March is Women’s History Month—a welcome opportunity for us at Women’s Voices for Change to honor some of our heroines past and present. We start our affirmations with the reminiscences of the indefatigable activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, mother of seven, whose fight for women’s emancipation made her and her spinster friend Susan B. Anthony the mothers of us all. 

“The story of my private life as the wife of an earnest reformer, as an enthusiastic housekeeper, proud of my skill in every department of domestic economy, and as the mother of seven children, may amuse and benefit the reader,” Stanton muses in her memoir, Eighty Years and More, available as a free download or for perusing online. The other part of her story . . . her public life “as a leader in the most momentous reform yet launched upon the world—the emancipation of woman,” she notes, can be found elsewhere.

This is a charming peek into a women’s world in nineteenth-century New York State. Stanton (1815–1902) writes of the everyday rigors women stoically endured.  (See her Chapter 1 description of the tormenting clothes that schoolgirls were required to wear—a harbinger of confines to come).   She laments the dictatorial authority—the “everlasting no”—of even “benevolent” parents.   She remembers with dismay the revival meetings at which her minister, “a terrifyer of human souls,” competed with other reverends to persuade the worshippers of their iniquity. (“The most excitable were soon on the anxious seat. There we learned the total depravity of human nature and the sinner’s awful danger of everlasting punishment. This was enlarged upon until the most innocent girl believed herself a monster of iniquity and felt certain of eternal damnation.”) These fascinating anecdotes make clear how far American women have come since Stanton’s day.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was aware of, and acutely pained by, woman’s subordinate status when she was very young. The need for women’s emancipation comes through in her plainspoken reminiscences about the traditions that burdened women:

  • She tried, fruitlessly, to win praise from her father, the formidable judge. (“All that day and far into the night I pondered the problem of boyhood. I thought that the chief thing to be done in order to equal boys was to be learned and courageous. So I decided to study Greek and learn to manage a horse.” She mastered riding, learning to “leap a fence and ditch on horseback.” When she triumphantly brought home the Greek Prize, her father’s response was a sigh: “Ah, you should have been a boy.”)
  • She was appalled by the travails of widowed women whose husbands had willed all their property to a son. (“Hence it was not unusual for the mother, who had brought all the property into the family, to be made an unhappy dependent on the bounty of an uncongenial daughter-in-law and a dissipated son. The tears and complaints of the women who came to my father for legal advice touched my heart and early drew my attention to the injustice and cruelty of the laws.”)
  • She resolved to change the laws. Eighty Years and More gives us, in fascinating detail, the feelings behind her long fight for women’s voting rights, women’s property rights, women’s custody rights.  “I poured out, that day [in 1848] the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent, with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the party, to do and dare anything,” she writes of a meeting with fellow activists in Seneca Falls. “My discontent, according to Emerson, must have been healthy, for it moved us all to prompt action, and we decided, then and there, to call a Woman’s Rights Convention.”

The National American Woman Suffrage Association.

And so they did: The little band of activists held the first Women’s Rights Convention, in Seneca Falls, in 1848.  Soon after that, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony, whose zeal complemented hers: “With the cares of a large family I might,  in time, like too many women, have become wholly absorbed in a narrow family selfishness, had not my friend been continually exploring new fields for missionary labors. Her description of a body of men on any platform, complacently deciding questions in which woman had an equal interest, without an equal voice, readily roused me to a determination to throw a firebrand into the midst of their assembly.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton died 18 years before American women got the vote. (Below, a bit of filmmaker Ken Burns’s take on Stanton and Anthony). For a glimpse of the feeling of outrage, the determination, and the bravery of this woman who sparked the first wave of the American  women’s rights movement, click over and scan her engaging book. 

 

 

 

 

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  • Susanna Gaertner March 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Wonderful piece! Vivid depiction of a historical figure who comes to life in every facet of her life. Brava, Ms. Harkins!

    Reply
  • b.elliott March 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    I am forwarding this to my daughter to remind her, again, how hard fought this struggle!

    Reply