she lectured to economics classes on “The Industrial Condition of Women in England,” and in 1899, she gave a series of five lectures on “The Economic Conditions of Women,” considering the reasons for women’s modest wages and asserting that women must receive the same general “manual education” as men. In 1902, speaking on “Handicrafts of England,” she explained the dangers of mechanization, as well the physical and social advantages of manual labor and amateur industries. In 1908, Blatch compared the value of women’s colleges with that of coeducational institutions at the alumnae luncheon held during Class Day exercises. The most famous of her discourses came the day before, on June 8, 1908, when Harriot and other members of the Equality League spoke on woman suffrage. As in her youth, she challenged the college’s conservative policies. Vassar President James Monroe Taylor barred any suffrage activities on college grounds, calling them political and not academic, so Harriot spoke to students at the cemetery adjacent to the campus in what came to be called the “graveyard rally.” Organized by student radical Inez Milholland ’09 to coincide with an alumnae reunion, the graveyard rally drew an audience of over 50 alumnae, students, and visitors, as well as wide attention from the press. Harriot’s connection to Vassar continued to play a role in her ongoing work for women’s rights. In New York City in 1912 she organized the 20,500-activist strong suffrage parade. Sporting a rose and gray cowl to symbolize her Vassar master’s degree, she delivered her “Final Word to Marchers,” as the march began: “March with head erect. Eyes to the front. Remember, you march for the mightiest reform the world has ever seen. The final word is, obey your Marshall. Remember you march for equality not privilege, for law, for order.”
In 1914, Harriot, Milholland, and other members of the Women’s Political Union visited Vassar alumna Katharine Bement Davis ’94, the recently appointed New York City commissioner of correction. After accepting their felicitations for her appointment, Davis informed Harriot that Davis’ grandmother, also a suffragist, had been a next-door neighbor to Stanton in Seneca Falls.
The following year, Harriot suffered yet another tragedy in her immediate family: the sudden death of her husband. As with the passing of her mother and daughter, Harriot faced this calamity with resilience. The passing of her husband coincided with another trial for her, the disappointing defeat of a referendum for a woman suffrage amendment. Harriot, who had been speaking for years in the lecture halls and on the streets to promote the legislation, reacted with open anger, publicly declaring that “The men stand—not listening—but hypnotized by the sight and sound of a woman making a speech.”
Continuing the fight for woman suffrage, in 1916, she campaigned along the west coast, mobilizing support in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Seattle, and Salem, Oregon. Harriot began to view the Democratic Party—which controlled the White House, Senate and House of Representatives—as central to the winning of woman suffrage, and she worked to recruit party members. As World War I intensified, however, Harriot turned her attention from the suffrage movement.
In a 1918 letter to suffragist Anne Henrietta Martin, she declared herself “red hot for the war,” asserting “I want ten million men put on the firing line as soon as they can be got there and I want women organized by women to enter on work and free men for the army.” Harriot ardently supported the war for two reasons. First, she endorsed the Allies, countries wherein women supposedly enjoyed more freedoms relative to women in the Central Powers. Second, war afforded women an opportunity to work outside of the home. In Mobilizing Woman-Power (1918), she proclaimed a feminist argument for war: “When men go awarring, women go to work.”
Seven months after this book appeared, Harriot travelled to Europe to search, in the war’s aftermath, the hypothetically improved status of women. Her optimism was quickly shattered; she arrived to a desolate, war-torn continent teeming with malnourished, miserable citizens. In her diary, Harriot called it “a city of the dead,” and asserted to her daughter Nora “the world is one big hate.” Her experience inspired the publication, in 1920, of another book on war: A Woman’s Point of View: Some Roads to Peace. This work differed markedly from its wartime counterpart as a disillusioned Harriot denounced war.
In 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Contrary to expectation, Harriot responded with relative dispassion. “She seems,” Ellen DuBois observes, “to have been impatient for the long, life-consuming struggle for woman suffrage to be over.” Furthermore, she recognized the struggles that lay ahead, understanding woman suffrage as a small step in a daunting battle for equality of the sexes.
Harriot refined her feminist views during this period. She believed that women, working alongside men, should develop a new party that included a feminist political agenda. In addition, Harriot advocated achieving economic independence for women, a goal she believed that the confining institution of motherhood hindered. She saw a solution in universal motherhood endowments, which, by compensating mothers for the care of their own children, liberated women from economic dependence on their husbands. She also became the first woman to publicly denounce proposed workplace legislation that threatened to impose on women such restrictions as maximum work hours and limitation to certain occupations.
