Among nineteenth-century women’s rights reformers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) stands out for the maternal and secular advocacy that shaped her activism and public reception. A wife and mother of seven, she was also a prolific writer, transatlantic women’s rights leader, popular lecturer, congressional candidate, canny historian, and freethought champion. Her lifelong interest in women’s sexual and reproductive rights and late efforts to reform institutional religion are as relevant to our time as they were to her own.
Stanton’s professional life lasted a half-century, ranging from antebellum women’s rights organization and oratory, to a post–Civil War career as a lyceum lecturer, to a late-century role as an incisive religious and cultural critic. Acutely aware of the medical, religious, legal, and educational barriers to women’s independence, she advocated for married women’s right to vote, obtain a divorce, gain custody of their children, and own property. As she grew more radical over the years, she also demanded judicial reform, the separation of church and state, free love, progressive coeducational opportunities, and women’s right to limit their fertility.
In this richly contextualized collection of primary sources, Noelle A. Baker brings together accounts of Stanton’s life and ideas from both well-known and recently recovered figures. From the teacher chiding an assertive young woman to erstwhile allies worrying about her growing radicalism, their voices paint a vivid portrait of a woman of vaunting ambition, powerhouse intellect, and her share of human failings.
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Stanton in Her Own Time
A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates
By Noelle A. Baker
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
"She Always Played to Win"
The Young Elizabeth Cady (1831–1922)
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In their 1922 memoir of their mother, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch (1856–1940) and Theodore Weld Stanton (1851–1925) characterized what was for them the unique significance of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's early and late delight in dancing, music, and competitive games; that innate joy in artistry, physical activity, and spirited rivalry, they maintained, sharpened her activism. This insightful assessment was likely informed by their own rich experiences with suffrage and labor agitation in England, France, and America. Importantly, however, because both children married abroad after traveling to Europe, they were themselves instrumental in connecting their mother to the transcontinental woman's rights reformers through whom she would extend the reach of her influence in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1880 Theodore and Harriot journeyed together to Germany, where he was to take a position in Berlin as a correspondent for the New York Tribune. The next year he married Marguerite Berry in Paris; shortly thereafter, Harriot met the British businessman Henry Blatch, whom she married in 1882. Theodore and Harriot would ultimately settle in Paris and Basingstoke, England, respectively, and as a result England and France became new hubs for their mother's leadership.
Theodore Stanton edited The Woman Question in Europe (1884), "the first English-language study of the women's rights movement in Europe," and in his later career as a journalist he continued to write about the transcontinental woman's movement. In another first, feminist author, editor, and socialist activist Harriot Stanton Blatch became "America's first second-generation feminist leader," in England and then in America, where she returned after her husband's death. Her achievements were emphatically shaped, claims Ellen Carol DuBois, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "deliberate feminist mothering." After her husband's death in 1915, Blatch regained her American citizenship and dedicated herself to woman's suffrage, authorship (Mobilizing Woman-Power, 1918, and A Woman's Point of View, 1920), the Socialist Party, and world peace.
Thirza Lee (later Tilton) (1801–1877), an art teacher at Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary, produced an evocatively concentrated portrait of the teenaged Elizabeth Cady during her student years there — one that contributes to biographical treatments of the youthful woman's rights leader as well as to analyses of the calculated rhetorical ways in which the older Stanton portrayed that time in lectures and in her autobiography. The fifteen-year-old Cady entered the seminary sometime between the winter of 1830 and January 1831, when Lee was establishing herself as a newly accredited teacher. Her selection, revealing the significance of religious teachings in Lee's own life, is both brief and telling: the concerned teacher penned merely a few lines in Cady's commonplace book, a notebook that also displays extracts from other teachers, students, and friends written before and after Stanton's marriage. Nonetheless, with this concise and pious admonishment Lee amplifies a period that Stanton later identified as crucial to her development as a religious skeptic and cultural critic.
In Eighty Years and More, Stanton recalled that during her time at Willard's Female Seminary, the great evangelical revivalist Charles Grandison Finney spent six weeks in Troy, where in emotional mass meetings he forcefully dramatized the dire wages of sin. As she described that time, Troy students attended every session, daily, over the six weeks' duration, and fatefully, Elizabeth Cady was "one of the first [of Finney's] victims." The adult Stanton depicts the popular evangelist as a dangerous "epidemic," to which her "vivid imagination" was particularly susceptible; during one of these sessions, she remembered, Finney conjured a terrifying vision of hell, brimming over with "the burning depths of liquid fire" and fearfully punctuated by "the shouts of the devils echoing through the vaulted arches." Pointing excitedly to the ceiling, Finney exhorted prospective converts to witness, as he could, the encroaching demonic cavalcade. Over the course of weeks, claimed Stanton, Finney worked Cady into such an unstable state of mind that she could actually envision the fiends. Moreover, "the picture glowed before my eyes," she wrote, "and remained with me for months afterward. ... Mental anguish prostrated my health. Dethronement of my reason was apprehended by friends." So overcome was young Cady that she retreated to Johnstown to recover. Fearing for her mental and physical welfare, so the story goes, in June her father, sister, and brother-in-law embarked upon a six-week scenic trip to Niagara Falls. Over the course of that vacation, readings in and conversations about rationalist philosophy restored her physical and mental health. "I found my way out of the darkness into the clear sunlight of Truth," Stanton recollected. "My religious superstitions gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts, and ... I grew more and more happy, day by day." In this telling, her usable past illustrates the woeful effects of religion upon young women, even upon those as strong-minded as Elizabeth Cady. As Kathi Kern suggests, however, although this "failed conversion ... played a shaping role in her politics[,] ... the trouble is, in some sense, it may not be true." In point of fact, during Stanton's seminary years Finney only appeared twice; his first, quite brief visit to the area occurred in July 1831, a month after her restorative Niagara Falls vacation.
