Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1461

The central figure of You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? was born Elizabeth Cady in 1815 in Johnstown, New York, which was "a gloomy-looking town that cowered beneath poplar trees." Elizabeth had four sisters—Harriet, Margaret, Tryphena, and Catherine—three dead brothers, and another brother, Eleazar, who died just after college....

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The central figure of You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? was born Elizabeth Cady in 1815 in Johnstown, New York, which was "a gloomy-looking town that cowered beneath poplar trees." Elizabeth had four sisters—Harriet, Margaret, Tryphena, and Catherine—three dead brothers, and another brother, Eleazar, who died just after college. This grieved her father, Judge Cady, greatly, and Elizabeth wanted to make him happy. She was a girl, but Fritz says, "Still, perhaps she could make it up to her father if she became just as good as a boy, as smart and brave as Eleazar had been. So that's what she'd do. To be smart, she would study Greek. To be brave, she would learn to ride a horse so well that she would be able to jump fences—even high fences." By this account, Elizabeth was a remarkable child, for she learned to be an accomplished equestrienne, and "Elizabeth was put into the highest class of mathematics and languages at Johnstown Academy," graduating at age sixteen.

Even so, her father wished she had been a boy. She remembered being in her father's office once when a woman who had purchased a farm and run it with her own money came for legal help, saying that she had married and that her husband later died and left the farm to a wastrel son who mistreated her. Judge Cady told the woman that she had no legal recourse, that her husband automatically owned everything that was hers and could do with it what he wanted. Elizabeth was outraged, but her father showed her the law and told her that the law had to be changed by a legislature that was elected. Fritz implies that this was a lesson Elizabeth learned well and never forgot that male legislators elected by men had made a law that denied a woman the right to her own property.

The pivotal moments in Stanton's life are emphasized in You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? One of these, according to Fritz, was Elizabeth's visit to a house owned by abolitionists: "People at the Smith house didn't talk about obeying laws; they talked about justice." Here, then, is the theme of You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?: justice. Fritz's account of Stanton's life is one of a lifetime devoted to justice. Stanton begins by becoming an abolitionist, against her father's wishes. Her decision to defy her father in this and other social issues may have been prompted, at least in part, by her love for someone she met at the Smith's home. Henry Stanton "was a fiery abolitionist who hoped to go into politics one day." Although he was "[t]en years older than Elizabeth, Henry was tall, handsome, and dramatic looking." Impulsively, she accepted his marriage proposal the moment he made it. This seems out of keeping with Elizabeth's character, because she seems careful and calculating throughout You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?, but perhaps that impetuousness that makes her decide to vote one day when a Republican carriage stops at her home, offer rides to voters, and have herself hauled to the top of a ship's mast for the view, would better help explain how the studious, rational young woman would leap at Henry's proposal. After withstanding a long period of Judge Cady's disapproval of the marriage, Elizabeth and Henry eloped on May 1, 1840.

This began a strange marriage in which the spouses were more often apart than together, in which neither really supported the other in the pursuit of her or his interests, yet which produced several children over a period of twenty years and seems to have been loving. Early in the marriage, Stanton formulated ideas that would become the foundation of her work for women's rights. For instance, she noticed, "In everyday life woman's rights seemed always to take second place to woman's work." Henry complained that such attitudes embarrassed him and could hinder his political career. It seems odd that an abolitionist, someone who wanted to liberate slaves, should oppose the liberation of women, Elizabeth pointed out to her husband. In fact, she expected the liberation of the slave to coincide with the liberation of women. When this did not happen, she was very disappointed.

Yet, Fritz remarks, "Elizabeth Cady Stanton prided herself on her ability to cope with difficulties." Much of the first half of You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? is an account of Stanton's increasing frustrations. "What angered her," writes Fritz, "was the general condition of women who had no say in anything." It is extraordinary how Stanton could turn her views into action. For instance, when she and some friends decide to hold a convention on women's rights, they are ready in one week to stage the convention and persuade such renowned civil rights figures as Frederick Douglass to attend. They even draw up a document of principles. It shows Stanton's predilection for striking, controversial statements that are sure to draw attention: '"The history of mankind,' they wrote, 'is a history of repeated injuries . . . of man toward woman.'" What Stanton wanted most was "women to have the right to vote." A radical idea, Fritz says, that even Stanton's comrades thought might be too far-fetched.

Even so, Stanton's flair for words put her at the center of controversy all of her life. "A woman, [Elizabeth] would later say, was a woman first, and a wife and mother second," Fritz writes, but "A woman is nobody," a Philadelphia paper declared. "A wife is everything." This is a mild attack compared to some of the others launched at Stanton, but it summarizes what her opposition believed. According to Fritz, Stanton replied to every newspaper attack on her, telling her friends that the papers would print her replies to their columns and thus allow her to reach an audience otherwise closed to her. This shows her to be a wise strategist who learned to take advantage of even slim opportunities to get her ideas across to Americans. As Fritz notes, "Elizabeth was quick, daring, charismatic, and she had a way with words."

Another important figure in You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? is Susan B. Anthony, still one of America's best-known historical figures. Stanton and Anthony bumped into each other on a New York City street corner in 1851 and from that moment formed an abiding friendship. Not that they did not try each other's patience. Stanton had children and took pride in raising them, even though she sometimes yearned to be free of her responsibilities toward them. Anthony vowed not to marry so that she could devote herself to the cause of women's rights, especially the right to vote, and she urged Stanton to stop having children so that she could devote her energies to social campaigning. Fritz says that Stanton did, at one time, vow that her next child would be her last. This was not to be. Stanton continued to have children into her forties and, although she complained to Anthony about the time they required from her, they remembered their mother with fondness.

Even though, Fritz asserts, Stanton was an advocate of women's rights, she did not necessarily disparage household activities. In fact, except for a short frustrating period before she found some reliable household help, she enjoyed some aspects of keeping house, especially cooking. She liked to entertain, and took pleasure in making dishes to eat. Apparently, Stanton even convinced Anthony into helping in the kitchen. None of this seemed demeaning to Stanton, for she believed that "No matter what anyone said or didn't say, she really was as good as a man."

Under Fritz's pen, Stanton becomes a compellingly engrossing figure. Sometimes contradictory, sometimes giving in to social pressure—as she does when she stops wearing pants even though she liked them very much—often defiant, and ready to do battle, Stanton takes shape as one of the most radical feminists of her day while retaining her own personal loves and interests. "Indeed," Fritz remarks about the aging Stanton, "it was hard for strangers to believe that this plump, motherly lady with the white hair was the radical Mrs. Stanton." Motherly, gentle, and tougher than steel, Stanton eventually strides across Fritz's stage as someone whose determination changed America's culture. She passed her determination to younger women who carried on her battle for decades after her death, and she passed on her spirit to her own children. The best line in You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? is given to Stanton's daughter Harriot: "When she was a little girl her father once told her to come down from a high tree limb, but she replied, 'Tell Bob. He's three years younger and one branch higher.'" A delicious line!

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