On this date in 1815, one of the most important figures in early women’s rights was born. Elizabeth Cady was born in Johnstown, NY. Her father, Daniel, was a prominent attorney who served one term in Congress and was a circuit court judge and New York Supreme Court Justice. Her mother, Margaret, was a tall, powerful woman who was energetic in her youth, but lost many children (six of her eleven); Elizabeth mainly remembered her as a sad, distant woman.
A youth spent browsing her father’s home law library fascinated Elizabeth. She also developed a realization of just how dramatically the law favored men over women in every particular. Although her family owned at least one slave — slavery was not abolished in New York until 1827 — early exposure to her abolitionist cousin Gerritt Smith helped form strong sentiments in Elizabeth. Elizabeth becomes an exceedingly strong voice in the abolitionist movement.
Unlike many women of her era, she was formally educated. She attended Johnstown Academy, where she studied until the age of 16. She enjoyed being in co-educational classes where she could compete intellectually and academically with boys her age and older. Since local Union College accepted only men, Stanton enrolled in the Troy Female Seminary, which was founded and run by Emma Willard. During her education she had unpleasant dealings with a local Calvinist preacher(imagine that, a male preacher mistreating a woman); as a result she rejected organized Christianity maintaining that logic and a humane sense of ethics were the best guides to both thought and behavior.
Elizabeth met Henry Brewster Stanton through her involvement in abolitionism. He was a journalist and anti-slavery orator who later became an attorney. They were married in 1840; Elizabeth instructed the minister to eliminate the promise to obey from the wedding vows, later observing, “I obstinately refused to obey one with whom I supposed I was entering into an equal relation.” She also assumed the name Elizabeth Cady Stanton, refusing to be subsumed as Mrs. Henry B. Stanton. She asserted that “[t]he 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.” Is it any wonder that I love our Elizabeth Cady Stanton?
She was an ardent suffragist as well as an abolitionist. Despite her large family (seven children), she maintained that she planned the birth of each child through “voluntary motherhood” and was a strong proponent of women’s reproductive and sexual rights. She and her husband shared many views but had lively discussions in which they often disagreed. They moved to Seneca Falls, NY for her husband’s health. It was there that her most famous work began.
In 1848, she and Lucretia Mott organized the first women’s rights convention, (The Seneca Falls Convention) attended by over 300 people. She delivered her Declaration of Sentiments at this conference, one of the most important early treatises on women’s rights. She went on to work with other reformers like Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer. She remained a powerful, often controversial figure throughout her life. Despite her work as an abolitionist, she initially opposed the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, concerned that explicitly giving African American men the right to vote created a larger bloc that could oppose women’s suffrage. She later used the vague wording of the amendments to maintain that they had, in fact, created a right for women to vote, although that position never had legal support.
She wrote, published and spoke about women’s rights throughout her life. She died in 1902 at the age of 86. Sadly, she never did get to see the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.