We may never fully identify the authentic life events that shaped this narrative, but her art teacher's commentary may provide a slender thread of evidence that illuminates its themes and import to her later anticlerical positions and critiques of the cultural sources of women's subordination. In the pages of Cady's commonplace book, Thirza Lee responded directly to the actions and behaviors of a younger and less scripted version of the woman's rights advocate; and her extract and commentary produce another angle from which to view her religious experience at Troy Female Seminary. Lee signed and then dated her entry as "March — 1831," approximately six weeks before Stanton located Finney and his six-week revival in Troy.
In an apparent attempt to instruct or chastise Elizabeth Cady, Lee quoted from John Angell James's The Christian Father's Present to His Children; its chapter "On Female Accomplishments, Virtues, and Pursuits" addresses pedagogical objectives for women. Although men's education fits them out for a public vocation, advises James, "the profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families." Young women may therefore pursue musical arts, painting, and foreign languages, as long as these amusements remain private rather than public occupations. Underscoring the frivolous aspects of the preceding talents, however, James counsels that a "female of few accomplishments, but many virtues" will make the best wife and mother; to that end, "mental improvement should be associated with a correct knowledge of household affairs," else husband and children "are both very likely to wander from home for comfort." James concludes this patronizing discourse with Lee's commonplace extract: "True Religion is the deep basis of excellence; Sound Morality its lofty superstructure; Good Sense, General Knowledge, Correct Feeling, the necessary furniture of the fabric; and unaffected Modesty and Fashionable Accomplishments, its elegant decorations." James's appalling metaphorical portrait of the "correctly" educated woman (as a dwelling) only restates his previous assertions that her "appropriate" roles play out solely within its walls. In this cloistered analogy for the peerless woman, James makes "True Religion" the central feature of her "excellence" — grounding the foundation of the domicile for men's exclusive use. Ethics understandably merit the status of structuring framework for her character, but he relegates common sense and intellectual accomplishments to the "furniture" within this womanly "fabric" or edifice; modesty and the arts serve as superfluous but "elegant decorations." One is tempted to imagine that forty years hence Stanton's words in her popular "Marriage and Maternity" lectures directly attack James's recommendations; in maturity she would demand that society educate girls to respect their "womanhood" over and above such "incident[al]" roles as wife and mother. "Our daughters are nouns — not adjectives," she would proclaim in the 1870s.
Lee's gloss on James's counsel suggests that Elizabeth Cady, in the eyes of at least one beginning teacher, already displayed an intransigent vein of skepticism or was perhaps greatly in need of a crash course in religious and "womanly" (i.e., domestic) education. "I fear that you, my E.," Lee gravely cautioned, "are raising the superstructure without having lain [sic] the true foundation — If so," she added, alluding to Matthew 6:33, "I would only say in the words of the blessed Jesus, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Although Lee's commonplace entry hardly constitutes a six-week indoctrination in the manner of Reverend Charles Grandison Finney, it may illustrate the kinds of interactions Stanton experienced with at least one of her teachers at Troy Female Seminary. They and other aspects of her experience there likely contributed to the Finney story spun for later audiences, as well as to her fierce advocacy for women's expanded cultural, educational, professional, and political roles.
Taking the failed Finney conversion narrative off the table, however, still leaves another question unanswered. What might have provoked Lee's rebuke? In Eighty Years and More, Stanton reprinted a speech she delivered at the Troy Female Seminary in June 1892 for the dedication of its Gurley Memorial Building. In this address, she related a prank she ostensibly played on a "Miss Theresa Lee," whom she does not identify as a teacher but who was tasked with ringing a bell to announce bedtime and morning prayer to students. Stanton claimed she surreptitiously kicked the bell down the stairs after everyone was in bed; when students and teachers poured into the hall in consternation, she and her roommate seized the opportunity to run in and out of students' rooms, disrupting bed linens and transferring clothing from one room to another — all without being detected. Stanton, who relied heavily on Anthony for names and dates, may well refer to Thirza Lee here. Intriguingly, in her 1892 dedication speech she turned J. A. James's (and thereby, Lee's) advice for the education of young women on its head. Explaining that she and her roommate were never suspected as the perpetrators of this prank, she declared complacently, "Our standing for scholarship was good, hence we were supposed to reflect all the moralities."
