Since becoming acquainted with her testimony to Congress, (Solitude of the Self*), I have experienced Elizabeth Cady Stanton as my personal ancestor. I am including this verbal line sketch of her biography as such, as well as the imperative her place in the history of American women demands.
The creation of an identifiable movement for women’s rights in this country is attributed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her call for, conduct and keynote, Declaration of Sentiments,** of the 1848 Seneca Falls, New York Convention of Women. It’s enunciated goal of full suffrage for women, radical in its time, was achieved in 1920. The movement in the general sense continues today in its various permutations to settle for nothing less than political and cultural recognition of the equal rights for all humans.
Elizabeth Cady was born into a prominent family in Johnstown, New York, November 12, 1815. Her father, Daniel Cady was a lawyer, once time Congressman and Judge. Her mother, Margaret Livingstone, was of a prominent New York Dutch family. At her birth she had more in common with Abigail Adams than Gloria Steinem, or even the “Bloomer Girl” she emulated for a period later in life. Human rights and reform were active components of cultural ferment of the new nation. Anti-slavery movements were vibrant and insistent in the North in the United States and in Great Britain. Many of the intellectuals and socially prominent in the movement were Cady family friends and indeed the Cady family members. As on the case of most upper and middle class families, the Cady family slaves had been freed in 1827 by state law with little further note, private or public.
Energetic, bright, and curious, Elisabeth early on began observing and developing a philosophy of life and of everything her life touched. Her passion for learning and pleasure in a rich intellectual life drove her to press for as much formal academic education as was available. Her family was able and supportive of providing this for her and she attended Emma Willard’s school, the Troy Female Seminary where she received the best academic education then open to women. Her particular family environment focused her attention especially on the status of women. She met her future husband, Henry Brewster Stanton through family life. Stanton could be considered a professional movement and later political operative. (Pursuing a peripatetic journey in politics he ultimately became one of the founders of the Republican Party.)
In 1840 as newlyweds Henry and Elizabeth Stanton traveled as delegates to London to the legendary World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. The Convention is legendary for having refused to seat the female delegates; leaders without doubt in fear of alienating the antislavery movement’s Christian and Quaker religious allies. while considering them of greater importance than its female adherents.
During the crossing Elizabeth had come to know and be instructed by the American women long in the anti-slavery movement. All were also concerned with the plight of women “…..in London, she found such talk, spiked with the righteous anger triggered by the women’s exclusion, even more thrilling. It touched a chord. She found it ‘intensely gratifying to hear all that, through years of doubt, I had dimly thought, so freely discussed by other women.’ Stanton’s reverence for Lucretia Mott (“a broad, liberal thinker on politics, religion, and all questions of reform”) was immediate and unconditional. It is reported that it was during this trip to London that the idea to hold a convention for women’s right first occurred to her.”***
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a 33 yr mother of 3 boisterous sons when she, Lucretia Coffin Mott, and Martha Coffin Wright organized the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention of 1848. She was the principal author of the Declaration of Sentiments,** the organizing resolutions published by the convention. Taking the Declaration of Independence as its format it is considered one of the most brilliant intellectual formulations of the argument for the imperative that equally inalienable rights of women be recognized in law and custom. Frederick Douglas, an attendee and signatory declared it a “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.”****
In 1851, Stanton was introduced to Susan B. Anthony in Seneca Falls by her friend Amelia Bloomer. Their initial collaboration was in the Temperance movement but they soon became more focused on the struggle for suffrage for women. There was an immediate compatibility and affection that endured a lifetime. Anthony provided the courage and extremely effective organizing skills and Stanton the poetry and charisma for the movement. Politically it was wise and fortunate that the relentless activist Susan B. Anthony became the most prominent face and voice of the American women’s suffrage movement that secured the vote for women, finally nationally in 1920. Susan Anthony’s place in history is secure.
Researching for this biography reveals what a complex intellectual Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a controversial figure. She made many enemies, especially in Christian churches as she never let go and explored throughout her life the role of common Christian dogma in preserving dominance in marriage. She remains controversial still today. Today we are seeing politically motivated extreme conservatives projecting distorted interpretations onto to her in pursuit. their contemporary anti-feminist, anti-women goals. Also those pursuing African American studies in academia, in their interpretations, too often fail to hold firm to the context and perspective of the times in which she lived . Unfortunately documents written in her own hand were extensively modified or destroyed by family and colleagues after her death. We likely will never know the expanse of her intellectual explorations and the truths of her deepest heart.
The Solitude of the Self was January 18, 1892 testimony to the U. S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee late in her career. It has been published as an entity in itself by with an introduction by Linda Gordon.* I find little with to agree in Gordon’s introduction. I do not think it or Stanton’s life suggests “radical individualism” in the sense of today’s conservative politics.
Instead I believe Stanton’s intent was to communicate her lifetime position that women, married or not must, be considered in the law as separate individual human beings, unique but equal in their rights as human beings. Among those rights is the right of all women to define their nature and establish by choice their roles in the community, and as well be permitted full access to education and experiences that prepare her for all roles she may fill in a lifetime, including that of self care. (One can imagine the affirmation this provided to this young woman seeking in the 1950s access to a fill a lifetime role for which men were preferentially given access.)
I believe it is clear that she understood patriarchy to be a state sanctioned delegation of the very right to define women’s collective and individual natures to men, a religion rooted institution that in the name of love and protection was enfeebling and ensuring perpetual servitude and control. Our pioneer history of the visible facts of our womanhood’s competence continue to stress the limits of credibility for those who would in the name of “protection” deny us full citizenship. No better example than the sketch An Inspiration, A Grandmother that precedes this.
W. Lorraine Watkins — March 10, 2017
*Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Solitude of Self: Elizabeth Cady Stanton Appeals for Women’s Rights (Kindle Locations 261-262). Now & Then Reader. Kindle Edition. Kindle Edition.
***Ginzberg, Lori D.. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (p. 39). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
****North Star, July 28, 1848, as quoted in Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights, Philip S. Foner, ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992, pp. 49-51; originally published in October 26, 1902)