I was once called the most dangerous woman in America because I dared to ask for the unthinkable- the right to vote. I challenged my culture’s basic assumptions about men and women, and dedicated my life to the pursuit of equal rights for all women. My name is Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
I was born in Johnstown, New York, on the 12th of November, 1815. My father is the prominent attorney and judge Daniel Cady and my mother is Margaret Livingston Cady. I was born the seventh child and middle daughter. Although my mother gave birth to eleven children- five boys and six girls- six of her children died. Only one of my brothers survived to adulthood, and he died unexpectedly when he was twenty. At ten years old, my childhood was shadowed by my father’s grief. I can still recall going into the large darkened parlor to see my brother and finding the casket and my father by his side, pale and immovable. As he took notice of me, I climbed upon his knee. He sighed and said, ” Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” I threw my arms around his neck and replied that I will try my hardest to be all my brother was.
I was determined to be courageous, to ride horses and play chess, and study such manly subjects as Latin, Greek, mathematics, and philosophy. I devoured the books in my father’s extensive law library and debated the fine points of the law with his clerks. It was while reading my father’s law books that I first discovered the cruelty of the laws regarding women, and I resolved to get scissors and snip out every unfair law. But my father stopped me, explaining that only the legislature could change or remove them. This was the key moment in my career as a women’s rights reformer.
As I grew older, my intellectual interests and masculine activities embarrassed my father. He told me they were inappropriate in a young lady, especially the daughter of a prominent man. I was educated at the Johnstown Academy until I was 15, and was always the head of my class, even in the higher levels of mathematics and language, where I was the only girl. But when I graduated, and wanted to attend Union College- as my brother had done- my father would not allow it. It was unseemly, he said, for a woman to receive a college education, for in 1830 no American college or university admitted women. Instead, my father enrolled me in Emma Willard’s Female Academy in Troy, New York. Although I learned a great deal at the academy, I objected to the principle of single sex education and felt it was artificial and unnatural. I believed knowledge had no sex.
I graduated in 1833 and returned to my parent’s home, and this is when I entered the world of reform. While visiting my cousin, Gerrit Smith (the abolitionist) in Peterboro, New York, I met with all kinds of reformers. There, too, I met the man I was to marry- Henry Stanton, a renowned abolitionist speaker and journalist. My marriage to Henry, who was 10 years older than me, marked an important turning point in my life, especially since my father objected to my choice. He strongly disagreed with Henry’s radical politics, and tried to discourage me, but I was stubborn. So, on May 1, 1840, we got married in my parents home in Johnstown. On the wedding day, we both agreed (although the minister objected) to remove the word “obey” from my vows. I refused to obey someone with whom I was entering an equal relationship. We honeymooned in London where Henry combined business with pleasure and attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention. It was in London that I met Lucretia Mott, when both of us were banished from the convention because of our gender. We resolved the keep in touch when we returned to America, but eight years passed before this happened.
Meanwhile, after Henry and I returned to the United States, Henry gave up the lecture circuit and studied law with my father to support our growing family. I had given birth to three sons in four years, and bore seven children in all, five sons and two daughters. This colored everything that I did, for I was either pregnant or nursing or both during the formative years of the women’s movement. One result was that I learned to use my pen instead of my presence. A second result was that Susan Anthony spent so much time at our house that the children called her “Aunt Susan.”
After Henry passed the bar, we lived briefly in Boston before settling permanently at Seneca Falls, New York. From my home in the small town near the Canadian border, the start of the struggle for women’s rights began. Lucretia Mott and I organized the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, along with the draft of the Declaration of Sentiments.
Susan B. Anthony and I grew to be the most intimate of friends and the closest collaborators in the battle for women’s suffrage. Susan and I co-founded the Women’s State Temperance Society for women married to alcoholics. It was in an 1852 meeting of this women’s society that I proposed the right to divorce drunken husbands. The response was outrage, for the very idea of divorce was scandalous, and even the relatively advanced women feared that my radicalism would jeopardize their cause. The chief reason for the miserable state of wives of alcoholics was the lack of married women’s property right. So, in 1854 I made my first major address to the New York legislature on behalf of a bill on this subject. The legislature passed a bill giving married women rights to their own wages and guardianship of their children.