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From Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Autograph and Commonplace Book, Thirza Lee, 183111
"True Religion is the deep basis of excellence — Sound Morality its lofty superstructure — Good Sense, General Knowledge, Correct Feeling, the necessary furniture of the fabric — and unaffected Modesty and Fashionable Accomplishments, its elegant decorations" ... [sic] I fear that you, my E., are raising the superstructure without having lain the true foundation — If so, I would only say in the words of the blessed Jesus, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Troy Female Seminary March–1831
From Foreword, Harriot Stanton Blatch and Theodore Weld Stanton, 1922
In recreations Mrs. Stanton had decided favorites. In the early days dancing was her chief delight. She was light as a feather on her feet, and always told with zest how she countered her father's pronunciamento that "she had been sent to Troy Seminary for the cultivation of her head, not her heels," with assertion that "he was mistaken as to the aim, for it was use of toes, not heels, which dancing was to inculcate." The playing of games she enjoyed throughout her life. She played as if her very life depended upon the outcome. She always played to win, and was sorely disappointed when she did not succeed. She was never known to give a game surreptitiously to a weak player. When she played chess she would even-up the contest by throwing out some of her pieces at the start, she would be generous in accepting the heaviest handicap, but when the game was once started, there was never anything for her or her opponent but a fight to the finish. She neither gave nor accepted quarter. She was as intense, as uncompromising, in a game as in a suffrage contest, and defeat was as painful to her in the one situation as the other.CHAPTER 2
Seneca Falls and Early Reform Days (1880–1911)
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This chapter shows Stanton slowly acquiring the knowledge and confidence to participate in multiple reform movements. We see her speaking from the ranks of the audience, rather than from the stage, as she initiates her trademark weapon of scathing humor. In other reminiscences, Stanton offers guidance to young wives and mothers while meeting her own parental challenges, develops friendships among reform leaders such as Frederick Douglass, takes fledgling steps in convention organization in Seneca Falls in 1848 under the supporting wings of seasoned associates, and leads the newly formed American Equal Rights Association (AERA) as first vice president.
Among the contributors to this chapter is a fellow AERA vice president, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the former slave, abolitionist, and civil rights leader, masterful orator, author, journalist, and U.S. marshal and minister to Haiti. Despite his somewhat overblown praise for his old friend and occasional antagonist, the tone of this selection, written on the occasion of Stanton's seventieth birthday, rings sincere. Douglass recalled what was likely their first or early meeting, which he dates as 1840; and in this account Stanton's preaching of the "new gospel of woman's rights" amplified his own sensibilities about human dignity. Douglass — exalted in his own right for the power to move others — honors Stanton as a teacher and praises her fine skills in logical persuasion.
Mary Sherman Bascom Bull (1835–1881), about whom little is known, vividly if skeptically depicts the range and scope of Stanton's early activism in Seneca Falls. In Eighty Years and More, Stanton remembered "Mary Bascom," who was thirteen in 1848, as "a good talker on the topics of the day" and claimed her as one of three female intimates who "added much to [her] happiness" during her Seneca Falls days. Bull's commentary on Stanton's articles in Amelia Bloomer's temperance journal, the Lily, illuminates Stanton's early interest in dress reform, when she and other woman suffrage advocates donned what would come to be known as the "Bloomer." They themselves first called the costume "Turkish" pants and "shorts" (as one of the objectives of the short skirts layered over trousers was to free women from heavy, trailing gowns). Introduced to the outfit by her second cousin Elizabeth Smith Miller, whose father, Gerrit Smith, was also committed to dress reform, Stanton was enthusiastic about the shorts, but others found them threatening. In 1852, describing her "remarks on the church" at a temperance convention over which Stanton presided as president (and notably, at a time before she had adopted her maternal self-presentation), a journalist argued defensively, "Mrs. Stanton's bearing at this Convention was dogmatic and egotistic in the extreme. And she is described by an eye witness, as resembling a man in her dress, having on boots like a man, pants like a man, dickey like a man, vest like a man."
A more favorable account of Stanton's early reform work comes from the occasional essayist, poet, and editor Mrs. C. K. [Lucretia Russell Gray] Smith (1817–1911). Infant Lucretia was born in Reading, Vermont. In 1846 she and her husband founded and edited the Monmouth, Illinois, Atlas, a paper that became a daily in 1904. After her death her children collected and published selections from her writings, A Souvenir Collection of Poetry and Prose from the Writings of Mrs. C. K. Smith (1908). Although relatives described Smith at the end of her life as traditionally devout, she wrote and contributed to the Free Thought Magazine at the time of Stanton's death and attended a Junius — or "Friends of Human Progress" — meeting in earlier years. Smith's memory of Stanton speaking from the audience in 1857 confirms Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch's contention that Stanton channeled her childhood exuberance and teenaged prankster spirit into activist tactics early in her career. Importantly, it also anticipates Stanton's later commentaries on the relationship between maternity and women's rights — and the welcoming reception she received from women whose interest in physical health as a vehicle for personal independence exceeded their enthusiasm for political enfranchisement.
Excerpted from Stanton in Her Own Time by Noelle A. Baker. Copyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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