SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — An exhibit on Mary Baker Eddy opened this past weekend at the National Park Service's Women's Rights National Historical park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to mark her role as a women's rights advocate.
The founder of this newspaper, Mrs. Eddy has long been recognized publicly as a 19th-century religious leader who founded a worldwide church. But her accomplishments as women's rights reformer are less known.
"We found that there was a story there about Mary Baker Eddy that people don't know," says Mary Ellen Snyder, the chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the park. "They might know about her founding The Christian Science Monitor or the Christian Science Church, but they don't know what caused her, what motivated her to establish her beliefs and what kind of situation she was in as a women in the 1840s, and what leadership she brought to the women's rights movement."
"She fits the pattern of reformers, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who at a time when women didn't take leadership roles, took a leadership stand," she adds.
'This is Woman's Hour'
The title of the exhibit, "This is Woman's Hour" is taken from the booklet "No and Yes," first published in 1887, 33 years before women won the right to vote, in which Mrs. Eddy wrote: "In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable.... This is woman's hour with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms."
Ms. Snyder says the discovery of Mrs. Eddy's contribution to the women's rights movement dovetailed with a National Park Service initiative called the "untold stories concept" in which individual parks "focus on defining the theme each park is trying to interpret and finding parts of the story that aren't being told."
A single mother
At the time of the First Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, Mrs. Eddy was still in her late 20s and living hundreds of miles away in New Hampshire. She was a single mother, who had lost rights to her own property and was struggling with chronic ill health. There was little to suggest to the casual observer that she would become one of the great religious reformers of the century and a committed advocate for women's rights.
But by the time of her passing in 1910, Mrs. Eddy was the author of a groundbreaking book on spirituality and healing, the founder and leader of a worldwide church, the president and founder of a teaching college, the publisher and editor of monthly and weekly magazines, and the founder of this newspaper.
Unlike some of the more famous women's rights leaders of the day, Mrs. Eddy did not take public political stands. But in her major work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" - listed by the Women's National Book Association as one of the 75 books by women whose words have changed the world - Mrs. Eddy recognized the need for change: "Civil law establishes very unfair differences between the rights of the two sexes.... Our laws are not impartial, to say the least, in their discrimination as to the person, property, and parental claims of the two sexes."
"What of Mrs. Eddy? No man has obtained so large a following in so short a time," wrote Susan B. Anthony of Mrs. Eddy's accomplishments.
But it wasn't just her accomplishments that were so effective, says Jillian Gill, the author of a soon-to-be released biography of Mrs. Eddy.
"She was on the front lines of empowering women at the individual level," says Dr. Gill.
"She taught women - and men for that matter - to take control of meeting their own individual challenges and to teach others to do the same. She encouraged them to preach and take active roles in their communities."
But Myriam Contigulia, executive director of Celebrate '98, the group hosting this year's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of women's rights in Seneca Falls, says it was more than just Mrs. Eddy's teachings and encouragement that makes her an effective role model for women.
"She was an ordinary woman like the rest of us, who had a set of experiences that made her lead her life in a certain direction, and as a result became someone who changed society and people's lives and the way that they think," says Ms. Contigulia. "She showed by her example that women's potential was unlimited. That's a legacy worthy of recognition."