Stanton, Elizabeth Cady: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Smith, Sidonie. "Resisting the Gaze of Embodiment: Women's Autobiography in the Nineteenth Century." In American Women's Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory, edited by Margo Culley, pp. 75-110. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

In the following excerpt, Smith explores Stanton's expression of her selfhood in her autobiography.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton announces in the preface to Eighty Years and More, 1815-1897 that the story of her life is actually split, doubly inscribed: "The story of my private life as the wife of an earnest reformer, as an enthusiastic housekeeper, proud of my skill in every department of domestic economy, and as the mother of seven children, may amuse and benefit the reader. The incidents of my public career as a leader in the most momentous reform yet launched upon the world—the emancipation of woman—will be found in The History of Woman Suffrage " (v). Textually splitting both story and "selfhood" into the dual spheres of private ("feminine") and public ("masculine") activity, Stanton gestures to the "commonplaces"1 of female identity in the nineteenth century. She apparently positions the public achievements of "metaphysical selfhood" in an elsewhere distant from her autobiographical project, thereby banishing to the margins of her "woman's" text the story of agency and autonomy. In that textual elsewhere she claims her place as a "leader" in "the most momentous reform yet launched upon the world," no small claim to notoriety. Yet even there, in that elsewhere, public achievement is displaced into "self"less history as her centrifugal role disperses into a "communal" rather than "personal" story of the suffrage movement. Refusing to make "unwomanly" or monstrous claims to publicity, Stanton signals at the gateway to her narrative her resistance to self-promotion. Even her purposes in writing are conventionally "feminine" ones: she writes self-sacrificially for the amusement and the edification of her reader.

Stanton at first appears to embrace the cultural figuration of "woman" by positioning herself squarely inside the enclosure of domestic space, the territory of "embodied selfhood." As she traces her childhood, youth, courtship, and marriage through the opening chapters of the text, she attends to the teleological pattern of "embodied self-hood," those defining moments of the female life cycle. Moreover, she wraps the commonplaces of "woman's" story of courtship in the language and figures of sentimental fiction: "When walking slowly through a beautiful grove, he laid his hand on the horn of the saddle and, to my surprise, made one of those charming revelations of human feeling which brave knights have always found eloquent words to utter, and to which fair ladies have always listened with mingled emotions of pleasure and astonishment" (60). Representing herself as the desirable and decorous heroine of "romance," Stanton invokes the idealized script of young "womanhood." Once past this point in the text she appears to fulfill her opening promise to focus on her life as wife, mother, and housekeeper, invoking the idealized script of nurturant self-sacrifice. Sometimes she invests commentary about motherhood in similarly sentimental garb. Talking of young women whose singing is much remarked she announces: "One has since married, and is now pouring out her richest melodies in the opera of lullaby in her own nursery" (414). More often in talking about motherhood she assumes the posture of the experienced grandmother, practical, authoritative, aggressive in her concern for the welfare of children. In the discourse of housewifery, the older woman offers advice on such domestic concerns as healthy ventilation, stoves, childrearing practices.

However, the representation of Stanton the wife and mother is disturbed and destabilized throughout the text in a variety of ways.2 The narrative of "embodied selfhood" ends fairly early when the roles have been fulfilled, when the courtship and romance culminate in marriage and childbearing. Henry Stanton appears in the early pages and then disappears almost entirely once he has married her and fathered her first children. Stanton erases him so effectively that the reader is not really clear whether he has died when she concludes her narrative. Nor do her children assume much prominence in the text. They are noted when she talks about the early trials of marriage and housekeeping, but then they too disappear until the end when they reappear, woven in and out of the text, given as much narrative space as the hundreds of other friends she visits.



I remember once, in crossing the Atlantic, to have gone upon the deck of the ship at midnight, when a dense black cloud enveloped the sky, and the great deep was roaring madly under the lashes of demoniac winds. My feelings was not of danger or fear (which is a base surrender of the immortal soul), but of utter desolation and loneliness; a little speck of life shut in by a tremendous darkness. Again I remember to have climbed the slopes of the Swiss Alps, up beyond the point where vegetation ceases, and the stunted conifers no longer struggle against the unfeeling blasts. Around me lay a huge confusion of rocks, out of which the gigantic ice peaks shot into the measureless blue of the heavens, and again my only feeling was the awful solitude.

