“But we are assembled to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the founding mothers of women’s rights in America. She was the first American woman to publicly argue for suffrage, or the right to vote, for women. Stanton took a lead role in organizing the first women’s rights convention (originally called the Woman’s Rights Convention) in her hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. It was during this convention that Stanton gave an address that outlined her positions on the rights of women for many years to come. Stanton worked closely with another of the founding mothers of American feminism, Susan B. Anthony, who often delivered speeches that Stanton wrote. Stanton was a leader in the women’s rights movement until her death in 1902, establishing and leading organizations that advocated for women’s rights. Unfortunately, Stanton did not live to see American women obtain the right to vote in 1920.
The year 1848 is often referred to as the Year of Revolution, due to the many uprisings demanding democracy that occurred in Europe that year. These revolutions, which did not last the year and did not lead to many lasting changes, included demands for women’s rights. American women also took their first tentative steps toward emancipation and equality with men during this year. At this time, only white men in America had the vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and four other women—all of whom, except Stanton, were Quakers—organized the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in July of 1848. Stanton authored the Declaration of Sentiments and its accompanying Resolutions to be debated at the convention. Within these documents, she demands suffrage as well as other rights for women: to keep custody of their children after divorce; to sign contracts on their own when married; to keep their own property when married; and, in a nod to Stanton’s own marriage vows, the end of women having to obey men. Stanton also demands better educational and career opportunities for women.
Antebellum (pre–Civil War) America had developed defined roles for women and for men into separate spheres: domestic, or private, for women, and public for men. It was considered inappropriate for a woman to speak in public or to actively engage in politics, although some women did disregard these restrictions. The progress of abolitionist politics leading up to the Civil War in 1861 provided women with some limited opportunities for action, and it also raised their awareness to the inequalities and basic lack of liberty faced by much of the American population, be it on the basis of race, class, or sex.
The Seneca Falls convention was a tremendous success, with over three hundred people attending, including forty men. There was some discussion about not allowing men into the convention, but eventually the decision was made to let them participate. Since this was now a mixed gathering, the female organizers felt it inappropriate for a woman to chair the convention, and therefore one of the organizers’ husbands acted as chairman. Stanton’s own husband did not attend, as he disapproved of her demand for women’s suffrage. There is some debate as to whether or not the text of Stanton’s keynote address, which was first published in 1870, was a verbatim version of the address she gave at Seneca Falls in 1848 or not, and yet there is no doubt that Stanton’s words helped launch the women’s movement in America.
Elizabeth Cady was born to Margaret Livingston and Daniel Cady in Johnstown, New York, in 1805. Her father was a prominent lawyer who eventually became a New York Supreme Court judge. Elizabeth was educated at Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, which was known for its rigorous academic curriculum for young women. In 1840, she married Henry Brewster Stanton, who was a lawyer like her father; he dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery and so was better known as a politician and activist. In a foreshadowing of her feminist leadership, Stanton refused to include the word “obey” in her wedding vows. The couple spent their honeymoon in London attending the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Here, Stanton met her future friend, American Quaker and abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and the two found common complaint in not being allowed to actually attend the convention because of their sex.
Over the next years, Stanton began her family, which would include seven children. In 1847, the family moved from Boston to Seneca Falls, New York, which was a smaller, more rural community. Here, Stanton keenly felt the “drudgery” of female domestic life, and the separation of male and female lives into distinct private and public spheres. By 1848, she felt ready to take on the struggle for women’s rights. Stanton and Lucretia Mott—along with Martha C. Wright, Jane Hunt, and Mary Ann McClintock—organized the Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights on July 19 and 20, 1848. It was Stanton who insisted that a clause on women’s suffrage be included in the Declaration of Sentiments that was presented at the convention. This was controversial at the time, but it would lead to the adoption of suffrage as a key demand of the women’s rights movement from this point forward.
In the years that followed, the American Civil War pushed the nation’s attention to race as opposed to gender, but Stanton continued to organize for women’s rights. She became a leader of this movement, along with her lifelong friend Susan B. Anthony, whom she met at the Seneca Falls convention. She led various organizations devoted to women’s rights, including the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA, 1869–90) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1890–92), a merger of NWSA and the American Woman Suffrage Association. Always a prolific writer, in her later years Stanton published widely on women’s rights, including The Woman’s Bible (1895–98), which led to a backlash from the very women she was trying to help. She produced her memoirs in 1898. When Stanton died in 1902, America lost one of its strongest and earliest voices for women’s rights.