Harriot also at this time joined the Socialist Party and published two booklets promoting socialism: Why I Joined the Socialist Party (1920/21) and To Mother (1920). In the latter, she asserted that, though their work remained underappreciated and kept them economically dependent, all mothers should be appreciated as laborers of the most vital sort. She further argued that upon achieving economic independence, mothers could provide an invaluable perspective to the socialist and women’s rights movements. Though Harriot did not directly reference her mother in the pamphlet, she implied that her late mother, a symbol of the Socialist Party’s post-suffrage feminism, had influenced her own views of motherhood. Harriot Stanton Blatch’s fight for suffrage and feminism remains inseparable from her relationship with her mother. As Ellen DuBois observes, “Her obligation to see that her mother’s memory was rightly honored and her commitment to her own distinctive political vision are impossible to separate from each other.”
In addition to enjoying time with her three grandchildren—Harriet (her quasi-namesake), Rhoda, and John—Harriot spent the final years of her life preserving Stanton’s legacy. When women’s rights activist Alice Paul, attempting to elevate the proposed constitutional amendment of her Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS) over that supported by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, named it “the Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” Harriot fought for the recognition of her mother as the amendment’s author, along with those who introduced it to Congress. In 1922, she and her brother Theodore published Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences, and Harriot wrote brief biographies of Stanton for the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences and the Women’s Journal. In the program for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Centennial Luncheon, held at the Hotel Astor on October 30, 1915, Harriot described her mother as “A queen among women . . . . A person of profound sympathies, wide culture and knowledge, and of marked intellectual ability.” Harriot declared, “It was [Stanton] who initiated the demand for suffrage for women in America. She advocated and brought to fruition many reforms that were necessary for the emancipation of women . . . . We of our generation owe an enormous debt for the things we enjoy to the ability and self-sacrifice of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
Harriot Stanton Blatch charted her own struggles and accomplishments in her autobiography, Challenging Years (1940), written with women’s rights activist Alma Lutz ‘18 in observance of Vassar’s seventy-fifth anniversary and of the twenty-fifth year of Henry Noble MacCracken’s presidency. Six months after the book’s publication, on November 20, 1940, Harriot passed away in the Alcorn Nursing Home in Greenwich, CT, at the age of 84. In her last years, she had remained loyal to Vassar, leading in 1938 the parade for Class Day, for which 800 alumnae gathered on campus. Harriot’s influence appeared at the college in 1976 when three students formed the “Harriot Stanton Club,” devoted to uniting different feminist factions in the school community. According to the Miscellany News, club members hoped “to give Harriet [sic] Stanton a second chance at Vassar.” Harriot also appears in Miscellany News articles from the 21st century, in which students honored her with summaries of her contribution to women’s rights. At Vassar and beyond, Harriot Stanton Blatch devoted her life to female liberation, employing her resilience, determination, and vivid political mind to empower women of all occupations and classes.
Blatch, Harriot Stanton and Alma Lutz. Challenging Years: The Memoirs of Harriot Stanton Blatch. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940.
DuBois, Ellen Carol. Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. New Haven: Yale University, 1997.
Gardener, Helen H. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” Free Thought Magazine, January 1903.
Swartz, Debbie. “Vassar Fights for the Women’s Vote.” Vassar Stories, November 7, 2017.
De Landri, Carla, “Harriet Stanton Club Attempts to Promote Feminist Unity,” Miscellany News, Vol. LXIV, No. 4, 24 September 1976.
Cruz, Jon. “The Vassar Chronicles: Early suffragists got their start at Vassar,” Miscellany News, Vol. CXXXVII, No. 6, 10 October 2003.
Cruz, Jon. “The Vassar Chronicles: Grads Who Made a Difference,” Miscellany News, Vol. CXXX, No. 1, 20 September 2002.
A Documentary Chronicle of Vassar College, https://www.vassar.edu/chronology , “June 13, 1894,” “February 27, 1899,” “January 10, 1902,” “June 8, 1908,” “June 9, 1908,” “May 6, 1912,” “June 10, 1938,” “May 2, 1984,” “October 5, 1988.”
VCencyclopedia, https://www.vassar.edu/vcencyclopedia, Elizabeth Daniels and Barbara Page, “The Suffrage Movement at Vassar.” Vassar College. 1983.
Harriot Stanton Blatch Papers, Vassar College Special Collections Library.