And yet, there is a solitude, which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being, which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.

Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take, on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. An excerpt from "Solitude of Self." Delivered before the Committee of the Judicary of the United States Congress, January 18, 1892.

Nonetheless the shadow existence of both husband and children in the text serves the function of legitimizing Stanton's "excessive" narrative. Since her cultural authority and readability depend upon her fulfillment of that generic contract whereby she presents herself as a "woman," husband and children establish her identity and credibility as a narrating woman. No virgin spinster (like Susan B. Anthony) Stanton assures her reader that female "embodiment" has operated in culturally respectable and expected ways. All parts having assumed their proper places, her body has fulfilled its destiny. Having positioned herself toward the body in this way, Stanton achieves at least two effects. She diffuses the lurking threat of the monstrous female body, which always threatens to return from the margins of "woman's" text to disrupt the processes and practices of patriarchal culture. Second, she provides herself with a strategic counter: she can use brief, fleeting references to husband and children to reinforce her legitimacy again and again in a text that quickly begins to contest the institution of marriage itself.

For the preface and sentimental posturings notwithstanding, the thrust of Stanton's narrative contests the sanctity of marriage and even the motherhood Stanton would promote. To the roles of wife and mother and their attendant responsibilities she traces her profound dissatisfaction with the fate of "woman" and the constraints of female embodiment. Her domestic life in Seneca Falls she presents as drudgery, isolating, hard, dulling. Parenting she constantly assesses as constricting, brutalizing. Describing her experience as a young mother she writes:

I now fully understood the practical difficulties most women had to contend with in the isolated household, and the impossibility of woman's best development if in contact, the chief part of her life, with servants and children.…The general discontent I felt with woman's portion as wife, mother, housekeeper, physician, and spiritual guide, the chaotic conditions into which everything fell without her constant supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women impressed me with a strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular.


Throughout her text she interjects commentary on the pettiness, tyranny, and brutality of men and their victimization of women, emotional, physical, political, economic.

Moreover, Stanton locates mutual understanding and comradeship in her relationship with Susan B. Anthony (and with women generally) rather than in her relationship to men, whether husband or father. Pointedly she does not dedicate her narrative to either husband or children but to Anthony, "my steadfast friend for half a century." Textually, Anthony takes the place of the marriage partner, displacing Henry Stanton as source of inspiration. In offering a brief biography of Anthony, Stanton draws upon a rhetoric that celebrates the complementarity traditionally identified with the marriage partner:

So entirely one are we that, in all our associations, ever side by side on the same platform, not one feeling of envy or jealousy has ever shadowed our lives.…To the world we always seem to agree and uniformly reflect each other. Like husband and wife, each has the feeling that we must have no differences in public.…So closely interwo ven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences that, separated, we have a feeling of incompleteness—united, such strength of self-assertion that no ordinary obstacles, difficulties, or dangers ever appear to us insurmountable.

(166, 184)

Stanton spends considerable narrative time weaving Anthony's presence into the text, testifying to the priority of female friendship over wife-hood and motherhood.

And whatever lip service she might give to the centrality of the "home" for women, the text constantly displays a kind of homelessness, albeit a wealthy homelessness, not one of poverty but one of constant travel. Stanton describes her travels across the West, back and forth to Europe, from one home to another, one friend to another, one public speaking engagement to another. In her mobile existence even the home to which she returns constantly shifts from place to place.

For a narrative which purports to be about the stable roles of wife, mother, housekeeper, this one incessantly frays, breaks apart, goes off in pursuit of another kind of "selfhood" as Stanton seeks to escape the confinement of "embodied selfhood," to escape enclosure in "woman's place," to escape encoding in "woman's" life script, that narrative marginal to the contractual expectations of autobiography. Thus, Stanton pursues another story, albeit one that is sketchy, not prominently linear but suggestively so. Through the barest shell of an alternative teleology, she locates the originary moments of her developmental "selfhood." First she recalls her experience at the death of her brother when her father refuses to acknowledge her as the substitute son she would be. Then she describes her experience in her father's law office listening to the wives, mothers, and widows who find themselves powerless economically. From there she proceeds to track her involvement in first the abolitionist and then the suffrage movements with their various and complex stages of development.