It seems difficult to believe that American women have had the right to vote for less than one hundred years, but this is the case. Women received the vote via the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But it was Elizabeth Cady Stanton who first raised the cause (also known as suffrage) publicly as something that women should fight for and duly receive. In 1848, when she made her case through an address given at the Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, the thought of women voting was almost absurd. Even some of her fellow organizers thought so.
Stanton’s speech at this convention, said to be the first of her career, was published in 1870. Is this the verbatim text of her speech in 1848? Probably not, but the themes and arguments included in it set the tone of the women’s rights movement for decades to come. In her speech, Stanton draws on the liberal philosophy prevalent in the nineteenth century, especially natural rights theory, or the theory that all people (not just white men) are created equal. This new concept of natural rights, part of the secular, liberal philosophy that was becoming popular in mid-century America, was redefining society. It was apparent in the antislavery movement that was coalescing and that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Stanton also often refers back to republican principles in her speech, as the Declaration of Sentiments presented at the convention was based on the Declaration of Independence. She also includes the concept of “republican motherhood,” which held that women have a powerful role in the moral development of their children in order to raise better and more virtuous republican citizens. Stanton’s audience here, it is important to remember, was restricted to white, educated, Protestant women, and so her demand for rights is also limited to this population group.
The year 1848 was a year of revolution in Europe, and it was therefore a fitting year for an American woman to state the revolutionary idea of women’s right to vote. Stanton begins her Seneca Falls speech with appropriate modesty, saying she is “exceedingly diffident” or timid to be speaking and admitting it is her first public speech. At this time period, men and women were restricted to the separate spheres of public and private: men inhabited the public sphere while women were restricted to the private sphere. For this reason, it was uncommon for women to speak in a public setting, although not unknown. As the abolitionist movement grew in popularity, more and more women began speaking in public and sharing their opinions and beliefs in this way. In her speech, Stanton states clearly her reasons for taking this somewhat radical move; she believes that women themselves need to speak up about “woman’s wrongs,” as they cannot rely on men to do this for them. She further states that men cannot understand “the depth, the length, and the breadth of her [woman’s] own degradation.” She explains that men’s education makes it extremely difficult for them to understand women’s concerns, as they are conditioned to believe in being completely and “materially” different from women.
In order to build her case, Stanton addresses the common wisdom of the day that men are superior to women “intellectually, morally, physically.” The next three paragraphs are dedicated to refuting this assertion. Stanton discusses men’s alleged intellectual superiority, and she makes the logical assertion that women cannot be judged in this regard until they have access to the same educational opportunities that men have. At this point in America’s history, women’s colleges, or “seminaries” as they were often called, were not as plentiful or as rigorous academically as men’s colleges. Stanton herself had been fortunate enough to be educated at the Troy Female Seminary, which had been founded by Emma Willard, an early advocate for women’s right to an education. Stanton also objects to women having to pay taxes and at times even raise money through “sewing societies” for men to attend these colleges, when women are banned from these same schools. She states that if women can educate themselves, then “we shall not hear so much about this boasted superiority.”
Stanton then turns her attention to morality and takes issue with the different expectations of morality and purity between the sexes. She states that this disconnect has “done a great deal of mischief in the world,” and that both sexes should adhere to the same moral codes. She is clear in her belief that men have the inferior moral code, and that they need to improve in this regard to reach the higher level of women. It does not make sense in her mind for women to become “less pure.”
Regarding the physical superiority of men, Stanton understands that many may not believe equality could occur between men and women. But even here, she believes there is an argument to be made, and so she makes it. Again, she relies on the point that women have not had the same freedoms to develop their physical strength and abilities as have men. From childhood on, men have had more freedom to play ball, swim, or climb, and so she believes the true physical potential of women has not yet been seen. To further reinforce her case, she cites examples of strong women from other ethnicities and cultures, in particular Tatar, American Indian, and German women. She explains how “Tartar” women hunt, fight, and ride “as well as any man,” while American Indian and German immigrant women often carry heavy burdens. Her point here is clear: when it comes to both physical and intellectual development, a woman must be free to achieve her full potential.
