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Jul 4, 2000

Steadfast Devotion: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an important organizer and writer in the American women’s rights movement.

Abigail Adams reportedly cautioned her husband John Adams before he signed the Declaration of Independence: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and we will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”  For decades, little happened.

Then Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched the movement for women’s rights and helped establish four organizations to promote it. She set the agenda: equal property rights, including the right to make and terminate contracts, the right to hold property, the right to inherit property; the right to share in the custody of children; and woman suffrage, to help secure these rights.

Impressed with her determination, the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott told Stanton: “Thou art so wedded to this cause that thou must expect to act as a pioneer in the work.”  Abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison declared: “Mrs. Stanton is a fearless woman and goes for women’s rights with all her soul.”  Abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass recalled how Stanton, “by that logic of which she is master, successfully endeavored to convince me of the wisdom and truth of the then new gospel of woman’s rights.”

Susan B. Anthony, whom Stanton had converted to the cause of women’s rights: “Always I have felt that I must have Mrs. Stanton’s opinion of things before I knew where I stood myself.”  Stanton worked with Anthony for more than a half-century — this was one of the greatest partnerships in the history of liberty. Anthony became the principal organizer for women’s rights. Stanton expressed the ideology for women’s rights, developed the strategy and wrote many of Anthony’s speeches, proclamations and eulogies. Again and again, Anthony pleaded for material: “Mrs. Stanton…I beg you…set yourself about the work…don’t say No, nor don’t delay it a moment; for I must have it all done and almost commited to memory…Now will you load my gun, leaving me to pull the trigger and let fly the powder and ball?” 

Even Wendell Phillips, the greatest abolitionist orator, appreciated help from Stanton’s fiery pen. “If you’ll forgive and forget,” he wrote her, “and ask me to breakfast, dinner, or tea, I will snap my fingers at audiences and eat as many of your good things as I did before, and steal for speeches as many of your good things that can’t be eaten.”

Stanton learned from many of the greatest thinkers on liberty. She read the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft who first applied natural rights principles to women; she met John Bright who crusaded for free trade, peace and a broader suffrage; and John Greenleaf Whittier, the most celebrated poet of the abolitionist movement. She praised Herbert Spencer, the champion of laissez faire, for his “grand philosophy of life.”  She read books by moralist Leo Tolstoy. She enjoyed individualist Mark Twain “whose fun is only equaled by his morals.”  She wrote philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of The Subjection of Women: “I lay the book down with a peace and joy I never felt before…”

This is how biographer Elizabeth Griffith characterized her in the 1870s, when she was a popular lecturer: “Mrs. Stanton was skilled at pleasing crowds. Her platform style was engaging, her voice was low and soothing, her manner was gracious and feminine. One observer recalled that she was a ‘powerful, uplifting’ speaker, whose natural wit made her audiences laugh. Despite the gravity of her subject matter, the San Francisco Chronicle found Mrs. Stanton simply ‘jolly.’  Another onlooker described her as ‘plump as a partridge.’  With her rosy complexion, ‘unstuffy’ white hair, and generous figure, ‘she would anywhere be taken for the mother of a governor or a president,’ wrote one male admirer. Stanton’s appearance began to be compared to that of Queen Victoria or George Washington’s mother. She was perceived as maternal, dignified, and eminently respectable.”

Scholar Ellen Carol DuBois marveled that Stanton lived “in nearly perfect health, mental as well as physical. She was brilliant and learned, and she was also sensuous, defending her own weight (175 pounds in 1860, over 240 when she was an old woman), her propensity to take frequent naps, and the sexuality of all women when none of these things was considered respectable. She had a powerful wit which she used to demolish her enemies and keep her friends at a respectful distance. Above all, she was committed to unearthing and understanding the long history of women’s oppression, and to leading women to revolt against it. Her strength of character, intelligence, and vitality were so great, her anger at the oppression of women so profound, that coming to know her now…is still as inspiring an experience as it must have been when she was in her prime.”

Elizabeth Cady was born November 12, 1815 in Johnstown, New York. She was the seventh child and second daughter of Margaret Livingston who had 11 children altogether. Elizabeth’s father, Daniel Cady, was a self-made man who apprenticed as a shoemaker and took up law. Cady longed for a son and was depressed by the deaths of all five boys as well as one of his daughters. She was anguished when her father said: “I wish you were a boy!’”

