Elizabeth Cady Stanton – Suffragist and Women’s Rights Activist

In many ways, Elizabeth Cady Stanton provided the philosophical bedrock for the women’s movement in the United States. She is known for fighting for women’s suffrage, but she never lost sight of the bigger picture of women’s rights or other reform issues. Throughout her long life she would concern herself with such things as the abolition of slavery, the right for married women to own property, birth control, custody for mothers, education for girls, and relief for suffering families after the Civil War. Her overriding concern was that all individuals have the right of self-determination and should be allowed to have all the tools necessary to do this.

Elizabeth, born in 1815, was the eighth of eleven children born to Daniel Cady and Margaret Livingston Cady. Only she and four sisters survived well into adulthood. After years of miscarriages and exhausted by childbirth, Margaret retreated to her bed in ill health, possibly to avoid any more attempts at having a boy. After menopause, she recovered her health to a degree that Elizabeth’s children remember their grandmother as fun and affectionate. In the meantime, Elizabeth was often cared for by her older sister Tryphena and her husband Edward Bayard.

It’s not uncommon for a daughter to fill the place of a son when there aren’t any boys in the family. Elizabeth Cady had the interests and mental capability to be like a son to her father, to share his intellectual interests and pastimes. She was an accomplished horsewoman, and excelled in mathematics, Latin and Greek and could play chess. She once took a young man who came to read law with her father on a 10 miles ride that left him exhausted. But in Elizabeth’s father’s eyes it wasn’t enough. At the age of eleven when her only brother (Eleazar, aged 20) died, she climbed into her father’s lap to comfort him and he said, “Oh daughter, I wish you were a boy.” As hard as she tried, she always felt inadequate simply because she was a girl and unable to take Eleazar’s place.

Elizabeth’s father was a prominent attorney who served one term in Congress and later became a judge. As a young girl, Elizabeth would often sit quietly in her father’s office and listen to the women who came seeking help in legal matters. She became aware at an early age of the great disadvantage of women in the legal system. Her brother-in-law, Edward who studied with her father, would tease her by reading the most egregious laws and Bible passages pertaining to women. At that time, women had virtually no legal rights; they couldn’t own property, in fact any property they inherited became the property of their husbands when they married to do with as he saw fit; wages they earned became the property of their husbands; they had no custody rights; in fact they were the property of their husbands. This struck Elizabeth as unfair, in fact as a young girl she marked the worst passages in her father’s law books and planned to cut them out, but a friend revealed her plan and her father explained to her that it wouldn’t make any difference, the laws would still exist.

Growing up Elizabeth attended Johnstown academy. Working to earn her father’s love she excelled and received many honors, often out performing the boys in her classes. In spite of this, when it was time for the boys to go on to Union College, she couldn’t. They didn’t admit women. Once again, the system seemed unfair to Elizabeth. Although her father considered the subjects she excelled at unfeminine, she was encouraged intellectually by a neighbor, the Rev. Simon Hosack and at Edward’s urging, Judge Cady did agree to send her to the Troy Female Seminary where she learned subjects more “appropriate” for a young woman, such as music, dancing and French. This did little to instill in her a liking for these subjects. In fact, she particularly disliked sewing, calling the needle “that one-eyed demon of destruction that slays thousands annually; that evil genius of our sex, which, in spite of all our devotion, will never make us healthy, wealthy, or wise.”

After graduating from school, Elizabeth spent time in the Bayard’s home and that of her cousin Gerrit Smith a prominent abolitionist. There she made the acquaintance of Henry Brewster Stanton a young attorney who also supported the abolitionist cause. Over the years Edward’s teasing had become affection, but Elizabeth had no desire to betray her sister, so when Henry Stanton proposed marriage to her, she accepted. Edward tried to intervene by disparaging Stanton to Elizabeth’s father who was not a staunch abolitionist, and she was convinced to break off the engagement. But, Henry was persistent.

In 1840, Henry was planning to go to England to attend the first world slavery convention. He told Elizabeth that he would be gone for 8 months and asked her again to marry him. She accepted and within a few days they were married and on their way to England. Their experiences there would set the stage for the beginnings of the suffrage movement in America.

Elizabeth and Henry arrived in London with some of the most well-known abolitionists in the United States: James and Lucretia Mott, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison. When they reached the convention they were told that women were not allowed to participate; even though Lucretia was an official delegate, the women couldn’t speak or vote. In fact, they had to sit in a partitioned off space away from the men. They were outraged. William Lloyd Garrison was so incensed that he refused to participate and sat with the women.  In spite of this, the situation gave Elizabeth the opportunity to get to know Lucretia Mott who would be an important mentor to her in her reform activities.

Once Elizabeth and Henry returned from England they moved in with the Cady’s for a time while Henry read law with Judge Cady. They then moved to Boston. In Boston, Elizabeth thrived in the social and intellectual climate, but that changed when they moved to Seneca Falls in 1847. It wasn’t long before she began to feel an intense “mental hunger.” Elizabeth was an excellent mother and housekeeper. In a time when the infant mortality rate was around 50%, she raised seven children to adulthood, having her children with midwives rather than doctors, using homeopathic medicines and sticking to a strict healthy diet. But, this wasn’t enough for her, so when she met with Lucretia Mott and three other women in the summer of 1848, she was ready to campaign for a cause – women’s rights.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1840s with two of her sons Daniel and Henry.