Next discussed is clothing, and here Stanton displays a clever use of rhetoric. She assures her audience that the focus of the convention is to discuss civil and political issues and not social issues, and then dedicates the next paragraph to social issues, cleverly including them when she said she would not. By social, she means such things as childcare, changing the behavior and manners of men, and attire. She assures her audience that women have no interest in “imitating” male clothing, as she believes women’s “loose, flowing garments” are “far more artistic” than men’s clothing. Here, her tone turns slightly sarcastic, as she gives examples of men who choose to dress in a similar fashion to women: barristers and judges, priests and bishops, mayors and even the Pope himself wear flowing robes similar to women’s garments. She adds that this must mean that these men see the advantages of female clothing styles and therefore “tacitly” acknowledge that male clothing is “neither dignified nor imposing.” Turning her attention more directly to male attire, she focuses in on four particular fashion trends of the time for men: “stocks, pants, high-heeled boots, and Russian belts.” Her use of humor here is notable, as she invites men to discover for themselves how uncomfortable these items of clothing can be, all worn for the sake of vanity.
After this statement on clothing, Stanton turns from what is not going to be discussed to the important issues that are. She goes on to list the wrongs against women that need to be righted. Of course, she begins with the right to vote, the most contentious, but most important issue to her. Everything else can be addressed by legislation after women win the vote. Here, Stanton relies on the old republican theme of taxation without representation to make her point. Women pay taxes to be governed, but then have no voice in government. To add insult to injury, this same government has imposed legislation on women that greatly restricts various aspects of their lives. Stanton explains that a man can legally imprison his wife, take control of any property she inherits, take any wages she earns from employment, or if the couple separates, even take her children from her. This then is her agenda for action, and this is what she wants changed. She calls these wrongs against women a “shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century.”
Although usually speaking from a secular and anticlerical perspective, as Stanton was not an overly religious woman, she was not above referring to Christian principles when it suited her. She speaks next to the ultimate goal of the Seneca Falls convention and refers back to the Original Sin, when Eve fell from grace. She speaks of women’s “fallen divinity” and that the convention’s goal will be to place women on an even “pedestal” with men. In short, the goal of the Seneca Falls convention was full equality for women.
Stanton then returns to her key demand of women’s right to vote. She admits that this demand may sound strange to some people, but makes the controversial argument that women already have the right to vote under the Declaration of Independence, and that no one would deny it. She is careful here to distinguish between rights and equality, and makes the point that proving one’s rights does not necessarily guarantee that equality will be the result. Stanton reinforces her point further by providing three examples of men of different classes and ages, all of whom enjoy the right to vote. She begins with Daniel Webster, who was a leading Massachusetts statesman of the time, and then explains that even an “ignorant Irishman in the ditch” enjoys the same rights as Webster does, as does any weak young man aged twenty-one. She concludes that this is the current situation with white men in America; that all can vote, but not all are equally educated, able-bodied, or wealthy. It is interesting to note here that she clearly refers to “white men.” This is no doubt a result of her close association with the abolitionist movement, given her husband’s status as a leading abolitionist.
The next paragraph begins with a bold, simple statement: “The right is ours.” By using this short, simple phrase, Stanton adds impact, especially as this is an address designed to be spoken. Stanton then expands on the concept of having natural rights versus the possession of these rights. Again she uses examples to illustrate her point. In this case, she refers to Daniel Webster again; Henry Clay, another noted statesman of the day from Kentucky; Martin Van Buren, eighth President of the United States; and Gerrit Smith, a well-known abolitionist and a man who would soon take up Stanton’s universal suffrage message. Smith was also Stanton’s cousin. In these men, Stanton sees honorable male leaders worthy of the vote. She contrasts these men sharply with “drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, run-selling rowdies, ignorant foreigners, and silly boys” who can also vote under present laws. She considers this to be “grossly insulting” to women, and that it must not continue. Stanton repeats her short opening phrase again, adding two other short sentences—”Have it, we must. Use it, we will.”—to provide even greater impact. She finishes this line of argument by going back to her point that there can be no “just government” without “the consent of the governed,” meaning women. Stanton then explains that the best strategy to obtain the vote is persistence and that women should continue repeating this message to men in government, until they are finally worn down enough to relent.