She attended the Troy, New York Seminary for women, run by Emma Willard (1787-1870) who embraced the vision of natural rights and believed that education must help form good character, essential for the advancement of women. Willard taught classical literature, science and philosophy.  

In October 1839, Elizabeth met Henry Stanton who recruited members and raised money for the American Anti-Slavery Society. “He was,” noted biographer Griffith, “handsome, intelligent, engaging, eloquent, dominant, masculine, demanding, charming, and a good dancer…And he was either not aware of or not alarmed by her strengths.”  They got married in Johnstown, May 1, 1840.

The Stantons sailed to London for the World Anti-Slavery Convention. They met several women from Philadelphia, notably the Quaker Lucretia Mott. In 1833, Mott had established the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and four years later, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. “Mrs. Mott,” recalled Stanton, “was to me an entire new revelation of womanhood. I sought every opportunity to be at her side, and continually plied her with questions….She told me…of  Mary Wollstonecraft, her social theories, and her demands of equality for women.”

The London convention began amidst controversy on June 12, 1840 at Freemason’s Hall, Great Queen Street. Some clergymen contended that women shouldn’t be present. There was a compromise: women could participate, but they had to sit up in the gallery. Liberator editor William Lloyd Garrison joined the women. Stanton and Mott resolved that when they returned to America, they would do something, and the women’s rights movement was born.

Stanton was inspired by Daniel O’Connell. “He paid a beautiful tribute to woman,” she recalled. “One could almost tell what he said from the play of his expressive features, his wonderful gestures, and the pose of his whole body.”  The Irish Liberator told Stanton that in her quest for women’s rights she must aim high, and she did.

In June 1847, the Stantons moved into a house on 32 Washington Street, Seneca Falls. The following year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was invited to visit Lucretia Mott and three Quaker friends in Waterloo, New York, about six miles north of Seneca Falls. They resolved to hold a meeting about women’s rights on July 19 and 20, 1848.

They needed some kind of statement to focus their efforts. Stanton drafted A Declaration of Rights and Sentiments which embraced the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. She wrote, in part: “Resolved, That all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.”  She included a suffrage clause: “Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”  She declared,

“The right is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will.”  Frederick Douglass affirmed that “the power to choose rulers and make laws was the right by which all others could be secured.”  On July 19th, The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was signed by 58 women and 32 men.

In March 1851, Stanton met Susan Brownell Anthony who was staying with Amelia Bloomer – the designer of loose trousers which made it far easier for women to work (compared with hoop skirts). “How well I remember the day!” Stanton wrote later. “There she stood, with her good earnest face and genial smile, dressed in gray delaine, hat and all the same color, relieved with pale blue ribbons, the perfection of neatness and sobriety. I liked her thoroughly…”

Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, the daughter of Daniel Anthony, an Adams, Massachusetts Quaker cotton mill entrepreneur and abolitionist. His marriage to the Baptist Lucy Read scandalized the Quaker community. His business was wiped out during the Panic of 1837, and he started farming near Rochester. Susan became a school teacher. The farm was a local center of abolitionist activity, and Frederick Douglass was among the many visitors.

Anthony was active in the Daughters of Temperance and left it in 1852 to help form the New York State Temperance Society. Temperance was a big issue because there was a lot of drunkenness. Since a husband held a wife’s assets in his name, she had no recourse if he squandered everything. Discouraging alcohol consumption looked like a good way to help women. Anthony was a single woman with time to help organize the women’s movement.

A partnership began to blossom. At her dining room table, Stanton developed strategy and wrote speeches. She offered Anthony advice about how to improve her delivery and handle hecklers. “Susan presented a solid factual argument, dazzling and stimulating to the mind,” noted biographer Rheta Childe Dorr, “but sometimes over the heads of people who listened only with their emotions.”  Anthony delivered Stanton’s speeches, gathered petition signatures, arranged meetings and raised money.

Stanton often did more than write speeches. In February 1854, she addressed the New York State Senate, declaring that a marriage contract should be treated like any other contract with mutual privileges and obligations. She insisted that women should be able to own property, since many men went lost their wives’ assets as well as their own. William Lloyd Garrison had her speak at an American Anti-Slavery gathering. She wrote articles for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

The Civil War brought a crisis for the women’s movement. Stanton welcomed the prospect of crushing slavery, and she accepted the setting aside of women’s issues for the duration of the war. But after the war, many leading abolitionists feared demands for woman suffrage would undermine efforts to secure fundamental rights for former slaves. Scholar Ellen Carol DuBois observed, “Black suffrage helped to destroy whatever doubts remained among feminists that the suffrage was the key to the legal position of women as well.” 

