Elizabeth Cady Stanton

by Susan B. Anthony

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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...

(This entire section contains 2911 words.)

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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, at which women’s grievances could be expressed. It was intended to be a local event, and she did not expect a large turnout. Nevertheless, more than three hundred persons came for the convention, including a number of prominent reformers from nearby Rochester. Cady Stanton wrote the key document discussed by the convention, a list of women’s grievances which she called the Declaration of Sentiments. It was modeled after the Declaration of Independence and drew upon the same natural-rights arguments to justify an end to discrimination based on sex. The list of grievances was lengthy and covered a wide spectrum: the admission of women to institutions of higher education, the right to enter professions such as law and medicine, the right of employed married women to retain their earnings, and an end to the double standard of sexual morality. Resolutions on these points received the unanimous support of those at the convention. A resolution proposing women’s suffrage, however, proved far more controversial and passed by only a bare majority. Even Cady Stanton’s husband, Henry, opposed the suffrage resolution. After the convention, Cady Stanton’s father attempted to persuade her to remove her name from the list of those who had signed the Declaration of Sentiments, but she refused to do so. Her decision to persevere was an important turning point in her emergence as a nationally prominent feminist reformer.

During the years after the Seneca Falls convention, Cady Stanton continued her activities on behalf of women’s rights but was also active in other reform movements. In 1852, angry because the New York State temperance organization discriminated against women, she helped found the Women’s State Temperance Society of New York. Her advocacy of temperance reflected a belief that excessive drinking by men often had serious consequences for women. Because of the brutality often exhibited by drunken men toward their wives, Cady Stanton urged that the grounds for divorce be expanded to include consistent heavy drinking. The majority of the women members were too conservative to consider Cady Stanton’s suggestion that the grounds for divorce be liberalized, and when they refused to reelect her as president, she withdrew from the organization. She also remained active in the abolitionist movement, urging the immediate emancipation of slaves, and opposed Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency in 1860 on the grounds that he was too moderate on the slavery issue and might compromise with the South. When, after the war, constitutional amendments were proposed extending the suffrage and civil rights to blacks, Cady Stanton campaigned to have the amendments extended to women. Opposition to this step by her abolitionist friends contributed to its failure and drove a wedge between them; this was widened when she, in turn, argued against the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments because she feared the newly enfranchised blacks would be hostile to women’s suffrage.

In 1851, Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony and initiated a friendship which had an important influence on the American feminist movement in the second half of the nineteenth century. Cady Stanton persuaded Anthony to become involved in the campaign for women’s rights, and the two worked closely on behalf of that cause for the next forty years. Cady Stanton was a talented writer and public speaker but disliked the administrative work necessary to conduct a major campaign. Anthony excelled at such work, however, and thus the two formed an effective team. Although Anthony later received more public recognition for her role in bringing about women’s suffrage, she was the junior partner in the relationship and acknowledged that Cady Stanton was the true founder of the organized women’s rights movement in the United States.

With the assistance of Anthony, Cady Stanton promoted the cause of women’s suffrage in a variety of ways. In 1866, she ran for Congress as an independent in order to test the constitutional right of a woman to hold public office. In the following year, she conducted an extensive campaign in Kansas, speaking throughout the state on behalf of a state constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage. In 1871, Cady Stanton and Anthony made a speaking tour around the West, seeking to stimulate support for women’s suffrage. In 1878, Cady Stanton was responsible for the introduction of a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution in Congress, a measure which was reintroduced in each subsequent Congress until it was passed in 1920. She appeared in Congress almost every year until late in her life to speak on behalf of the women’s suffrage amendment. Perhaps her most important contribution to that movement was the major part she played in establishing and directing the National Woman Suffrage Association. Cady Stanton and Anthony formed the NWSA in 1869, and Cady Stanton served as its president until 1890, when it merged with the rival American Woman Suffrage Association. A prolific writer, Cady Stanton joined with Anthony in coauthoring three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1886), an invaluable source on the American women’s suffrage movement.

