August 27, 2014

Women of Doubt: Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought the law...and eventually, she won.

There are few names so easily recognized in the history of women in the United States as the comrades Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

It may surprise some of you--it surprised me--to see both enumerated in the halls of the Women of Doubt, but it's true. Both women were outspoken about religion and its role in repressing women.

Today's Woman of Doubt is Elizabeth Cady Stanton (although you can't really mention her without mentioning Susan too).

Stanton was a thinker and a haver of opinions...a skeptic and a questioner.

I love her. So, so much.

Who was Elizabeth Cady Stanton?

On November 12, 1815, Daniel and Margaret Livingston Cady welcomed their eighth child, a girl, into the world in Johnstown, New York. They named her Elizabeth.

If I can pause to interject--as I don't typically--I have to wonder to myself: What could they have thought that day, nearly 200 years ago? They could not have recognized that the little baby they were bringing into being was going to rock the foundations of how women viewed gender inequality that we still feel nearly two centuries later.

Daniel was a Federalist attorney who served in Congress from 1814 to 1817. He owned a law firm, and it was he who introduced his daughter to law, implanting the seeds that led to her later activist passions:
Even as a young girl, she enjoyed perusing her father's law library and debating legal issues with his law clerks. It was this early exposure to law that, in part, caused Stanton to realize how disproportionately the law favored men over women, particularly over married women. Her realization that married women had virtually no property, income, employment, or even custody rights over their own children, helped set her course toward changing these inequities.1
Daniel and Margaret had a total of eleven children. Five would die in infancy or early childhood. A sixth, their eldest son, died at the age of twenty, in a shock to both of his parents.

This had profound effect on Stanton's childhood. Her mother's depression at losing so many children--and so many so young--left the woman disconnected from her surviving children, including Stanton. Her father buried himself in his work to avoid dealing with the pain of losing so many, especially his eldest son and heir Eleazor. When Stanton, trying to comfort her father, told him she would try to be all that her brother was and would not be anymore, his response was, "How I wish you were a boy," and one can imagine the profound effect this had on the young woman.

The absence, to an extent, of her parents left Stanton looking to fill the void. She wound up with many sources of support. Her eldest sister, Tryphena, found herself carrying on most of the child-rearing duties her mother could not bring herself to do with the help of her husband, Edward Bayard. Bayard was the son of U.S. Senator James A. Baynard, Sr, and an apprentice at Cady's law firm. He actively encouraged Stanton's curiosity in law, nurturing her understanding of gender hierarchies, both those implicit and those explicit within the legal system.

She also found support outside of her family:
In her memoir, Stanton credits the Cadys' neighbor, Rev. Simon Hosack, with strongly encouraging her intellectual development and academic abilities at a time when she felt these were undervalued by her father. Writing of her brother, Eleazar's, death in 1826, Stanton remembers trying to comfort her father, saying that she would try to be all her brother had been. At the time, her father's response devastated Stanton: "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" Understanding from this that her father valued boys above girls, Stanton tearfully took her disappointment to Hosack, whose firm belief in her abilities counteracted her father's perceived disparagement. Hosack went on to teach Stanton Greek, encouraged her to read widely, and ultimately bequeathed to her his own Greek lexicon along with other books. His confirmation of her intellectual abilities strengthened Stanton's confidence and self-esteem.1
Stanton was formally educated at the Johnstown Academy until age sixteen, studying classic languages, mathematics, religion, science, French, and writing in co-ed classes and successfully competing with her classmates--including boys her age and older--for academic awards and honors.

Following graduation, Stanton encountered sexism in her post-secondary collegiate attempts. While her male classmates--even those not as talented as herself--went on to Union College, Stanton was not allowed. Instead, she studied at the Troy Female Seminary. It was here, in 1831, that she attended a six week long revival that left her struck with fear and anxiety. Her solution was to study science:
Her brother-in-law Edward Bayard encouraged her to read books and articles on science. She took his advice, and as she recalled years later, "religious superstition gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts."3
Stanton would continue to seek a solution to religious misogyny throughout her life:
Throughout her life Elizabeth Cady Stanton searched unsuccesfully for a religion in which men and women were seen as equals. She grew more radical in her opposition to organized religion as she grew older. As she neared her 80th birthday she launched a project to reinterpret and critique biblical texts and recruited a small committee of women to work on it. The first volume of The Woman's Bible was published in 1895 to a mostly hostile reception. Many people in the woman suffrage movement reacted negatively to the book out of fear it would diminish the ranks of their supporters. All the controversy made the book a best-seller.3
She met her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, through their work in the temperance and abolitionist movements. They married in 1840. Stanton demanded that the phrase "promise to obey" be removed from their vows, on the grounds that she was entering into an equal partnership. Between 1842 and 1859, they would have seven children, six of whom were planned (the last, Robert, was a surprise). While Stanton took her husband's surname, she refused to be known as Mrs. Henry Brewster Stanton, insisting that women were human beings worthy of individual identities of their own too. Thus her very name--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, proudly signed on every document she wrote--is a testament to her own view of feminism.

Despite deep ideological differences--her husband actually opposed women's suffrage, believe it or not--the Stantons by all accounts reckoned their 47 year union a success. They were married until Henry's death in 1887.