In July of 1848, at the Seneca Falls Woman’s Convention, 100 of the 300 attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments which had been written by Stanton: 68 women and 32 men. Among these were Daniel Anthony, his wife Lucy and his daughter Mary. His daughter Susan B. Anthony was away at college, but would make the acquaintance of Elizabeth soon after the convention, beginning a friendship and partnership that would last for the rest of their lives.

Initially, Susan and Elizabeth worked in the temperance movement together, but soon women’s rights and suffrage in particular took up most of their time. Their skills complemented each other. Elizabeth took speaking engagements, but was more restricted to the homefront, while Susan, who remained single, had the freedom to travel. Elizabeth was the better writer and wrote many of Susan’s speeches, where Susan, as Elizabeth said, “was the better critic. She supplies facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric.” Together they worked on the expansion of the 1848 Women’s Property Act, giving women more legal rights, and when the Civil War began, as many women did, they set their political concerns aside to found the Loyal League for the purpose of relieving the suffering of families whose men were fighting.

Elizabeth worked hard with all the abolitionists toward passage of the 13th Amendment gathering signatures and campaigning to ensure its passage in 1865, but when discussion of the 14th and 15th Amendments began there were disagreements. The question was whether to fight for suffrage for African-American men first and then for women, or to fight for both at the same time. With Andrew Johnson in the White House, the situation for freed slaves was desperate in many ways. Southern states were passing laws making life very difficult, such as the law that would require the arrest of any black man without a job. In one incident in Memphis TN, in May of 1866, when former black Union soldiers were discharged and ordered to turn in their arms, former confederate soldiers attacked a large community targeting hospitals and schools run by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The riot which lasted for 2 days before federal troops could arrive resulted in the deaths of 46 black men, women, and children, 285 maimed, and over $100,000 worth of damage to property owned by African-Americans. There were no deaths or injuries of white people, and no one was arrested.

Elizabeth and Susan wanted suffrage for black men, but they wanted it for women at the same time. They wanted the removal of the word male in the amendments, making them applicable to all citizens, but many of the prominent men and some women were afraid that the inclusion of women in the right to vote would result in the defeat of the amendments. The 14th Amendment was presented and passed with the word male included. When work began on the 15th Amendment, the disagreement caused a major split among women and their supporters resulting in the formation of two separate organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association founded by Stanton and Anthony, joined by Sojourner Truth and Matilda Joslyn Gage, and the American Woman Suffrage Association which included Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe, among others.

Over the next 20 years, Elizabeth and Susan would work together publishing a weekly paper, Revolution, with articles covering a wide range of women’s issues. They would tour the country speaking, work toward suffrage in various states, and write. When it was proposed that the two Women’s Suffrage organizations merge in 1890, Stanton was opposed. Many of the more conservative and religious women had distanced themselves from her over the years. In spite of this she was elected the first president of the new National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

In many ways Elizabeth became even more radical over the years, supporting divorce rights, birth control, employment rights, and even interracial marriage, issues that more religiously conservative women didn’t want to get involved in. She also created intense controversy when she wrote The Woman’s Bible, a reinterpretation of the Bible from a feminist perspective. This and the fact that Anthony actively mentored younger women in the movement, may have contributed to the fact that Susan B. Anthony came to be seen as the founder of the movement. In recent years though, Elizabeth Cady Stanton has been recognized more and has reemerged in many ways as the Mother of the Suffrage movement.

After her death in 1902, Susan B. Anthony was asked about their relationship and the movement.

“Through the early days, when the world was against us, we stood together. Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movements. I always called her the philosopher and statesman of our movement.”

Some of her writings include
History of Woman Suffrage; Volumes 1–3 (written with Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage; vol 4–6 completed by other authors, including Anthony, Gage, and Ida Harper) (1881–1922)
The Woman’s Bible (1895, 1898)
Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences 1815–1897 (1898)
Solitude of Self – originally delivered as a speech and considered by some to be the best thing she wrote.

Read Solitude of Self

Along with Stanton’s own works, you might be interested in these.
New York Times Obituary for Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith

About Susan Ozmore

I'm a blogger, freelance writer, and former teacher. After 12 years in the telecommunications industry, I taught math and science. I have, however, always loved history! So now I am indulging by reading many great books and sharing what I learn. As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new is the history you don't know." Please comment, I would love to receive your feedback. Thanks for reading.
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6 Responses to Elizabeth Cady Stanton – Suffragist and Women’s Rights Activist

  1. What really strikes me about these stories is that it all starts simply because these women have a genuine yearning for knowledge and want to be able to study and think freely. Their inquisitive minds drive them to question authority, even though it is always much easier to accept the status quo. It makes their lives much harder, but still, they cannot give up thinking autonomously. That is beautiful.

    • Susan Ozmore says:

      Very well said! I think you are correct. That is also at least one of the reasons why we appreciate them as well, I think. We have that same yearning for knowledge. It’s encouraging to read about women who have gone before us.

  2. Lisa Sachs says:

    That was very interesting, Susan. You had a lot of information about Elizabeth Cady Stanton that I hadn’t known before.

    • Susan Ozmore says:

      Thanks Lisa. She had a long and productive life. It was hard to decide what to focus on. I’m glad some of it was new information for you.

  3. Susan Abernethy says:

    Well done Susan! I’m so proud this woman paved the way for me and others.

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