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Stanton, Elizabeth Cadyfree

(12 November 1815–26 October 1902)
  • Ann D. Gordon

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-29801).

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (12 November 1815–26 October 1902), woman suffragist and writer, was born in Johnstown, New York, the daughter of Margaret Livingston and Daniel Cady, a distinguished lawyer, state assemblyman, and congressman. She received her education at the Johnstown Academy and Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary and studied Greek with a local minister. Her knowledge of the law began at home, in conversations with her father, at dinners with New York’s legal establishment, and in the social life of five Cady daughters and the stream of young men who came to Johnstown to study with Daniel Cady. The strict Scotch Presbyterianism and social conservatism of Elizabeth’s upbringing were mitigated by the radicalism of her first cousin Gerrit Smith, an eccentric philanthropist, abolitionist, and religious critic, for whom Daniel Cady acted as lawyer and adviser. Back at home at the end of her schooling, Elizabeth occupied herself for several years with the family-centered duties of a wealthy daughter, including visits to relatives. A stay of several months with Gerrit Smith’s family in the fall of 1839 introduced her to the prominent abolitionist orator Henry Brewster Stanton.

Origin of the Women’s Rights Movement

Elizabeth Cady married Henry Stanton in 1840, after the couple weathered the storm of Daniel Cady’s disapproval. Henry Stanton had no means of support. He had cut short his professional training to work for immediate emancipation, loaned his savings to other antislavery agents, and worked for the financially troubled American Anti-Slavery Society without pay. After a wedding in Johnstown, the Stantons sailed to England to attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Stanton later located the origins of the British and the American women rights movements in that convention’s decision to bar American women, including Lucretia Mott, from taking their seats as delegates.

Marriage transformed Elizabeth’s life in many ways. Henry agreed to complete his legal training with his father-in-law when the couple returned from abroad, but his preference for reform over his profession kept him poor and often away from home. Though Elizabeth Stanton lived a relatively prosperous life, she never attained the wealth that her parents and sisters enjoyed. Further, raising the seven children that she bore between 1842 and 1859 fell chiefly to her. Marriage, however, set in motion her metamorphosis into a reformer. Within months, she met all the leading women of the antislavery movement, who opened her mind to the puzzle of women’s rights.

During the first seven years of her marriage Stanton lived variously in Johnstown and Albany with her parents and in Boston with her husband, while she deepened new friendships with Angelina Grimké, Sarah Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and members of the Boston and Philadelphia female antislavery societies. The lessons she learned were complex. In Boston she was drawn to the abolitionists who favored William Lloyd Garrison’s moral absolutism; she hosted her husband’s allies in the Liberty party who opposed Garrison; and she struggled to understand Theodore Parker’s Transcendentalism. In Albany she dined with lawyers, judges, and legislators who debated legal reform and the property rights of married women and anticipated New York’s constitutional convention of 1846. In correspondence with Mott and the Grimkés, she confronted religious questions as well as themes of women’s individualism. Everyone who met her in the 1840s seemed taken with her charm and potential, and if she were to become a reformer, her friends expected her to reject orthodoxy and discover her own understanding of the divine will.

Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls (1848)

In 1847 the Stantons moved to Seneca Falls, New York, their home until 1862. A year later Elizabeth Cady Stanton initiated the call for a women’s rights convention. From that meeting at Seneca Falls, on 19–20 July 1848, women issued the demand that their sacred right to the elective franchise be recognized. They wrote a Declaration of Sentiments and resolutions, arguing that consistency with the fundamental principles of the American Revolution required an end to women’s taxation without representation and government without their consent. It accused men of usurping divine power and denying women their consciences by dictating the proper sphere of womankind. To illustrate women’s disabilities under the law, the authors echoed attacks by legal reformers on English common law, particularly the principle that a woman lost her individual identity and rights when she married. The largest group at the 1848 meeting were antislavery Quakers from Rochester and Waterloo, New York, dissidents in the Society of Friends who were establishing the Congregational (later Progressive) Friends. Among them the convention’s message found its strongest support, at a second convention in Rochester a few weeks later, in a modest petition campaign for woman suffrage late in 1848, and in the yearly meetings of Progressive Friends thereafter. Decades later Stanton wrote that advocacy of suffrage for women met resistance and that Frederick Douglass helped her to sway the crowd in its favor. Though nothing in the contemporary record confirms that story, the opposition of Friends and Garrisonians to voting could explain why participants doubted the importance of suffrage.