Although women’s suffrage was her major concern, Cady Stanton never restricted her reforming efforts to one issue. She frequently shocked female audiences by her ideas on marriage and divorce. This caused friction between her and Anthony, who maintained that the cause of women’s suffrage was being harmed by associating it with radical proposals for easier divorce. Cady Stanton also alarmed Anthony with her criticisms of the Church. She believed that the Church was a major force maintaining the subordinate position of women, and from 1878, Cady Stanton endeavored to persuade the NWSA to take a public stand against this. Unsuccessful in this effort, Cady Stanton then attempted to establish a committee of women to prepare a revised version of the Bible which would eliminate its sexist language. Eventually she proceeded on her own to write an extensive commentary on the biblical passages which directly discussed the status of women. Published in 1895 as The Woman’s Bible, it defended women against the claim that they were responsible for Original Sin because of Eve’s behavior in the Garden of Eden. Cady Stanton was deeply hurt when the work was repudiated by other women’s suffrage leaders, who feared that it would lead the public to dismiss the suffrage movement as irreligious.

Although her eyes began to fail during the last years of her life (she was completely blind by the time of her death), Cady Stanton continued to write on women’s issues until her death, on October 26, 1902, in New York City. She continued to enjoy life during old age, but her last years were marred by the breakdown of her friendship with Anthony and the efforts of women’s suffrage leaders to distance themselves from her because of their belief that The Woman’s Bible would prove harmful to their cause.

Summary

The position of women in American society has changed considerably since the mid-nineteenth century, and Cady Stanton was one of the central figures helping to bring about that change. As the founder of the organized women’s rights movement in the United States and its recognized leader during the second half of the nineteenth century, she was a vital figure in an important and continuing reform movement. Although often remembered primarily in connection with the women’s suffrage issue, she viewed suffrage as a means by which reforms could be instituted in other areas affecting women rather than an end in itself. While she held important offices in women’s organizations, Cady Stanton was equally important as a publicist whose writings articulated the reasons that feminists wished to alter relationships between the sexes. Her writings on these issues were so extensive that it would be appropriate to consider her the chief theorist or intellectual of the late nineteenth century women’s rights movement.

Since her death, Cady Stanton’s contribution to the American women’s suffrage movement has been overshadowed by that of Anthony. This is in part because many of the women’s suffrage activists in the generation immediately after Cady Stanton’s death did not share her views on issues other than suffrage. The revival of feminism in the United States since 1960, however, has brought a renewed interest in her life and work, partly because she did emphasize that the nonpolitical forces which kept women in a subordinate position were as important as those which were political.

Bibliography

Banner, Lois. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Women’s Rights. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980. The best single volume on Cady Stanton’s life and thought. It presents her as the philosopher of the feminist movement and is especially helpful on her theories.

DuBois, Ellen Carol, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. New York: Shocken Books, 1981. This is an excellent collection of the correspondence between Cady Stanton and Anthony, which also includes many of Cady Stanton’s more important speeches and articles. The critical commentary by DuBois is very helpful in placing the documents in context.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Widely regarded as the best history of the campaign for women’s suffrage. It includes some references to Cady Stanton but focuses on the movement itself rather than on its leaders.

Forster, Margaret. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902.” In Significant Sisters, 203-238. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A well-written chapter in a book about prominent feminists. It makes extensive use of Cady Stanton’s letters and other original sources in conveying a vivid sense of her personality.

Griffith, Elisabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A very detailed account of Cady Stanton’s life based upon extensive research in primary sources. It is a psychological study which excels in discussing Cady Stanton’s private life.

Lutz, Alma. Created Equal: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: John Day Co., 1940. This was the first scholarly biography of Cady Stanton. It is a clear, objective, narrative account which concentrates more on her political activities than on her thought.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898. Reprint. New York: Schocken Books, 1971. Written near the end of her life, Cady Stanton’s autobiography provides the fullest account of her life from her own point of view. Although invaluable for its firsthand information, it is very brief on some events in her life and omits others entirely, and thus must be supplemented by other sources.