Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
The names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are familiar to anyone interested in the history of women’s rights in America, but for most people these two distinguished women have remained rather shadowy figures. Ellen DuBois’ work brings them vividly to life through their own public and private writings and through others’ reflections about them. In three introductory chapters, DuBois, who is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the author of a study of post-Civil War feminism, sets the work of Stanton and Anthony in the context of their own lives and the significant movements of the second half of the nineteenth century. She treats their careers in three phases. The first covers 1815 to 1861, the period of the development of their personal philosophies and the alliance of feminists and abolitionists. The second includes the years 1861 to 1873, the era of struggle for suffrage for women and blacks and the movement toward national rather than state action on women’s issues. The third runs from the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 to the death of Anthony in 1906, a time of conservative tendencies which saw the burgeoning of women’s organizations and the narrowing of feminist goals from widespread social change to suffrage as an end in itself.
Stanton and Anthony were both deeply involved in the movement for women’s rights throughout all three periods, but they were not always working for precisely the same object. Through both her introductions and her selection of materials, DuBois delineates the differences between the two and, in the process, tries to compensate for what she feels is an unjustified neglect of Stanton’s contributions to the cause. The latter goal accounts for a certain imbalance in the collection of documents she includes; of the twenty-one reprinted, twelve were written by Stanton and five by Anthony, with the remainder being correspondence between the two and reminiscences by their friends. DuBois gives full credit to Anthony for the skills of organization and compromise that paved the way for the passage of the nineteenth amendment, but she clearly places greater value on Stanton’s lifelong insistence on woman’s right to freedom and self-determination in every aspect of her life. Even in emphasizing Stanton’s importance, however, DuBois shows that the gifts of the two were complementary: Anthony found inspiration in Stanton’s ideological fervor, and Stanton was able to spread her ideas through the organizations that Anthony held together.
Stanton and Anthony met in 1851, three years after Stanton had convened the historic Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights. Stanton, born in 1815, had grown up in an aristocratic New York family. She studied at Emma Willard’s school in Troy, then read law and constitutional history with her jurist father. She was already deeply involved in issues of human rights when, in 1840, she married Henry Stanton, a lawyer, abolitionist, and politician.
Anthony’s background was somewhat different. The daughter of a liberal, antislavery Quaker family in Rochester, New York, she was under less pressure to conform to social conventions than Stanton. She taught for a time after her father’s business failed, then became a temperance worker. She was traveling on behalf of that movement when she was introduced to Stanton by their mutual friend, Amelia Bloomer. The two women were immediately drawn together by their common concern for the status of women and their mutual dislike of the clergy, who then dominated the temperance movement, sentimentalizing and “trivializing” women in the process. After Anthony was forbidden to step out of “woman’s sphere” to speak publicly at a temperance convention, she and Stanton joined forces to found the New York State Women’s Temperance Society. As DuBois notes, this issue was an important one for feminists; the plight of women could be seen particularly graphically in the case of the wife tied irrevocably to a drunken and abusive husband. Here was a symbol of the legalized slavery that marriage could be.
While a coalition of men and conservative women soon took over the New York Temperance Society, forcing Stanton and Anthony to resign in protest, their own alliance was firmly forged for the rest of their lives. Even when they differed over details, they were bound by their common beliefs in the natural rights of all human beings, whatever their race and sex, by their mistrust of nineteenth century Christianity and its view of women, and by the friendship and mutual trust that lasted until their deaths.
The primary purpose of DuBois’ book is, she suggests, to make available the writings that best express the ideas and talents of both women. The selections from Stanton include addresses made to the Seneca Falls convention, to the New York Legislature in 1854, and to the founding convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, as well as an excerpt from a speech entitled “Home Life” which she delivered to groups of women all over the country. Evident in all of these writings is her desire to make fundamental changes in the social structure of the country. She saw that changes in laws, essential though they might be, must be accompanied by alterations in attitudes and behavior to be truly effective.
Some of the positions stated in Stanton’s writings now seem...
(The entire section is 2281 words.)
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