Women elsewhere took note of events in New York. Petitions for property rights and suffrage circulated in several states, and beginning in the spring of 1850 conventions of women’s rights advocates became commonplace from Indiana to New England. This fledgling reform movement recognized Elizabeth Cady Stanton as one of its leaders, although her co-workers knew her principally by her writing until the Civil War. She wrote for Amelia Bloomer’s Lily and Paulina Wright Davis’s Una, and the letters, speeches, and resolutions she sent to most of the antebellum conventions were published in the antislavery and women’s press. In her articles and public letters she embraced a wide range of changes that women of her generation were pursuing—entering medical schools, wearing short hair, experimenting with more rational dress, writing novels, and taking unusual jobs—and interpreted this cultural upheaval as part and parcel of her own pursuit of women’s autonomy.

Goals for Women’s Political and Legal Rights

Stanton’s goals were well defined (and controversial) before the Civil War. The right to vote measured how well society respected human rights, with disfranchisement signaling the refusal of white males to acknowledge equals. Women needed the vote because men could not represent them, she argued. She varied her explanations of why representation failed. When she indicted the laws of New York, she noted that the interests of men and women sometimes collided, in laws about child custody, for instance, and men legislated their own interests. At other times, especially but not exclusively after the war, she minimized conflict between the sexes to argue that neither men nor women could govern well alone, that a good society needed women’s views to complement men’s.

Stanton also developed early her demand that women’s individualism be guaranteed within marriage. A married woman’s right to property and wages should be inalienable, and her right to exit from an abusive or destructive marriage assured. Her right to decide with whom and when to bear children should be inviolate. Criticism of Stanton’s views of marriage and divorce came not only from angry clergymen defending a sacrament and men unwilling to yield their marital rights, but also from erstwhile allies such as Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who found her ideas too close to those of free lovers, and Caroline Dall of Boston, who wanted discussion of women’s rights confined to education, jobs, and suffrage.

Though best known for exposing the legal and political bases of women’s degradation, Stanton held churches accountable as well. When a local minister preached against the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, she boldly contested his interpretation of biblical passages and disputed his conviction that Christianity tolerated inequality. Like the radical abolitionists who demanded that churches condemn slavery, women, she believed, should renounce churches and ministers who proclaimed their inferiority. Until called to account by more cautious co-workers, she appealed to the women of New York to remember that constitutions and the words of St. Paul were mere parchments that should not limit their aspirations.

Agitating for Reform with Susan B. Anthony

Stanton’s participation in the women’s rights movement intensified when, in 1851, she met Susan B. Anthony, an activist in the temperance movement and a friend of Rochester’s women’s rights advocates. Tied down by children and an absent husband, Stanton depended on Anthony’s greater mobility and her willingness to build a movement for women’s rights. Together they made New York a laboratory for agitation. In their first collaboration in 1852, Stanton joined Anthony’s cause and presided over the Women’s New York State Temperance Society until she was voted out of office because of her views on equal rights and her conviction that women needed the right to divorce. In 1854 they launched their first campaign to change specific laws regarding women, and while Anthony circulated petitions and tracts, organized meetings, and lobbied the legislature, Stanton crafted the arguments. From a sampling of laws regarding women, wives, mothers, and widows, she portrayed women caught in an unjust system that limited their custody of children, took their earnings, kept them at the mercy of dissolute husbands, and deprived them as widows of a home. Yearly until the Civil War Stanton and Anthony renewed their pressure on the legislature, extracting favorable reports in some years and mockery in others. In 1860, when Republicans controlled the legislature, they won a major revision in laws regarding the economic rights of married women, the custody rights of mothers, and equal rights for widows. When the war began, they were embarked on a similar campaign to rewrite New York’s divorce law.

Stanton left Seneca Falls in 1862 to spend the next seven years in Brooklyn and New York City. When the Civil War brought women’s rights meetings to a halt, she envisaged roles for women in the North’s political mobilization. In 1863 she urged the loyal women of the North to prepare for the nation’s reconstruction as a true republic and convened the Women’s Loyal National League. Working with ladies’ aid and antislavery societies as well as the league, Stanton and Anthony provided Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner with 400,000 signatures to petitions for the Thirteenth Amendment by the summer of 1864. Although the league copied women’s earliest and least controversial antislavery activism as petitioners to Congress, its independence worried abolitionists. Rather than operating under the leadership of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the league pursued a strategy for emancipation that Garrison himself had not yet endorsed. Old alliances suffered further when Stanton identified the league with the presidential aspirations of John C. Frémont in 1864.