As the Civil War erupted, we moved to New York City. This gave me greater access to the public. Again, I teamed up with Susan B. Anthony and together we headed the Loyal League and collected hundreds of thousands of petitions for a constitutional amendment ending slavery. A secondary benefit was that the league reinforced women’s networks and fundraising abilities.
When the war ended, I engaged in what was the biggest of my many leaps. In order to test the Constitution’s gender-neutral wording on candidate eligibility, I ran for Congress in 1866. Of some 12,000 men who casted ballots, only 24 were courageous enough to vote for me. The following year, I made my first major speaking tour. I accompanied Susan B. Anthony to Kansas for a referendum on the enfranchisement of both ex-slaves and women.
We lost the election, but won other support, including financing that allowed us to begin publishing the Revolution in January, 1868. I did most of the writing on women’s issues for the newspaper. I published editorials on jury duty and prostitution as well as some standard topics. But in 1869, the newspaper collapsed in bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Susan and I separated from our longtime associates in the women’s rights movement and we formed the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. I was the NWSA’s president and Susan Anthony was vice-president.
By 1871, I had gone lecturing all the way to California, where western women found my suffrage advocacy less shocking. In addition to suffrage, my chief lecture point was educational opportunity for girls. The Centennial Exposition brought me to Philadelphia in 1876, and I also made regular trips to Washington to speak on behalf of the federal suffrage amendment. I spent most of the 1880’s working on my book, The History of Woman Suffrage. After Henry’s death in 1887, I spent increasing amounts of time in England with my daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch. This, in turn, helped spark my interest in the International Council of Women that formed in 1888. My speech there celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. In that same year, I also attempted to cast a ballot in a case similar to other unsuccessful test of the Fifteenth Amendment. Two years later, the suffrage associations reunited, and I served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1890-1892.
Though I never attended another suffrage convention after stepping down from the presidency, my days of radical leadership were not over. As the suffrage movement grew increasingly conservative and ineffective, I again turned to the pen rather than the platform. In my eightieth year, I shocked even feminists with the publication of The Woman’s Bible (1895), a carefully researched argument against women’s subordinate position in religion that- like the Revolution- was more reasonable than its inflammatory title implied. Reverend Anna Howard Shaw and others moved a resolution in the 1896 NAWSA convention disassociating the organization from the book, and despite Susan B. Anthony’s impassioned plea, the motion passed. This outrage gave me no pause, however, and in 1898, I added a second volume.
In the same year, I published my autobiography, Eighty Years and More(1898), and I continued to write on broad topics for newspapers and magazines. While the NAWSA concentrated with increasing exclusivity on suffrage, I remembered that the original movement had included far more than suffrage- and that it was I who had to fight for the addition of suffrage on the agenda. As I aged, my writing focused more on issues that directly concerned women’s personal lives, particularly dress reform, divorce, and the damaging influence of religious and educational systems on the female population.
In June of 1902, Susan Anthony spent a week in my home and she found me almost blind, but still alert. A few months later, on October 26, 1902, I died quietly at the age of eighty three.
The Nineteenth Amendment, allowing 26 million American women the right to vote, became the law of the land on August 18, 1920. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not live long enough to vote freely.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s writings, her speeches, her enthusiasm and her life provide inspiration for generations of American feminists, even to the present day. I think that Elizabeth, were she here today, would be pleased to see her work was not in vain. And that the revolution she and other ladies of Seneca Falls began that hot July day in 1848 did not end 76 years ago when women acquired suffrage. And that her life still inspires new genrations of young women. If it were possible for me to meet with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I would be delighted to take part in that opportunity. Stanton’s spirit lives on today whenever and wherever American women use their voices and their votes to proclaim equality.
Faber, Doris. Oh Lizzie! The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard Company, 1972.
Weatherford, Doris. American Women’s History.