To mark the birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on this her 202d, it is good practice to follow the advice of friends and family a year after her death: honor her by heeding her ideas. No one today can endorse every thought Stanton uttered; for all her convictions about equal rights, consent of the governed, holding leaders to account, and economic justice, she often failed to transcend the privileges of her race and social class. At the same time, if she is brushed aside for her flaws, women lose a dogged reformer, an insightful observer of national history, a sharp critic of male supremacy, and a comical voice about being a woman. Here’s a Stanton sampler.
Who Writes the History?
In the spring of 1875, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the states’ right to exclude women from voting, as that exclusion dated back to the founding of the republic. ’Twas always so. Addressing a meeting of suffragists in New York City shortly after the ruling, Stanton offers an alternative history of American government. [“Self-Government,” 11 May 1875]
Men who would not submit to King George, . . . who threw off the British yoke, and declared their right to govern themselves;–their liberties achieved, they at once fastened their broken chains on all they considered inferior to themselves, and incapable of resistance. And thus, after having declared a republic to the world, we have spent nearly a century of our national life in the anomalous position of trying to convince ourselves, that self-government is possible, that a republic is better than a despotism, a monarchy or an empire. Commencing with an aristocracy of education, property, color, sex, we have advanced step by step, recognizing the right of the ignorant man, the poor man, the black men to govern himself. One more step remains to be taken and we reach the goal of equal humanity:–the right of self-government, must now be secured to the mothers of the race.
But here, the grand army of the republic come to a dead stand. Republicans, Liberals, and Democrats alike halt. It is one thing say they to enfranchise different classes of men and quite another to grant the right of self-government to women!!
Of Money, Clowns, & Men in Politics
Six years later, speaking to a suffrage meeting in Providence, R.I., Stanton calls out how money corrupts the political system in ways that worsen inequality. [Speech, 31 May 1881]
But whither is a nation drifting when the highest offices in the gift of the nation are bought and sold in Wall Street, when brains are of less account than bullion, and when clowns make laws for queens. . . .
. . . We have a great fight to wage, and this is against Mammon. If things go on as they do, the purse will control the law. Mammon will be mightier than Senators or Representatives. Is it for citizens to sit calmly by, without a cry or protest, and see one thing after another swept away by this yellow stream that beats against Congress, the Legislature, and the judiciary, and threatens to undermine them?
Aging While Female
A few days after her 70th birthday party, Stanton wrote to the older of her two daughters, about menopause. [To Margaret S. Lawrence, 15 Nov. 1885]
Women have been educated into the idea that at fifty they must undergo some remarkable change, pass through great perils, something like the sun in the equinoctial storm, which is all pure nonsense. I hope you & Hattie will never get that absurd idea into your little heads & as you approach that period begin to shiver on the brink of Jordan imagining that your time has come to pass over. I never saw the slightest variation in my health either beginning nor ending the monthly period, & yet you will hear women with bated breath on all sides speak of these dangerous crises in a womans existence, pure stuff & nonsense.
Reading with Progressive Purpose
While spending the summer with a son on Long Island, Stanton read one of the most popular novels of the late 19th century. She shares her enthusiasm with the editor of the Woman’s Tribune who, in turn, shares it with the weekly’s readers. [Letter, Woman’s Tribune, 10 Aug. 1889]
Have you read “Looking Backward?” If not, do so at once. Bellamy’s beautiful idea of the future is to me full of hope and inspiration. I fully believe the time is near when all God’s children will be educated, fed, clothed, and sheltered. When the good things of life will be equally distributed among the whole human family. When poverty, ignorance and vice will be known no more. If all this is not to be realized, to what purpose has the race endured its fierce struggle for the centuries.
Read the book. It is the new gospel of equality which we must carry to the nations of the earth.
“The Throat is Not Beautiful in Age”
Writing again to her daughter Margaret, Stanton reports on her experiments at hiding her neck, inspired by a photograph of her niece Hattie Brown. ]To Margaret S. Lawrence, 27 Oct. 1890]
I have been making a study of her tie & how nicely it stays up under her chin. I have laid aside all reading, philosophizing, speculations about the eternal past & future & devoted myself to the discovery of what kept this tie in place. At last my thoughts took this logical turn. “It must be fastened to something,” it cannot be her skin, it cannot be sufficiently tight, to make the throat protrude & hold it underneath, it cannot be fastened with mucilage, as that would soil the lace & perchance irritate the skin, it cannot stay there of its own free will, for I have tied mine there so tight I could hardly swallow, & in a few minutes it worked down. . . . Yes, yes, after all this rodomontade of difficulties I returned to the original assertion. “It must be fastened to something.” What can that be. Perhaps a ribbon tied round her throat. I pinned one as tight as I could bear it, fastened the collar with two bewitching bows of soft lace to the right & left, & ends hanging down, then I looked at Hattie’s, “perfect,” said I, & sat down full of satisfaction to read the morning paper. In the course of an hour I looked at myself in the mirror & lo! ribbon & all had stretched & settled down to the old place! With melancholy misgivings I returned to the tie train of thought, & suddenly my guardian angel, seeing the severe mental struggles through which I was passing said in dulcet tones “put a stiff collar on your dress.”
Church, State, & the Working Class
While Americans prepared to celebrate the quincentennial of America’s “discovery” by Christopher Columbus at a World’s Fair in Chicago, evangelical Christians lobbied to close the expo on Sundays in observance of their own Sabbath. Stanton joined the fray, both because she upheld the separation of church and state and because such a rule would effectively exclude working people from visiting the fair. [“Sunday at the World’s Fair,” North American Review 154 (Feb 1892)]
What is the duty of the State in this matter? Clearly, to do whatever conserves the welfare of the majority of the people. The minority have the right to stay away from the exposition on Sunday, but they have no right to throw obstacles in the way of a majority by influencing popular sentiment or securing legislative enactments to prevent them from enjoying that day in whatever way they may see fit, provided that they do not infringe on the rights of the minority.
Stanton congratulates women in Geneva, N.Y., who formed a Political Equality Club to prepare themselves for the duties of citizenship. Society awaits “better laws and more generous public action” when women have a voice in government, she avows. [To Miss Root, 26 Nov. 1897]
Women are equally responsible with men for all the wrongs of society; that they are awaking to this fact is one of the most promising signs of the times.
The study of the State and municipal laws in their political equality clubs, is the first step in the coming revolution for equal rights to all.
Unable to attend the 50th anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention in 1898, Stanton sent a speech about memory, progress, and passing the torch. [“Our Defeats & Our Triumphs,” 14 Feb 1898]
In moments of depression, that at times we all suffer, this long struggle seems to me like an agonizing dream in which one strives to flee from some impending danger, and yet stands still. Verily, hope deferred does indeed make the heart sick and the mind weary with memories of all the efforts put forth; the petitions and appeals circulated, of all the arguments laid before eyes that would not see; rehearsed in ears that would not hear; which in their selfish indifference to the wrongs of others they could neither feel nor understand.
The tyrant custom reconciles even the best men to the cruelties of their own day and generation. Thus youth passed with no adequate response to our protests; the meridian of our lives reached, and no fitting answer to our arguments; and in the twilight of age sphinx-like the powers in state and church with sealed lips looked mockingly at us, while most of our coadjutors . . . passed from the scene of action without one glimpse of the triumph for which they had so long and so faithfully labored.
Many happy returns, Mrs. Stanton.
Title quotation is a line from a birthday poem Stanton wrote for Susan B. Anthony in 1900.
For full texts from which the quotations are drawn, see Ann D. Gordon, editor, Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, 6 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993-2013.)