Elizabeth Cady Stanton, c. 1880. (Wikimedia Commons) Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the organized women’s movement in the United States, was one of six children born to Daniel and Margaret Cady in Johnstown, New York in 1815. Her father was a lawyer and the family was well-to-do. Stanton received a good education and excelled in her studies. When she was young, her father expressed dismay that she was not a boy. This comment both hurt and motivated Stanton. She wanted to attend Union College but could not because of her gender. Instead, she attended Troy Female Seminary, a school started by Emma Hart Willard, an American women’s rights activist. Unlike other colleges for women, the seminary offered a rigorous education rather than functioning as a finishing school for soon-to-be-married middle and upper class women.
Stanton’s political education began in the anti-slavery movement. Her cousin Gerrit Smith was an active abolitionist and through him she learned of and joined the New York State Anti-Slavery Society. she met her husband henry b. stanton through her work as an abolitionist. They were married in 1840, partly so they could travel to London together for an anti-slavery convention.
Two significant things happened on this trip. ella stanton met her friend and collaborator, quaker reformer lucretia mott , who introduced her to issues of women’s rights. she was also struck by the fact that women were not allowed to speak at the anti-slavery convention.
In 1847, Stanton moved to Seneca Falls, New York. The following year, she and Mott organized the first women’s rights convention. the “declaration of sentiments”, written for the occasion, is one of the founding texts of the women’s rights movement. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, it listed the ways in which women were denied basic civil and economic liberties and included a demand for women’s suffrage and an end to double standards in sexual morality. at the seneca falls convention, ex-slave and abolitionist frederick douglass delivered a moving speech in which he compared the plight of women to that of african americans and wholeheartedly endorsed the suffrage proposal, which many considered too radical. sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the document.
stanton met temperance reformer susan b. Anthony in 1851 and she joined his newly founded New York State Temperance Society for Women the following year. the close relationship between the temperance movement and the nascent suffrage movement is often held up as evidence of the latter’s inherent conservatism and religiosity. but this interpretation eludes some of the more radical aspects of the temperance movement itself. Temperance was one of the first mass reform movements led largely by women, providing an entire generation with experience in political organizing. it is the first case of women moving from the private to the public sphere in large numbers and an arguable precursor to the feminist adage “the personal is political.” including any wages they earned, alcoholic husbands were a serious physical and financial threat to their livelihood and well-being and that of their children. The temperance movement was therefore the first to organize around issues that specifically affected women’s lives, such as domestic abuse, the lack of legal divorce, and the inequity of coverage laws that denied women married women the right to own and control property.
American suffragists marching down New York’s Fifth Avenue in October 1917. They are displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million women demanding the right to vote. (Wikimedia Commons) During the 1850s, influenced by the concerns of the temperance movement, Stanton devoted most of her attention to the rights of married women. In 1854, she became the first woman to address the New York Legislature,where she presented an omnibus women’s rights bill. A decade later, she again addressed the legislature, this time comparing the status of married women to that of slaves. The legislature adopted large portions of the bill, including improvements to inheritance laws and the recognition that mothers had equal legal rights over their children. Voting rights, however, remained elusive.
after the civil war, stanton helped found the american equal rights association (aera). AERA’s mission combined the goals of the women’s rights and anti-slavery movements in an effort to achieve equal rights, including suffrage, for both women and African-Americans. Stanton expected women to be rewarded for their loyalty to the union and the abolitionist cause and was disappointed by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment – which gave black men the right to vote but not women .
at this point, the perennially mentioned suffragette racism surfaced publicly. The organization finally collapsed in 1869 after a debate between Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass during which Stone announced his final support for the Fifteenth Amendment despite its offensive exclusion of women. Stanton and Anthony , among others, found it appalling that uneducated black men were entrusted with political participation when highly educated white women were not. The two women left to co-found the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) when it became clear that Black male suffrage and women’s suffrage would not be granted at the same time.
other members of the aera such as stone and julia ward howe – although equally dismayed by the lack of support shown by their former abolitionist allies- eventually accepted and defended passage of the fifteenth amendment. They parted ways with Anthony and Stanton over the issue and founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). the schism between the two organizations would continue for more than 20 years.
stanton and anthony, meanwhile, continued to run the nwsa together. They also started a newspaper, Revolution, for which Stanton was the main contributor and editor. sparked controversy through his continued criticism of the Republican Party’s lack of support for women’s rights, as well as his support for workers’ right to strike and advocacy for equality laws wage. Stanton continued to advocate for women’s suffrage, as well as write and lecture on a number of women’s issues, including divorce law, women’s education, and sexuality.
Stanton died in 1902 at the age of 86. Her daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, succeeded her as one of the leading organizers of the women’s suffrage movement and in 1890, with Alice Stone Blackwell (Lucy Stone’s daughter ), brought together the two suffragette organizations their mothers had founded. With two million members, the resulting American National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was a leading force behind the revival of the women’s suffrage cause during and after World War I. American women finally won the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment by the required three-fourths of the states in 1920, 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention.
written by rebecca h. Lossin, PhD Candidate in Communications, Columbia School of Journalism, Columbia University
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