A New Direction after the Civil War

Beginning with the loyal league, Stanton gave new direction to the women’s rights movement by making it a vehicle for expressing women’s interests in politics, and during Reconstruction that new direction splintered the antebellum alliance of antislavery and women’s rights forces. When Congress opened discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment at the end of 1865, Stanton joined the antislavery leadership in opposing educated suffrage or other restrictions on the voting rights to be granted to the former slaves. But when that leadership supported Republican proposals to enshrine manhood suffrage as the new standard of republican government, Stanton convened the American Equal Rights Association in the spring of 1866 to promote universal suffrage, competing directly with the American Anti-Slavery Society. In addition to petitioning Congress for universal suffrage, the association campaigned in most northern states where new suffrage requirements were under consideration. Stanton herself lectured in the campaigns of New York and Kansas. By the summer of 1867 abolitionists and Republican leaders openly opposed attempts to win woman suffrage in the states. A furious Stanton returned from Kansas in the company of the notorious George Francis Train, a Democrat and blatant racist, insisting that woman suffragists would find whatever allies they could and that no new voters should be added unless all citizens were given the right to vote. To make her point she lectured against the Fifteenth Amendment. This defiant political message shaped the Revolution, the newspaper she coedited with Parker Pillsbury from 1868 to 1870. It inspired the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), founded in 1869. It informed her tour of the Midwest in 1869, when she raised fears that enfranchising black men endangered white women.

Stanton never stepped back to explain her decision to abandon the tradition of human rights, though she believed that her former allies preceded her in betrayal. In their effort to enfranchise freedmen in the South, they divided the rights of men from those of women, distinguished citizenship from voting rights, and refused to establish as constitutional law the principle that the federal government should protect voters. She also never retracted the attacks on African Americans that she leveled while mounting this fight. She did, however, stop herself. When time proved the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments inadequate protection for blacks’ voting rights in the South, she mounted the biggest suffrage campaign of her lifetime for “National Protection for National Citizens,” arguing that the voting rights of all citizens were too important to be left to the states and should be guaranteed by constitutional amendment.

National Protection Campaign

The national protection campaign, in which Stanton worked closely with Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage and through the NWSA, began at the centennial celebrations of 1876. For eight years they mobilized women nationwide to petition Congress for a sixteenth, woman suffrage amendment, introduced in 1878 and voted down in 1887. So impressive was their progress that the rival American Woman Suffrage Association, under the leadership of Lucy Stone, which had focused on changing state laws, circulated the congressional petitions. The campaign also caught the attention of Frances Willard and the enormous Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, whose work for woman suffrage dated from this same period.

At age sixty-five Stanton began to reduce her workload. She toured the country as a lecturer for the last time in 1880, after eleven years on the lyceum circuit. Never fond of meetings, she found more excuses to avoid them. She also closed the house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she had moved in 1868, and resided chiefly with her children. From May 1882 through November 1883, from November 1886 to March 1888, and again from February 1890 to August 1891, she lived abroad with two children who had married and started families in Europe. Stanton was hardly idle. Between 1881 and her death, she published five books and hundreds of articles, and she still averaged three or four major speeches each year. Freed from lecturing, she completed the historical project that she and Anthony and Gage had started in the centennial year. Volumes one and two of the History of Woman Suffrage were published in 1881 and 1882. She worked on the third volume (published in 1886) in 1884 and 1885, when she resumed housekeeping to take care of her aging husband. (Henry Stanton died in 1887, after his wife returned to England.)

Return to Universal Suffrage

A more private life allowed Stanton to become a critic of the woman suffrage movement. Nominally president of the NWSA and its successor, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, until 1892, she was increasingly an outsider to a movement drawing adherents from evangelical churches, attracting believers in women’s moral superiority and southerners who abhorred federal protection of voting rights, and empowering women who understood nothing of the lessons of human rights. Only Susan B. Anthony’s insistence kept her in the association formed by merging the National and American suffrage associations, and she was defiant on its platform. At the first joint convention in 1890 she reaffirmed the importance of federal protection for voting rights, disputed the faith of Americans in state-by-state campaigning, and tied both to the growing disfranchisement of African Americans in southern states. The retreat from Reconstruction, she proclaimed, and the Supreme Court’s declarations “that the United States has no voters and that citizenship does not carry with it the right of suffrage, not only have prolonged woman’s disfranchisement but have undermined the status of the freedmen and opened the way for another war of races” (Anthony and Harper, vol. 4, p. 165). She lent her name to new, dissident suffrage societies carrying out the old goals of a secular movement for federal guarantees based on the argument of human equality. Her last appearance on the Washington stage came in 1892, when she addressed the House Judiciary Committee on “The Solitude of Self.” Reprising themes of her speeches and articles since the 1850s, she spoke eloquently about woman’s responsibility for herself and society’s need to protect her individual rights.