After stating that women already have the inherent right to vote, Stanton shifts her argument to why women should be given the vote, and what benefits it will have for American society. She paints an ugly picture of the current state of American society (“moral stagnation”) in order to show that there is, in fact, a crisis that needs a solution. She concentrates on the sins of the fathers, so to speak, and notes the prevalence of “drunkenness, licentiousness, gluttony,” mentioning slavery and war as well. While these sins are multiplying, Americans are busy establishing new churches, charities, and associations, but to no avail. Society continues on its downward path. Here, having taken her audience to the brink of despair, Stanton provides the solution. It is of course women. She positions women as a “purifying power” providing “a spirit of mercy and love.” This refers back not only to women as keepers of virtue in the new republic, but now also saviors of it. Again, this is a Christian reference that would have been easily understood by her audience.
Stanton continues along this line of argument, explaining that the current “moral stagnation” of America is due in no small part to the continued “degradation of women.” She argues that there can be no “truly great and virtuous nation” when “your women are slaves.” Note the use of the word “slave,” which would resonate strongly with those holding abolitionist opinions, many of whom attended the convention. This line of argument also refers back to the theme of republican motherhood, which held that women must be educated in order to be able to properly educate and imbue virtue in their children, which in turn will properly prepare the next generation of good republican citizens. Stanton puts it even more bluntly: “It is the wise mother that has the wise son.” She again alludes to the Christian concept of redemption when she states that America can be saved by elevating women to an equal position to that of men.
Stanton ends her speech with an example of an exceptional woman from history who was successful in speaking truth to power: Joan of Arc. This French Christian saint from the fifteenth century heard “voices” telling her to take charge of the French army and lead it to victory over the English. She was also a skilled and renowned military leader, known for her military victories and keen strategy. This was exactly the type of woman Stanton needed to inspire her audience to action. Her concluding call to action is for American women to hear the voices of this moral crisis and to “buckle on the armor” to confront what their enemies would surely use against them in their fight for women’s rights, in this case “contempt and ridicule.” She quotes scripture at this point and then mentions the “thorns of bigotry,” which suggests the imagery of the crown of thorns worn by Christ when he was crucified. In this paragraph, she is trying to prepare her audience for the long fight it will take to achieve women’s equality. Her use of military terms such as “stormy bulwarks” and “fortified their position” makes it clear she thinks this will be a battle, or perhaps even a long and drawn out siege. She needed to inspire her audience, as it was these women, and some men, who would be the leaders of this new women’s rights movement.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s bold decision to include the right to vote as a central demand for women’s rights and equality was one that had ramifications for the women’s movement for many decades to come. Her address at Seneca Falls includes other demands, such as married women’s property rights, divorced women’s rights to the custody of their children, and better educational and career opportunities for women. These were secondary, however, to the right to vote.
Although the women’s movement lagged somewhat after Seneca Falls, as a result of the Civil War and its aftermath, women continued to organize and galvanize throughout the century. Many women were also active in the abolitionist movement, and this experience provided them with the needed organizational skills to take up the cause of women’s rights. Stanton’s 1848 Seneca Falls address was passed around and used by many other women as a source document as they created their own speeches. The foundational document had a limited audience, however, as it was not published until 1870. By the time the American women’s movement became a driving force in society again in the 1890s, Stanton’s address was more of a distant echo of inspiration than a current call to action. Stanton was increasingly marginalized from the very movement she helped to create in her later years.
In addition to the abolitionist movement, the women’s rights movement was also closely aligned with the temperance movement. The temperance movement believed that drinking alcohol, especially by men, leads to increased crime and many social evils, including those against women. Many women were active in more than one of these nineteenth-century social reform movements, and through them grew skilled in organizing and protesting. A number of Stanton’s Quaker friends, such as Lucretia Mott, devoted their lives to reforming American society in this way. The Quaker religion, or the Society of Friends as it is also known, has always acknowledged the spiritual equality of women since its seventeenth-century origins and has allowed them to travel, preach, and publish religious writings. It is no surprise that Stanton’s staunch friend and ally Susan B. Anthony was herself a Quaker.
Ironically, it was the Civil War that led to a schism in the early American women’s movement. After African American men were given the vote in 1870, the women’s movement split into two camps; one focused on moving women’s suffrage through local and state legislation, while Stanton and Anthony’s group were determined to work for the vote instead at the federal level. The two distinct organizations merged in 1890 to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Although Stanton became the founding president of this new organization, she was not enthusiastic about it and immediately left for England after she was elected. She refused to stand for reelection in 1892, effectively retiring from active participation in the movement she helped to found, and instead concentrated on her writing career. Nevertheless, she must always be remembered for her 1848 address at Seneca Falls, and her audacious demand that women be allowed to vote.
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