It’s not too early to start planning for New York State History Month in November. One of the themes that the state’s history community might consider this year is reform in New York State. There are few better examples of a New York reform leader than Elizabeth Cady Stanton and November 15 is the bicentennial of her birth.
She was born Elizabeth Cady in Johnstown on November 15, 1815. She observed how the law treated women as subordinate to men through observing the work of her father, an attorney and judge. She derived a hatred of slavery and confidence in political change from her cousin, Gerrit Smith, who lived in nearby Peterboro. She married a leading abolitionist, Henry Stanton, in 1840, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton was always independent, opinionated, determined, sometimes headstrong, never resting.
She was the main organizer of the famous Seneca Falls Women’s Rights convention in 1848 and the main drafter of the famous manifesto demanding not only the right to vote but also other steps toward equality with men. Ironically, the document reached back 72 years to the Declaration of Independence for inspiration and sentiments; it would be another 72 years, 1920, before women gained the right to vote across the nation.
Over the next 50 years, Stanton campaigned tirelessly and much of her work was here in New York State. For instance, in 1854, in a rousing speech in Albany, she said that women have “no civil existence, no freedom.” In 1860, she addressed the State Assembly, demanding equal rights, decrying of being patronized and offered “the kind of protection…which leaves us everything to do, to dare, and to suffer and strips us of all means for its accomplishment.” In a speech later that same year, she denounced inequality in marriage, asserting “there is one kind of marriage that has not been tried, and that is a contract made by equal parties to lead an equal life with equal restraints and privileges on either side.”
Much of her work was carried out in tandem with her colleague and friend Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). They were, perhaps, the most effective two-person reform team in New York State history. Their skills dovetailed well. “While she is slow and analytical, I am rapid and synthetic,” Stanton wrote. “I am the better writer [and] she the better critic….Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains.” Anthony is remembered for asserting her right to vote in the 1872 presidential election, being arrested and fined, and refusing to pay the fine. Federal and state authorities decided not to pursue here. Less well remembered by history is Stanton’s heroic act of running for congress herself in 1868. She received few votes but made a powerful point about women’s rights and potential.
Stanton could be contentious. She fought others for leadership of womens’ reform organizations. She resented it after the Civil War when black males gained the right to vote but women did not. She criticized organized religion for protecting the status quo and not supporting women’s rights. With a number of colleagues, she published The Woman’s Bible in the 1890’s, critiquing Bible passages which allegedly elevated men over women.
She aided everyone who is interested in the history of women’s rights through publication of her very informative autobiography in 1898 and through editing, with Anthony and others, a multi-volume history of the women’s rights movement.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not live to see the advent of woman suffrage either in New York or the nation as a whole. The successful campaign for the right to vote was led by, among others, her daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch. But she kept working right up to the end of her life. The day before she died in 1902, she finished work on two more articles and wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln had emancipated four million slaves, she wrote; TR could “immortalize [himself] by bringing about the complete emancipation of thirty-six million women” through the right to vote.
Stanton realized her work was unfinished. Some of the issues she cared about are still unresolved. If she were alive today, Stanton would understand (and without doubt join) the discussion over the Women’s Equality Act currently under consideration in the Legislature.
Next November would be a good time to celebrate the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Bicentennial.
Photo: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, circa 1880.