(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111206100-Stanton.jpg Elizabeth Cady Stanton Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Stanton was one of the founders of the organized women’s rights movement in the United States, and she served as one of its chief leaders during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Early Life

Elizabeth Cady was born November 12, 1815, in Johnstown, New York. She was the fourth of six children born to Daniel and Margaret Cady who survived childhood. Through her mother she was descended from a wealthy family, the Livingstons, who were part of the political elite of New York. Her mother’s father, James Livingston, was an officer in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution and a member of the New York state legislature. Elizabeth’s father, Daniel Cady, was a successful lawyer who served in the New York state legislature and the United States House of Representatives, and, after 1847, he was a member of the New York State Supreme Court. Daniel Cady was a conservative in his political views and became an active member of the Federalist Party. Elizabeth’s parents were very strict Presbyterians who held firmly to traditional Calvinist doctrines of predestination and the depravity of human nature. As a child, Elizabeth found this version of religion frightening, even to the point of having nightmares that the Devil was attempting to possess her.

Several events in Elizabeth’s childhood helped awaken her to the realization that women held a subordinate position in American society. Her father wanted very much to have a son, but each of Elizabeth’s three brothers died young. At the death of his third son, Daniel Cady openly lamented to Elizabeth that she was not a boy. Part of the impetus for Elizabeth’s refusal to accept a traditional female sex role may have stemmed from her attempt to be the son her father so fervently desired. A second instance which brought a new awareness of the disadvantage of being female occurred in her father’s law office. Hearing of a case in which a female friend sought unsuccessfully to reclaim property she had purchased with her own money, but of which she had been deprived because of a state law transferring a woman’s property to her husband when she married, Elizabeth became so upset that she attempted to cut the relevant pages out of her father’s law books.

Even as a child, Elizabeth displayed intellectual ability considerably beyond that of the average youth. Believing that becoming a learned person was essential if she were to be equal to boys, she began the study of Greek at age eleven, later winning a prize at the Johnstown Academy for her achievements in this area. In spite of her outstanding academic record, she was not allowed to enroll at Union College, which admitted only boys, and had to be content with a girls’ boarding school, Troy Female Seminary, which she attended from 1830 to 1833. Although most girls’ boarding schools at this time were primarily finishing schools, concentrating on developing their students’ social skills, Troy was unusual in that it attempted to provide academic training comparable to that which colleges provided men. The seminary encouraged its students to be self-reliant and provided careful training in writing skills, which Elizabeth later believed to have contributed to her success as an author.

After graduation from Troy Female Seminary, Elizabeth did not seek a career and at this point displayed little evidence that she would become a reformer. Even in this period, however, she occasionally displayed those qualities of independence and a militant opposition to efforts to place women in a subordinate position which marked her later life. She became the head of a young women’s association which raised funds to enable an aspiring minister to attend seminary. When the recipient of their funds was invited to deliver a special sermon and chose to speak on women’s inferiority, Elizabeth rose from her seat in the front pew and led the other young women out of the church in a gesture of protest.

During the 1830’s, Elizabeth was increasingly drawn into the abolitionist reform effort by her cousin Gerrit Smith. His home was a station on the Underground Railway, and the accounts of their experiences by fugitive slaves made a lasting impression on Elizabeth. It was while attending an anti-slavery meeting that Elizabeth met the man who eventually became her husband. Henry Stanton was a member of the executive committee which directed the activities of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He was a gifted public speaker who had risked his life on several occasions by speaking against slavery to hostile crowds. When he proposed marriage to Elizabeth, her parents were totally opposed, because they considered abolitionists to be fanatics. Marriage to Henry was an important turning point in Elizabeth’s life, for he was not wealthy, and she knew that the social elite of New York would never accept them as long as he remained an abolitionist. Nevertheless—and even though her parents remained opposed and did not attend her wedding—Elizabeth married Henry in May, 1840. In two important respects, the marriage ceremony reflected her emerging feminist consciousness: At her request, the traditional bride’s promise to obey her husband was deleted from the wedding vows, and, while adding her husband’s name, she retained her own name.

Life’s Work

Almost immediately after their marriage, Elizabeth and Henry left for London to attend an international antislavery convention. This proved to be a very traumatic experience for her. Many male delegates feared that association with feminism would harm the abolitionist cause and opposed allowing women to be delegates. The first major issue discussed at the conference was whether women delegates should be allowed to participate on an equal basis with men. It was eventually decided that women should not be allowed to sit on the convention floor with men and should not be permitted to speak at the conference. Cady Stanton was deeply angered by the treatment accorded women and resolved to organize a women’s rights convention when she returned to the United States. Although eight years passed before that conference was held, her treatment at the London convention was directly responsible for convincing her that women must join together in an organized effort if they were to progress toward equality.

After their return to New York, Cady Stanton became immersed in domestic activities. She had seven children between 1842 and 1859, and her husband considered it her responsibility to rear them. Partly because Henry was often away from home, sometimes for as long as eight months, Cady Stanton was frequently depressed and resented the burdens of housework and child rearing. In her speeches and writings in later years, she often stressed birth control as of central importance in improving the position of married women; it is likely that her remarks at least partially reflected her own experiences.

After discovering that other women shared her sense of discontent, Cady Stanton organized a women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York,...

(The entire section is 2911 words.)