Charting the course of her education and public involvement, Stanton reifies the liberal humanism and individualism that served as cornerstones of the ideology of "metaphysical self-hood" in the nineteenth century. Effectively, she figures herself as a kind of "unembodied" and "self-made man," fiercely rational, intellectually keen, independent, agentive, mobile, outspoken, tenacious, combative. Again and again she describes her engagements with men, in the process claiming her place alongside them, even claiming a superiority of position. For instance, she confidently denounces the advice of the doctors attending her after her first delivery and describes how ineffective they were, how she assumed their place, determining her own solution to the problem of the baby's health. Recalling how she sparred with various clergy, she dismisses them as reactionary conservatives, arguing her own position on the Bible and on biblical interpretation. Toward the conclusion of the text she discusses her very rewriting of the Bible itself as The Woman's Bible.

Textually, Stanton enacts her pledge to her father—"I will try to be all my brother was" (21)—by assuming the position of "son," figuring herself as pseudo-lawyer, reformer, politician, interpreter. In what she claims to be a personal and domestic narrative, Stanton stakes her claim to an empowered "metaphysical selfhood" for herself and for women generally. Resisting the position of "woman" which allows her only a vague "influence," she emphasizes in the text her exercise of "direct power": "A direct power over one's own person and property, an individual opinion to be counted, on all questions of public interest, are better than indirect influence, be that ever so far reaching" (376). Stanton travels from the territory of the margins, travels from the shadow of influence, to the territory of direct action, analysis, and speech. Thus, she appropriates for herself the fiction of "man," reproducing the culturally valued story of "metaphysical selfhood" with its powers of self-reflectiveness and self-fabrication and its preoccupation with quest. In this way Stanton "unsexes" herself, uncouples her "selfhood" from embodiment. In this way she legitimates her desire (and the desire of women in the suffrage movement) to achieve equal political rights with men, to achieve the status of "voter" alongside men.

But lest, in her ventriloquization of "man," she become a lusus naturae, a truly powerful but truly monstrous "woman," Stanton heeds the cultural injunction against unremitting self-assertion in "woman." Rhetorically she tries to maintain a posture of "feminine" self-effacement. For instance, she mutes the agency inherent in her decision to engage in political activism in response to her experience of motherhood by the claim of external determinacy: "My experience at the World's Anti-slavery Convention, all I had read of the legal status of women, and the oppression I saw everywhere, together swept across my soul, intensified now by many personal experiences. It seemed as if all the elements had conspired to impel me to some onward step" (148; emphasis mine). Manifesting resistance to the appearance of aggressive self-assertion, she invests the story of her purposeful life quest with the conventions of the "romance of the calling." In doing so she displays what Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in discussing the autobiographies of public women of the late nineteenth century in America, suggests is the etiology of bourgeois woman's activity: "The only script for women's life insisted that work discover and pursue them, like the conventional romantic lover" (17).3 She also emphasizes, throughout the descriptions of her various journeys to promote the suffrage cause, the physical discomforts and tribulations of her self-sacrificing activities. Moreover, as Jelinek suggests, even as she represents herself as the exceptional "woman," as the "son," she insists on her identification with a broad range of women, even the lonely, isolated, impoverished plainswoman (87-90). Effectively, Stanton uses her position as wife and mother to screen her self-asserting presentation of herself as "individual," as "man," as "metaphysical self." This double-positioning underwrites the tensions, points of opposition, and contradictions of and in the text.…


  1. The phrase is borrowed from Felicity A. Nussbaum's provocative study "Eighteenth-Century Women's Autobiographical Commonplaces."
  2. Estelle Jelinek also notes this resistance in "The Paradox and Success of Elizabeth Cady Stanton" (72).
  3. Heilbrun is reviewing at this point in her essay a study by Jill Conway, "Paper on Autobiographies of Women of the Progressive Era," delivered at Workshop on New Approaches to Women's Biography and Autobiography, Smith College Project on Women and Social Change, June 12-17, 1983.

Works Cited

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. "Women's Autobiographical Writings: New Forms." Prose Studies, 8 (September 1985), 14-28.

Jelinek, Estelle. "The Paradox and Success of Elizabeth Cady Stanton." In Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle Jelinek, 71-92. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Nussbaum, Felicity A. "Eighteenth-Century Women's Autobiographical Commonplaces." In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock, 147-71. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More (1815-1897): Reminiscences of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: European Publishing, 1898.

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Stanton, Elizabeth Cady: General Commentary

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