Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Original gangster: a kind of feminism you'd be a monster to not get behind

Posted 30 Jan 2017    Edited 30 Jan 2017

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a leading figure in the American women's rights movement (if not the leading figure). Because she took more radical stances than most feminists of her time, and because she criticized mainstream christianity, her contribution to women's rights was marginalized from the time of her death in 1902 until the late 1970's.

She was born in 1815 in Johnstown, New York to Daniel Cady and Margaret Livingston. Daniel was an attorney and served one term as a United States congressman. Daniel's profession gave young Elizabeth a lot of exposure to law. In reading her father's texts and speaking with him and his colleagues, Elizabeth recognized the legal oppression of women, being denied access to property and income.

She had a level of education almost unheard of for her sex. At Troy University, she continued to develop her awareness of social and legal issues, and became involved in the anti-slavery movement, which is how she met her husband Henry Stanton, a fellow abolitionist.

They married in 1840 and eventually had seven kids together. Elizabeth was insistent against many of the expectations for married couples at the time, refusing to be referred to as "Mrs. Henry Stanton" and forbidding the minister who performed their wedding from using the phrase "promise to obey" in the ceremony.

So, yeah, she was on her way to becoming a feminist, but, what happened in London (shortly after her marriage in 1840) really expanded her commitment to social justice for women. It would define the course of the rest of her life as one of history's most dedicated and effective agents of social revolution.

She had been planning her attendance to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London for several months. She was part of a group of women who attended the conference that included Lucretia Mott, who founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.

As the Convention got underway, the men officiating the proceedings were like, "Looks like we have some women here... it's not very British to have women participating in meetings with men..." and others were like, "They can't talk here because the Bible."

So, after a drawn out period of decision-making, the old English boys basically say, "Okay, you ladies can't participate in a man's conference, so, go sit over there in that curtained-off section of the assembly hall. You can listen if you want, but you're not allowed to talk or vote or anything."

These women had travelled on a boat from america to attend the convention. That meant they had been on a freaking boat for more than a month. More than a month of eating, sleeping, shitting, menstruating, being sick, being bored, reading (that wouldn't be that bad, I guess), trying to cook meals - on a boat.

And then they get there, and these guys are like, "Have fun listening."

The ladies were not happy. This one American guy William Lloyd Garrison came in to the convention late, and he saw that all the women were sitting in this weird little box, and he was mad about it, too. The ushers were like, "Hi, Mr. Garrison. Your seat is over here." And he was like, "Uh, if you guys are gonna be assholes and not let these delegates participate, then I'm gonna go sit in the little box with them."

So, Mott and Cady Stanton leave the conference, and they're talking to each other like, "Well, that was really, really, really not cool" and they pretty much become sisters-in-arms against the oppression of women. Back in america, they (after eight years) organize the Seneca Falls Convention.

The Stantons had moved to Seneca Falls, New York for health reasons: Henry was allergic (or something) to Boston where they had lived after they were married. Elizabeth didn't care for the small town life afforded by Seneca Falls; but, she was invigorated by her developing resolve to end the systematic oppression of women that she witnessed.

She (along with others like Lucretia Mott and Martha Coffin Wright) organized the two-day Seneca Falls Convention. The preparation included the drafting of the Declaration of Sentiments, a document containing formal statements of grievance, framed after the Declaration of Independence, but specifically addressing the suffering of women.

There were a few technical hiccups in the proceedings of the Convention. For instance, they arrived at the church building they had reserved as a meeting place, and the doors were locked. They had to lower a little kid in through a window to unlock it from the inside.

Also, because women at that time were excluded from positions of authority in any public activity, none of the convention's organizers had any experience formally presiding at an event, so they asked Lucretia Mott's husband James to preside (interestingly, though men were allowed to attend the Convention, they were asked to remain silent in the proceedings).

The content of Cady Stanton's speeches in the convention was completely revolutionary. The claims and proposals of the meeting would not sound novel to us, but, in their day, no one at the Convention had ever heard similar statements. she said, "So long has man exercised tyranny over [woman], injurious to himself and benumbing to her faculties, that few can nerve themselves to meet the storm; and so long has the chain been about her that she knows not there is a remedy."

In the Declaration of Sentiments she publicly addressed the most important privileges women of her time were denied: the ability to vote and own property (even personal wages), the right of a married woman to her own identity, equal representation in court, access to education, and representation in organized religion.

The conference was going pretty well until Cady Stanton dropped the Ninth Resolution on everyone: "Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise" - the right to vote - everyone freaked out. Even Lucretia Mott was like, "Lizzy, everyone's gonna think you have lost it if you include that resolution."

But she did it anyway, and it caused a huge uproar.

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and orator, was in attendance at the convention. He stood up in the chaos, and was like, "Hey, women really do need the right to vote" and everyone was like, "Well if Frederick Douglass says so, then I guess it's a good idea" and the proposition was accepted; history's first big instance of "mansplaining."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued as an activist for women's rights her whole life, gaining support (and making enemies) as she went. She met Susan B Anthony (who, for a long time, was credited as 'the Founding Feminist') in 1851, and they remained best friends until Cady Stanton's death in 1902, even though they fiercely disagreed on many specific issues.

Cady Stanton was a majorly polarizing figure, and was involved in a huge schism in the women's movement that basically split American feminists into two groups (that would later merge back into a single body to strengthen the fight for suffrage). She, maybe surprisingly considering her involvement in the anti-slavery movement, actually opposed the movement to earn black men the vote (seeing it as a lesser priority to female suffrage) and has been accused of racism.

Despite such controversy, the work that Cady Stanton and others did became suffrage and first-wave, second-wave, and modern-day feminism, all stemming back to the Seneca Falls Convention. Cady Stanton's death, unfortunately, occurred 18 years before women won the right to vote, but it wouldn't have happened at that time without her.

I was introduced to her life and achievements in a U.S. women's history class that I took at BYU-Idaho from Dr. Andrea Radke-Moss (read some of her online publications here). The class left in me a determination to join the fight for women's rights (especially for those suffering the greatest oppression - women of the developing world), but I still don't feel one hundred percent comfortable calling myself a feminist; not because I don't fully support the aims of feminism (minus maybe to some extent abortion rights - a point on which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and I both stand in opposition), but because, as a man, I can never fully understand what the struggle really is.

In her opening remarks at the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said:

I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you at this time, having never before spoken in public, were I not nerved by a sense of right and duty, did I not feel the time had fully come for the question of woman’s wrongs to be laid before the public, did I not believe that woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length, and the breadth of her own degradation. Man cannot speak for her, because he has been educated to believe that she differs from him so materially, that he cannot judge of her thoughts, feelings, and opinions by his own.

Though spoken over 150 years ago, those words ring true to me. I really don't feel worthy to be called feminist. I feel much more comfortable being called what the Cady-Stanton-era feminists would have called a guy like William Lloyd Garrison who sat with them in a box: an ally.

Choosing to not refer to myself as a feminist doesn't make me any less committed to the cause. I know that the systematic oppression of women is real, all over the world. I am especially mindful of areas of the world where Elizabeth Cady Stanton's grievances listed in the Declaration of Sentiments still need to be resolved. But I really feel that positive change will mostly come from women themselves.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is "Thanks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for helping me see that the fight for women is real and for pointing me in a direction to do something about it."