November 12 was the bicentennial of the birth of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of America’s most prominent and extraordinary women’s right leaders. The event passed largely un-noticed. We missed a chance to pause and reflect on her leadership and also on the issues she wrestled with, some of which are still with us.
Stanton deserves more recognition. She was, of course, the main organizer of the famous Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848, which issued a ringing declaration demanding the right to vote. But there are several other reasons for studying her career.
A brilliant document with staying power. The Seneca Falls convention report, drafted on the fly by Stanton and her colleagues in a few days before the convention and revised and fleshed out during it, is one of the most carefully written and eloquent documents in U.S. history. It has two parts. The first, “Declaration of Sentiments,” sets forth issues and problems. It paralleled the Declaration of Independence in wording, substituting men in general for the tyrant King George III, and toting up the grievances, for example, “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.” The second part, a series of resolutions, blended principles, demands and goals. The resolutions demanded the franchise but also equality before the law, in the church and in the arena of public debate: “It is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means.” Women’s rights advocates drew on, cited and quoted from the declaration for the next half-century.
Multiple dovetailing reforms. Stanton’s reform issues were broad-scale. She saw the right to vote as essential, in part because it would lead to other things. She was an advocate of temperance reform, a campaigner for abolition of slavery, a crusader for legal equality (including full rights to inherit, own and bequeath property and serve as business proprietors), equal partners with men in marriage and legal right to divorce. She also wanted better pay for women.
A flair for communication. Stanton was a frequent and forceful public speaker and a prolific writer. She had a flair for blending eloquence, drama, logic, humor and appeals to history in hundreds of letters to the editor, speeches, tracts and articles over the half century after Seneca Falls. In a speech to the New York State Legislature in February 1860, she compared women’s status to that of slaves, a jarring comparison at a time when slavery was being intensely debated just before the Civil War. At the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City later the same year, she denounced inequality in marriage, asserting that “there is one kind of marriage that has not been tried, and that is a contract made by equal parties to lead an equal life with equal restraints and privileges on either side.”
Personal courage. She showed great personal courage, once appearing at a rally in Albany where there was such threat of violence that the city’s mayor called out extra police and himself sat on the stage with a pistol prominently displayed on his lap. Stanton was not one to soft-pedal or mince words. She was never deterred by snide comments (often, ironically, from women) to the effect that she ought to stay home, take care of her husband and children and stop making waves, or by mockery or setbacks, her heart, soul and mind always with the cause. “We have thrown our bombshell into the center of woman’s degradation and of course we have raised a rumpus,” she wrote a friend after one fiery speech.
The right to run for political office. Much of Stanton’s work was carried out in tandem with Susan B. Anthony, whom she met in 1851. “Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains,” Stanton wrote. They considered themselves equals and were among the most effective two-person reform teams in U.S. history. Anthony had more of a single-minded devotion to votes for women, while Stanton’s perspectives and interests were broader. Anthony is perhaps best remembered for asserting her right to vote in Rochester in the 1872 presidential election. She was arrested, convicted and fined, and famously refused to pay the fine. Legal authorities wisely decided not to enforce it. Less well known is Stanton’s equally audacious, defiant act of running for Congress in New York City in 1868. She received few votes, but made the dramatic point that women should not only vote but also assert their right to assume positions of political power.
Assailing organized religion. In the early 1890s, she assembled a committee of at least 25 women to produce a work challenging the traditional religious orthodoxy that women should be subservient to men. The committee identified passages in the Bible that referred to women or that had implications for them and showed that many of the passages had been misinterprted, taken out of context or written by men with the intention of suppressing women. Most of her committee members were feminist activists rather than Biblical scholars, and Stanton herself did most of the writing of a new version of the Bible, entitled The Woman’s Bible. The first volume, covering the Old Testament, was published in 1895; the second, covering the New Testament, three years later. The Woman’s Bible was a best-seller but garnered mostly hostile reactions, including some from women’s groups who thought it would harm their cause.
Documenting the cause. Stanton was a crusader but she wanted to leave a record for those who followed, both to document what happened and to inspire those who came afterward. Her autobiography, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897, published in 1898, is the most important first-hand account of the women’s rights movement in the latter 19th century. She not only recalls her own long life and career, but also provides information on other leaders (and opponents) and on key events in the movement, showing how they developed and what followed as a result. With Anthony and others, she began editing a multi-volume history of the women’s rights movement, including copies of pamphlets, speeches and other source material, a project that continued after her death. It is still one of the best sources for historians studying that crusade.
A complicated personality. Stanton was a down-to-earth individual, personable, with a sense of humor. Like most people, she was sometimes hard to read, confounding historians who would like their heroes and heroines to be totally consistent. She was sometimes unnecessarily contentious, competing with others for leadership of women’s reform organizations. She was often too quick to conclude people who opposed her were acting from ignorance or malevolence. She was inclined to nurse grudges. She was resentful when, after the Civil War, black men were guaranteed voting rights via amendments to the U.S. Constitution, while women of all races were still denied those rights. Occasionally she turned morose. Her last speech to Congress, in 1892, entitled “The Solitude of Self,” was introspective and brooding. She emphasized “the individuality of each human soul” and the struggles that individuals, men and women alike, face in life. But as always, she reinforced her central message: women need rights and empowerment to deal with the “awful solitude” they necessarily face.
Staying with the cause to the end. Stanton’s health declined and her eyesight dimmed in her later years. But her inner drive and mental energy never flagged. She gradually cut out public speaking but kept writing. On the day before she died in 1902, she finished work on two articles and composed a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln immortalized himself by freeing the slaves, she wrote; now TR should immortalize himself by “bringing about the complete emancipation of 36 million women” through granting the right to vote.
Reflecting in Eighty Years and More on a celebration of her 80th birthday on November 15, 1895, she said “The birthday celebration was to me more than a beautiful pageant; more than a personal tribute. It was the dawn of a new day for the Mothers of the Race!” That was typical of Stanton—calling attention away from herself and toward the cause, citing the momentum of achievement, optimistic about the future. Her highest goal, the right of women to vote across the nation, would not come to fruition until 1920, 18 years after her death. But as she also noted in her autobiography, “…now, many conventions are held each year…social customs have changed; laws have been modified; municipal suffrage has been granted to women in England and some of her colonies; school suffrage has been granted to women in half of our states; municipal suffrage in Kansas, and full suffrage in four States of the Union.”
Stanton was an outstanding reform leader. We can learn from her example more than two centuries after her birth.
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