Frequently used in the shortened form the hand that rocks the cradle, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world means that the person who raises a child determines the character of that child and so influences the type of society that the next generation will create.
The phrase is first recorded in a speech delivered by the Reverend George W. Bethune, of Philadelphia, transcribed in Brief abstract of the fourth annual report of board of Managers of the New-York city Colonization Society, published in The American Christian Instructor (Milton, Pennsylvania) of April 1836:
“It has long been acknowledged that female influence, has controlled the world, whether for good or evil. It may be said, with great truth and certainty, that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world; and who would wish the sceptre taken from that hand? (Loud applause.)”
I have found a variant of the phrase in the review of Hints towards the Improvement of Female Education, a book by Mrs. Furlong, published in Edinburgh by John Johnston — review published in the Morning Advertiser (London) of Friday 29th March 1839:
In this little book there is much excellent wisdom, and we earnestly recommend its attentive perusal (not with a carping spirit of literary criticism, but with reference to the principles it advocates) to those who consider a well-directed female education one of the most important of social benefits. To woman is committed man’s first training—to her the hallowing influence of home, of the family circle and domestic hearth, owe their principal charm, and their abiding power over the wayward human heart throughout its devious worldly wanderings. The same hand that rocks the cradle of genius imparts and fosters its earliest moral bias, and on the mother it must, and often mainly, depends whether the highest natural gifts prove the glory or the reproach of their possessor; whether they shall aid in diffusing the moral beauty of a Seneca, or issue in the irregular actings of an Alcibiades or a Nero. Unspeakably important, then, is the right training of the female mind, and that its plastic obedience, in early years, to “the magistracy of habit” should moulded by judicious hands.
The following is from Aunt Betsey’s Fireside Lectures, published in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) on Saturday 23rd December 1848:
Our Kate is just like the rest of us, the descendant of old Adam, and, what for should I not say, a daughter of old Eve? for she it was that the devil threw his glamour over, and the pleasant voice of his bonny bride led the man astray. The apostle calls woman the weaker vessel, but he himself tells us that God put strength into weak things, and women are strong for good, but may be also, as all know, strong for evil. As you train the lassie, you make the wife and the mother; and the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, as some one says.
On Sunday 5th January 1992, The Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida) published a review by Bernard Weinraub of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), an American psychological thriller film directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay; this is the beginning of the review:
A happily married mother-to-be is sexually molested by her gynecologist during a physical examination. After the distraught woman complains to the authorities, the doctor commits suicide.
In the turmoil that follows, his widow, who also is pregnant, suffers a miscarriage. Emotionally shattered and financially ruined, the widow is bent on revenge against the woman who she believes has destroyed her life. A number of months later, she hires herself out as a mother’s helper to the unsuspecting victim.
At left: Rebecca de Mornay overstays her welcome in the home of Annabella Sciorra (left in picture at right) and her daughter Madeline Zima. Before long, no one in the household is safe in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, out this month.
from The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana)
Sunday 5th January 1992