In 1894 Stanton moved again off the center of universal suffrage. After a bitter defeat for woman suffrage in the New York State constitutional convention, she proposed educated suffrage as a reform more palatable to a generation of politicians who accepted Jim Crow in the South and dreaded the immigrant wave in the North. Educated suffrage, she argued, was fairer than existing standards, albeit a lowlier goal than universal suffrage. As many reformers had reasoned before her, she saw that education was not destiny, like gender or race, but a temporary status amenable to change.

What set Stanton apart most of all in her last decades was her conviction that the next great struggle would occur not against the state but against churches. In 1885 she tried to shepherd the NWSA into the fray and introduced resolutions “impeaching the Christian theology—as well as all other forms of religion, for their degrading teachings in regard to woman” (Eighty Years and More, p. 383). At about the same time she solicited contributors to a critical exegesis of the Bible. But when she published part one of the Woman’s Bible in 1895, the suffrage association she had founded repudiated her ideas as damaging to the cause. Opposition from within the movement had no effect on her ambitions. In her mind critics of a struggle with orthodox religion simply echoed those who laughed at a woman’s right to vote in 1848. By the 1890s Stanton’s chief support came from the free thought movement. In 1898 she published parts one and two of the Woman’s Bible and her autobiography, Eighty Years and More. They are in many respects companion volumes, the one containing commentaries on the Bible’s treatment of women, the other casting Stanton’s life and worldly work as a struggle against “the religious superstitions” that perpetuate women’s “bondage more than all other adverse influences” (p. 471).

Final Legacy

By her eightieth birthday Stanton could barely stand. Always plump, she had become fat, and arthritic knees could not hold her. She rarely left an apartment in New York City. Her eyesight faded, and by 1899 she was blind. She dictated articles and tried to revise her best-known speeches orally. She died at home in New York, leaving unmailed a letter to Theodore Roosevelt seeking his endorsement of woman suffrage.

Stanton’s legacy is complicated by her inexcusable (and to her argument, unnecessary) assaults on the rights and reputations of black men during Reconstruction. She coined the language that would mar the woman suffrage movement long after her death, expressing outrage that white men would give preference in voting rights to all manner of men over their educated white mothers, wives, and sisters. But more quickly than most Americans, she recognized the dire consequences of turning back to the states the power to regulate the electorate. Throughout her life Stanton believed that rights mattered, in everyday life and over the lifetime of every person, and she worked hard as a writer and lecturer to expand the rights of individuals. She was a popular speaker with a sense of humor and a gift for connecting legal and political abstractions to their human consequences, both of which give her writing a timeless quality. Uncompromising and impatient as a reformer, and a democrat more in theory than in social practice, Stanton showed faulty judgment when she tried to set a political course.

Bibliography

Stanton’s papers, compiled from archives and printed sources, are microfilmed and indexed as the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Patricia G. Holland and Ann D. Gordon (1991). The first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage provide the best record of Stanton’s political activity as well as her historical writing; vol. 4, by Susan B. Anthony and Ida Harper (1904), covers the late years of her suffragism. The autobiographical Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815–1897 is very readable, and the Woman’s Bible still attracts critical attention. The reprints of both books (1993) contain useful essays by Ellen C. DuBois, Ann D. Gordon, and Maureen McCarthy. Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, eds., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, As Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences (2 vols., 1992), is heavily edited and unreliable. More valuable is the recent selection in DuBois, ed., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence Writings, Speeches, rev. ed. (1992). Theodore Tilton wrote a charming biography of Stanton in Eminent Women of the Age (1868). The best modern biography is Alma Lutz, Created Equal: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815–1902 (1940). Other useful biographies are Lois Banner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman’s Rights (1980), and Elisabeth Griffith, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1984). For Stanton’s early role in women’s rights agitation, see two articles by Judith Wellman: “The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention: A Study of Social Networks,” Journal of Women’s History 3 (Spring 1991): 9–37, and “Women’s Rights, Republicanism and Revolutionary Rhetoric in Antebellum New York State,” New York History 69 (July 1988): 353–84. Stanton’s home in Seneca Falls belongs to the National Park Service and is open to the public. Her role at the start of Reconstruction is explored in DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage (1978), a work that should be read in conjunction with Bettina Aptheker’s critical essay in Woman’s Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History (1982).