It should be noted that Stanton's entrance into political and social activism did not begin with women's rights. As mentioned above, Stanton was first involved in temperance and abolition. Stanton's entrance into the Women's Rights Movement began with her introduction to Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, in London in 1840. At the convention, it was decided that women would be seated in a separate roped off section, out of sight of the men, with no ability to participate in the proceedings--even if they, like Mott, had been selected as the only delegates of their abolitionist organizations. Even William Lloyd Garrison protested the decision by sitting with the women during the convention.

At the same time, Stanton found it difficult to be a housewife. Combined with her early experiences, her education, and the experience in London, she was a veritable powder keg of feminist ambition that finally went off. She worked together with Mott, Martha Coffin Wright (Mott's sister), and a handful of other women to organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which was attended by over 300 people. It was for this event that Stanton drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence:
An eloquent writer, her Declaration of Sentiments was a revolutionary call for women's rights across a variety of spectrums.2
Stanton had met Anthony while working on temperance, but the two quickly became a formidable force in the world of women's rights.

In a somewhat surprising move, Stanton virulently opposed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments following the Civil War. She felt these amendments not only still failed to grant women's suffrage, but that they also increased the potential pool of male voters who could fight against suffrage at the polls exponentially. Sadly, this was not Stanton's shining moment--much of her rhetoric was subtly or even blatantly racist, even if her motives were simply to attempt to get the vote for everyone.

Her vehement opposition split the women's rights movement, causing a schism that would not be repaired for nearly twenty years.

Stanton continued to support women's rights through the remainder of her life, even as her health deteriorated. She passed into nonexistence in New York City on October 26, 1902, just shy of her 87th birthday.

It would be another eighteen years before her life's work--women's suffrage--was achieved. The 19th Amendment would be ratified on August 18, 1920.

What did Elizabeth Cady Stanton have to say?

Check out a selection of her quotes here.

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.

Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.

Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving.

The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women's emancipation.

What was Elizabeth Cady Stanton's influence?

 Perhaps the next time you find yourself voting with a vagina, you can answer this yourself. ;)

In the meantime, let's take a look at what some fairly smart people have to say.

One of Stanton's enduring legacies is that she did not focus on just women's suffrage. Her early experience in her father's law library showed her that the breadth of inequality in woman's position in the world didn't start and stop at the ballot box:
Unlike many of those involved in the women's rights movement, Stanton addressed various issues pertaining to women beyond voting rights. Her concerns included women's parental and custody rights, property rights, employment and income rights, divorce, the economic health of the family, and birth control.1
A writer for Biography (you know, that channel you probably surf by like I do) put it like this:
More so than many other women in that movement, she was able and willing to speak out on a wide spectrum of issues - from the primacy of legislatures over the courts and constitution, to women's right to ride bicycles - and she deserves to be recognized as one of the more remarkable individuals in American history.2
This focus is one reason why, to me especially, Stanton is so relevant to women's rights today--to feminism today. She did not limit herself to one aspect, but rather tackled women's rights overall.

Stanton was also a key founder of the concept of feminist biblical critiques. Jennifer Michael Hecht explains:
Stanton spoke out on myriad church-and-state issues (a campaign she led managed to keep the World's Fair open on Sundays) and initiated feminist biblical criticism, pointing out how man "can stand in the most holy places in the temples, where woman may never enter," and that, throughout the Bible, "there is a suspicion of unworthiness and uncleanness" regarding women. She commented, in her wry tone, that you can't even sacrifice a female goat to God. But it wasn't really funny. As she proclaimed in 1882: "According to Church teaching, woman was an after-thought in the creation, the author of sin, being at once in collusion with Satan. Her sex was made a crime, marriage a condition of slavery, owing obedience, maternity a curse, and the true position of all womankind one of inferiority and subjection to all men; and the same idea are echoed in our pulpits to-day."4
For quite a while, Stanton's place in founding the women's rights movement was overlooked, in large part because of her religious questioning:
After Stanton's death, her unorthodox ideas about religion and emphasis on female employment and other women's issues led many suffragists to focus on Anthony, rather than Stanton, as the founder of the women's suffrage movement. Stanton's controversial publishing of The Woman's Bible in 1895 had alienated more religiously traditional suffragists, and had cemented Anthony's place as the more readily recognized leader of the female suffrage movement.1


One of the aspects of Stanton that I love is her humor. When she announced the birth of her second daughter to Anthony, she said:
Well, another female child is born into the world! Last Sunday afternoon, Harriet Eaton Stanton--oh! the little heretic thus to desecrate that holy holiday--opened her soft blue eyes on this mundane sphere. 
I can't begin to imagine how frustrating it was to fight the good fight in those early days--I know how far we have come, and yet, it's still infuriating today. To see her approach it with such optimism and humor is inspiring in a grand way.


1 "Elizabeth Cady Stanton". Wikipedia. <> Accessed August 26, 2014

2 "Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Biography". Biography. <> Accessed August 26, 2014.

3 "Elizabeth Cady Stanton: On Religion". <> Accessed August 26, 2014.

4 Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History: The Great Doubts and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 391-392.

No comments:

Post a Comment