Thursday, June 18, 2015

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.
      - 1848 Seneca Falls Convention keynote address

My 5th and 6th grade Language Arts teacher added public speaking to the curriculum.  We had monthly poetry competitions (the winner got to wear a pin on her sweater until the next unit) and in 6th grade we chose famous speeches to memorize and present.  Inspired by a YA biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I picked her 1848 Seneca Falls keynote address.  I've spent most of my life wondering why she's not as famous today as her friend and writing partner, Susan B. Anthony.  Lori D. Ginzberg's biography provides a potential answer.  Anthony was a more public face, and more constant  and pragmatic campaigner for women's rights; Stanton was a firebrand thinker with little patience for public speeches and the tedious follow-up.  They worked well together, but Anthony's activities were more obvious.

Stanton's personality may have also gotten in the way of her fame.  She was a bit vain, somewhat prickly, and possessed a level of arrogance not unexpected in the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family.  As a child, Elizabeth Cady pushed to get a "boy's" education, and went on to the Troy Seminary which was the closest thing to a college education available to American women in the 1830s.  She met and married Henry Stanton, an anti-slavery activist, and though him was introduced to the abolitionist women who founded the women's suffrage movement.

Abolition also figures into why Stanton's modern fame may not match her early contributions to the women's movement.  Although the movement grew out of and remained closely linked to the abolition movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction led to a split.  Some believed that abolition and gaining the vote for former slaves should take priority, while others thought that women's suffrage could be accomplished simultaneously.  Stanton belonged to a third faction, one which prioritized votes for women and she made some frankly racist and anti-immigrant statements.  Even without those statements, I wonder whether the split in the suffrage movement delayed the amendment so long than only one woman who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls convention was still alive to vote legally.  Or did Stanton's (and others') relentless ideology prevent the movement from being pushed aside?  Ginzberg doesn't answer that, but she does provide a clear, if somewhat dryly written, picture of a complicated activist.

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