“No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone.” — Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Trained in the law by her father, Daniel Cady, a former state supreme court justice, Stanton was an engaging public speaker and a talented writer. She became the feminist she was after witnessing an event during her childhood in which her father informed abused women that they had no legal alternative but to endure the mistreatment by the men of their household.
She drafted the famous “Declaration of Sentiments” at the first woman’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Patterned after the Declaration of Independence, this declaration stated that “all men and women were created equal,” and demanded that women be given “the sacred right of elective franchise.”
Stanton was a rebel for most of her life. She was one of the first women to wear “bloomers,” a costume made popular by her friend Amelia Bloomer in 1851. Fed up with the uncomfortable corsets and full skirts of the day, Stanton preferred the comfort of the baggy, lace-trimmed trousers. Her clothing drew so much criticism, however, she eventually reverted to the accepted style.
Married to a prominent abolitionist, Henry Stanton, Elizabeth spoke out against slavery and the oppressive treatment of African Americans. It was at an abolitionist convention in London that Stanton committed herself to work for women’s rights. When the convention refused to seat women, forcing them to meet in a separate hall, Stanton vowed to organize a convention devoted to women’s issues.
Marriage and motherhood sidetracked Stanton from immediately following up on that vow. She ultimately raised seven children, mostly without the help of her husband, who traveled frequently. According to one historian Stanton was a good mother, but the rigors of homemaking were too confining for her. She told her friend and fellow suffragist, Lucretia Mott, she suffered from “a mental hunger which, like an empty stomach, is very depressing.”
Eager to bring more purpose to her life, Stanton helped Mott organize the 1848 woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. More than 300 women and men packed the Wesleyan Chapel to hear Mott and others speak on women’s rights and lay plans for future conventions. The event wasn’t well received by the local press. One newspaper called it “the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity.” Criticism aside, Seneca Falls “would create the foundations of the American women’s rights movement for the next half century.”
In 1866, Stanton was the first woman to run for the U.S. Congress. She had discovered that although women could not vote, there was nothing in the law to prevent them from running for office. She lost.
Stanton was sometimes at odds with many of her fellow suffragists. Their focus was primarily on getting the vote. Stanton advocated a broader platform of women’s concerns. She called for birth control, liberalized divorce laws, and stronger laws to prevent physical and sexual abuse. Suffrage was the issue of the day, however, and in 1869, Stanton and Anthony organized the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Stanton headed the NWSA for 21 years.
At the core of her philosophy was the belief that women were individuals who did not need men to protect them.
The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.
Paired up with friend and staunch ally Susan B. Anthony, Stanton went on to write numerous articles and books attacking conventional beliefs and supporting ideals such as women’s suffrage and equality. Her books include The Women’s Bible, in which she challenges biblical justifications that women are inferior to men and History of Women’s Suffrage, which she co-wrote with Anthony.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton died on October 26, 1902 due to heart failure. Her children published a book about her twenty years later entitled Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences.
Although she did not live to see women earn the right to vote, she was the thinker and scribe behind the victory.
Partial Reprint – Copyright © 2007-2009 Washington State Historical Society