Stanton and her husband drifted apart, and she became more active in the women’s rights movement. She was elected first vice president of the American Equal Rights Association. Stanton and Anthony campaigned for two Kansas ballot initiatives about voting. She recalled, “We spoke in log cabins, in depots, unfinished school houses, churches, hotels, barns, and in the open air.”  Stanton began editing the weekly Revolution, but it lost money, and Anthony paid the debt. Stanton formed the Woman Suffrage Association of America.  

In May 1869, Stanton was elected president of the National Woman Suffrage Association which addressed a wide range of women’s issues. Lucy Stone established the rival American Woman Suffrage Association, drawing on New England women who were abolitionists first and feminists second. Stone was a respectable New Englander and viewed the West as uncivilized. Stanton enjoyed campaigning out West where a lot of people accepted women as individuals.

Stanton soon had enough of organizational battles and became a professional lecturer. For about a decade, during the 1870s, she was in demand as a speaker and a celebrity. Starting every January, she went on a five-month lecture tour. She spent summers with her children. Once they were off to school again, she returned to the lecture circuit for another three months.

On November 5, 1872, 16 Rochester women, including Anthony, voted — risking a $500 fine and three years in jail. Anthony had persuaded officials to register her by reading from the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) and the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870) which supposedly protected the right to vote. Officials subsequently decided her vote was illegal, and on November 18th Anthony was arrested her at home, 7 Madison Street. She refused to pay the fine, but the judge closed the case without imprisoning her, avoiding further controversy.

With women’s rights going nowhere in the courts, the American Woman Suffrage Association focused on state legislatures. The National Woman Suffrage Association launched a campaign for a woman suffrage constitutional amendment. In 1878, California Senator A.A. Sargent introduced this: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”  Proposed again and again during the next four decades, it was later referred to as the “Anthony Amendment.”

Inspired by Lucretia Mott, who died in November 1880, Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to write a history of woman’s suffrage. She worked with Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, a Revolution contributor, to gather documents. Stanton did most of the writing. Anthony did most of the research and published the work. The first volume appeared in May 1881. It ran 878 pages and told the story up to 1860. Volume two came out in 1882, volume three in 1886. The volumes were offered free to libraries, but many — including Harvard — declined.

In 1890, leading suffragists decided to heal the split in the movement, and the National Woman Suffrage Association merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association. Thereafter the organization was known as the “National-American.”  Stanton was elected the first president. Her retirement in 1892 marked the end of her career as an organizational leader.

Stanton raised the standard of self reliance in her farewell speech, “The Solitude of Self,” delivered at the 1892 convention. “Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility,” she said. “ Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty…a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment by inheritance, wealth, family and position. Conceding, then, that the responsibilities of life rest equally on man and woman, that their destiny is the same, they need the same preparation for time and eternity…each soul must depend wholly on itself…”  Stanton delivered this speech again before the House Committee on the Judiciary and the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage. Some 10,000 copies of the speech were distributed.

Increasingly, because of her hefty weight and her frailty, Stanton was confined to the  eight-room penthouse apartment at 26 West 61st Street, New York City, which she shared with her daughter Margaret and her son Robert. But Anthony continued asking her to write speeches, letters, resolutions and eulogies.

Stanton’s 80th birthday was celebrated at the Metropolitan Opera. Her name was spelled out in a banner of carnations, and she sat in a chair surrounded by roses. She was too frail to do more than salute “the great idea I represent — the enfranchisement of women.”

Stanton led a committee of seven scholars who worked on The Woman’s Bible. “When, in the early part of the Nineteenth century,” she explained, “women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. When they protested against their unequal position in the church, they were referred to the Bible…”  The Woman’s Bible appeared in 1895, it  was reprinted seven times within six months, and there were several translations. The Woman’s Bible provoked so much anger that the National-American debated a motion to censure their first president, but Anthony offered a stalwart defense.

