Born today in 1815, Elizabeth Cady learned as a little girl how thoroughly the laws of her day denied rights to women. Her father — a circuit court judge and later a state supreme court justice — encouraged her to read his legal tomes, ask questions, and debate him and his clerks.
At a time when most women rarely went beyond grammar school, she attended a secondary academy in her hometown — Johnstown, New York — and intellectually outshone her male peers. Elizabeth continued her studies at the Troy Female Seminary. At a revival in Troy, the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching of a famous evangelist initially terrified her, but ultimately persuaded her to reject organized religion entirely.
Through the temperance and abolition movements, Elizabeth met and ultimately married fellow activist Henry Stanton, though she dropped the “promise to obey” from her wedding vows. She tacked on his surname, but refused to be identified as “Mrs. Henry Stanton.” Insisting that everyone has the right to an individual identity, she wrote “the custom of calling women Mrs. John This and Mrs. Tom That and colored men Sambo and Zip Coon, is founded on the principle that white men are lords of all."
Having seen her “queenly” mother languish in intractable depression after five of her eleven children died as babies or toddlers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton resolved to avoid that fate. She persuaded her husband to accept a system of birth control she called “voluntary motherhood,” which limited the size of her brood to a mere six children, all of whom survived infancy and lived into middle age and beyond.
Through her activism against alcohol and slavery, she made connections with other feminists who saw the need for a women’s rights movement. They launched the movement at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The delegates revised and ratified a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” penned by Elizabeth, modeled on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
In this soaring manifesto, she announced that “all men and women are created equal.” The “history of mankind,” she wrote, “is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.… He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” Thus, Elizabeth, with the assembled delegates, demanded “immediate” equal rights with regard to voting, property, divorce and child custody, morality and religion, and with regard to education, jobs and compensation.
At the convention, Elizabeth formed a close partnership with Susan B. Anthony. Unburdened by family responsibilities, Susan could travel extensively to promote the movement, typically delivering speeches largely ghostwritten by Elizabeth. As Anthony put it, Elizabeth “forged the thunderbolts” that Susan “fired.”
Abolitionists quarreled and split over feminism; emancipation only exacerbated those divisions. After the Civil War, Elizabeth and Susan demanded that the 14th and 15th Amendments extend civil and voting rights not just to black men, but to women as well. Unfortunately, both women resorted to racist rhetoric in their unsuccessful efforts to convince Congress and the public. Worse, they split the feminist movement by taking the sore loser “all or nothing” position of opposing rights for black men until white women were included. That split hampered the movement’s progress for the next several decades.
As her children grew up and left the house, Elizabeth traveled extensively — lecturing, lobbying and organizing — energetically promoting woman suffrage and other feminist legislation across the country and in Europe.
Her speeches alienated some contemporaries by controversially (but cogently) condemning patriarchy for “civil, religious, and social disorganization. The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease, and death. See what a record of blood and cruelty the pages of history reveal! Through what slavery, slaughter, and sacrifice, through what inquisitions and imprisonments, pains and persecutions, black codes and gloomy creeds, the soul of humanity has struggled for the centuries, while mercy has veiled her face and all hearts have been dead alike to love and hope!”
In 1890 — after more than two decades of largely futile lobbying efforts — most feminists concluded it was time to merge the two rival suffrage organizations into a single coordinated movement. Although Elizabeth perversely opposed this, when it happened over her objections, Susan engineered Elizabeth’s election as the first president of the merged organization. This conciliatory gesture proved misguided, as Elizabeth’s contempt for conservative and religious suffragists precluded her from becoming the unifying figure the movement needed.
Late in life, Elizabeth limited her influence by publicly rejecting religion as inherently oppressive. In The Woman’s Bible (1895), she wrote: “I differ from all ecclesiastical teaching” in “that I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked with God, I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code, or told the historians what they say he did about woman, for all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible.”
At Seneca Falls, Elizabeth had clearly defined the problem and set a worthy and appropriately ambitious agenda. She continued to make important intellectual contributions to the movement, but her consistently sub-optimal strategic sensibilities limited the prospects for legislative progress during her lifetime.
By the time she died in 1902, only three remote western states had given women voting rights. The lonely men of Wyoming, Idaho and Utah lacked feminist conviction, but hoped the prospect of voting might attract more prospective marriage partners to the godforsaken frontier.