Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life
by Lori Ginzberg, Hill & Wang, 272pp., $25
You are a teenage American girl in 1830. You can’t attend men’s colleges or pursue a variety of occupations. Once you marry, your wages become your husband’s. You can’t own or inherit property. If you divorce, your spouse receives custody of the children. You can’t sign a contact or serve on a jury. And you can’t vote to change the laws that restrict you.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was 15 in 1830. By the end of her life in 1902, the United States was a dramatically different place: Women’s rights topics were embedded in the national discussion, thanks in part to her decades of oratory, writing and advocacy. Lori Ginzberg makes a convincing case for Stanton as the founding philosopher of the American women’s rights movement in a lively voice that enhances her eccentric subject.
Ginzberg describes Stanton as “brilliant, self-righteous, charismatic, self-indulgent, mischievous, intimidating, and charming”—and that’s just in the book’s first line. Stanton is a complex figure: a mother of seven who considered women’s rights, not her children, as her primary life’s work; an activist who fought for women but often preferred the company of men.
Young Stanton enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of meeting antislavery activists with her abolitionist husband, but found her voice by proposing and helping to lead the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. It launched Stanton’s whirlwind career advocating for women’s rights in politics, marriage and religion. If nothing else, Stanton had chutzpah: She was the first woman in the United States to declare herself a candidate for Congress, even when she couldn’t vote.
Stanton delighted in stirring up publicity and being a radical as much as she hated attending conventions or attending to details, leaving those to her close friend, Susan B. Anthony. A galvanizing force, Stanton “essentially invented…stand-alone feminism,” Ginzberg argues. Anthony may be better known today partly because Stanton alienated more people.
After the Civil War, Stanton and Anthony opposed a constitutional amendment offering equality to all “male citizens.” Anthony recognized the danger of adding the phrase to the Constitution. Stanton took a more unsavory approach: “We [women] are moral, virtuous and intelligent, and in all respects quite equal to the proud white man himself,” she wrote, “and yet by your laws we are classed with idiots, lunatics and negroes.” Later she turned on foreigners, decreeing them “opposed to the enfranchisement of women.”
If such talk hurt the women’s movement, Stanton didn’t seem to care. Ginzberg notes that the inflammatory outbursts “may have served only to convince immigrants, African Americans, and working-class activists that the movement for women suffrage, whatever its rhetoric, was primarily concerned with gaining rights for white middle-class women.” Modern feminism has been accused of the same bias.
Stanton didn’t live to see women gain the right to vote in 1920. An analysis of why the 19th Amendment was so long in coming would have been a welcome addition to this book. But Ginzberg has created a vibrant portrait of a key, often misrepresented figure in American history.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.