Stanton produced her autobiography, Eighty Years & More (1898), to affirm her reputation as an intelligent, kindly and self-reliant champion of women’s rights. It’s a remarkable work even though some details of her life conflict with earlier accounts. The autobiography, observed Rugers University professor Ann D. Gordon, “gives us a very strong individual whose sense of her power and leadership rarely falters. Although internally the story reminds readers time and again that the author is not yet free and awaits her equality, it avoids the suggestion that in their lack of freedom women are victims…it depicts enormous change wrought by women…”

Meanwhile, the women’s movement had stalled. Wyoming, the first U.S. territory with woman suffrage, had become the first state with woman suffrage on March 28, 1890, but the only other states to embrace suffrage were Colorado (1893), Idaho (1896) and Utah (1896). No eastern states showed any interest. Since 1893, neither the U.S. Senate nor the House of Representatives acted on the proposed Suffrage Amendment.  

In June 1902, Anthony visited Stanton whose health was failing. Anthony embraced her and cried, “Shall I see you again?”  Stanton replied, “Oh yes, if not here, then in the hereafter, if there is one, and if there isn’t we shall never know it.”  Anthony wrote her last and most poignant letter to Stanton, reminiscing that “in age as in all else I follow you closely. It is fifty-one years since first we met and we have been busy through every one of them, stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women…We little dreamed when we began this contest, optimistic with the hope and buoyancy of youth, that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. But our hearts are filled with joy to know that they enter upon this task equipped with a college education, with business experience, with the fully admitted right to speak in public — all of which were denied to women fifty years ago. They have practically one point to gain — the suffrage; we had all. These strong, courageous, capable young women will take our place and complete our work. There is an army of them where we were but a handful. Ancient prejudice has become so softened, public sentiment so liberalized and women have so thoroughly demonstrated their ability as to leave not a shadow of doubt that they will carry our cause to victory.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton died on Sunday, October 26, 1902. She was 86. All six of her surviving children were with her. There was a private memorial service in her New York City apartment. The table on which she had written the Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was by her casket, bearing a set of The History of Woman Suffrage. Phebe Hanaford, who had contributed to The Woman’s Bible, conducted a burial service at Woodlawn Cematary.

Anthony carried on for about three more years. In January 1906, she got a cold which turned into pneumonia. Dr. Anna H. Shaw, President of the National-American, stayed with her and recalled: “On the last afternoon of her life, when she had lain quiet for hours, she suddenly began to utter the names of the women who had worked with her, as if in a final roll call.”

Susan B. Anthony died at her Rochester home, 17 Madison Street, on Tuesday, March 13, 1906, around 12:40 A.M. She was 86. She wore a jeweled pin of an American flag with four diamond stars, the only stars, for the suffrage states. An estimated 10,000 people paid their respects at Rochester’s Central Presbyterian Church. She left her assets, about $4,500, to the National-American.

The women’s movement regained momentum in 1910 when suffragists gathered 404,000 signatures on their petitions, and the state of Washington enacted woman suffrage. The following year, California granted woman suffrage. The House of Representatives supported the Suffrage Amendment on January 10, 1918, and on June 4, 1919, the Senate approved it. On August 26, 1920, Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify, the Suffrage Amendment became the Nineteenth Amendment, and 26 million American women could vote. The Supreme Court upheld the Nineteenth Amendment in February 1922.

It had been an astonishing journey. In 52 years, recalled Carrie Chapman Catt, suffragists conducted “fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”

Anthony was considered the greatest heroine for woman suffrage, and a number of biographies appeared. The U.S. Mint paid tribute to Anthony alone when it issued a new dollar coin in 1979. But since then, historians have taken another look at Stanton. Little, Brown published Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman’s Rights by Lois Banner (1980). Oxford University Press issued Elizabeth Griffith’s In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1984. Meanwhile, Ellen Carol DuBois emphasized the great partnership in The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader (1981). At Rutgers University, scholars began a search of archives, newspapers and private collections for material on Stanton and Anthony. “Documents were located and copied in two hundred libraries and archives in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, England, the Netherlands, France, and Germany and in nearly seven hundred different newspapers and periodicals,” reported Ann D. Gordon. The first volume appeared in 1997. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was right to stay focused on the ultimate issue, human liberty, and not just voting. She displayed bold vision when she insisted that natural rights principles, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, are a key to liberating people everywhere. She understood the lifeblood of self-ownership, private property, freedom of contract and freedom of movement. She gave her heart and soul for women’s rights. Nobody had a more eloquent pen. She was an awesome champion.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.