Stanton, Elizabeth Cady: Title Commentary
ELIZABETH CADY STANTON: TITLE COMMENTARYThe Woman's Bible
Eighty Years and More
ELLEN DUBOIS (ESSAY DATE 1984)
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ON THE SUBJECT OF…
STANTON'S FRIENDSHIP WITH SUSAN B. ANTHONY
If there is one part of my life that gives more satisfaction than another, it is my friendship of forty years' standing with Susan B. Anthony … I do believe that I have developed into much more of a woman under Susan's jurisdiction, fed on statute laws and constitutional amendments, than if left to myself reading novels in an easy-chair, lost in sweet reveries of the golden age to come, without any effort of my own
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. From "The Friendship of a Woman." Woman's Tribune, (22 February 1890).
If I have ever had any inspiration she has given it to me. I want you to understand that I never could have done the work I have if I had not had this woman at my right hand.
Anthony, Susan B. Woman's Tribune, (22 February 1890).
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ESTELLE C. JELINEK (ESSAY DATE 1980)
SOURCE: Jelinek, Estelle C. "The Paradox and Success of Elizabeth Cady Stanton." In Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek, pp. 71-92. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
In the following essay, Jelinek discusses the paradoxical self-image of an ordinary woman and an extraordinary public figure that Stanton presents in Eighty Years and More, noting that Stanton was a success in both roles in her life.
In 1895, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton began her autobiography at the age of eighty, she was still a vigorous and active person, writing and publishing even during the last year of her life. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (1898) followed close on the heels of two other of her major publications, History of Woman Suffrage (I-II, 1881-86) and The Woman's Bible (I, 1895; II, 1898), and she had been a prolific writer of articles and speeches during a period of fifty years of service to the cause that occupied most of her life—and shaped her autobiography—the women's suffrage movement.
Stanton was not a literary person, making her representative of most women who produced autobiographies in America and in England at the turn of the century—they were women who devoted their lives to careers in the reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was the major intellectual figure of her time, and her autobiography reflects both the excitement and the reserve of her era. It also bears the particular stamp of her personality and reflects her specific intent in writing her life story.
Stanton's intention as stated in her preface—to write about her "private life" as opposed to her "public career"—does not exactly give us the whole picture.
The story of my private life as 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."
The account of her private life as wife-housekeeper-mother is not given enough coverage in Eighty Years for us to believe Stanton's assertion. Though her marriage to Henry Stanton lasted for forty-seven years until his death in 1887, her role as his wife is hardly mentioned. Except for a brief sketch of their meeting and marriage journey, Henry himself is hardly present in the book; from 1848, when Stanton's political work started in earnest, until 1885—a period of thirty-seven years—he is never mentioned, and thereafter only three times, very briefly and insignificantly. Though Stanton offers many helpful suggestions on the subject of housekeeping, like the value of efficient stoves, of circulating heat throughout a house, of adequate ventilation, and of the joys of creative cooking, the anecdotes on these matters are scattered through the book and hardly constitute the major theme. Her own motherhood is barely covered and then only, after the birth of her first child, as a kind of handbook for other new mothers; she urges them to trust their own judgment rather than the dictates of rigid and ignorant doctors. Though Stanton bore seven children from 1842 to 1858 and did not undertake her out-of-state lecturing until 1869 when the youngest was eleven, we rarely hear anything about these children until the 1880s when they are all grown and married and pleasant people to visit in her less active years.
Stanton's actual intention is twofold. She wants to present herself as an ordinary human being, but not as a wife-housekeeper-mother. She is ordinary because she mixes easily with ordinary people, has a cheerful disposition, is self-reliant and healthy, and has varied domestic interests in addition to her political ones. This ordinary person plays an important role in the anecdotes she relates to relieve the narrative of its more weighty and actual though unstated goal: to educate her readers about the women's suffrage movement in order to convert them to her cause. Everything she includes or excludes in this autobiography, even the way she portrays her own self-image, is determined by this overriding educational aim. Her "public career" is indeed the major objective of the autobiography, but she tries to present it as painlessly as she can by means of her humorous, human interest anecdotes in order to persuade her readers to accept her and her reformist ideas.
When Stanton wrote Eighty Years and More, she was well known, actually a celebrity among reformists and a name that had figured prominently in the news for fifty years. By casting her views within the framework of an ordinary life, she was attempting to counter the unidimensional public image of herself as a brilliant, argumentative, sharp-witted, unrelenting reformer from a prestigious upper-class family. How was she to integrate this overdetermined image of herself as a superior human being—certainly one worthy of full citizenship as an equal with men—with a multidimensional image of an ordinary human being so that her readers would be receptive to the "most momentous reform yet launched upon the world"?
The dilemma that this paradoxical self-image presented for the writing of her autobiography derived from the two roles she played out in her life, one as wife-housekeeper-mother, the other as public, professional person. It was the struggle of her entire life as a feminist, and it still remains a dilemma for today's feminists. In every way, for Stanton, and for us, there is this dialectic between this ordinary woman, product of the conditions that produce women in this society, and at the same time, this not ordinary but exceptional woman who is not trapped in those conditions but can see her way out of them.
It is evident from reading her autobiography that Stanton was a success at both roles in her life. But in the autobiography itself, she needed to submerge the superior person in order to win over her readers. Yet in presenting herself as an ordinary person who could accomplish so much, she produces a narrative that is rife with paradox, contradiction, and, at the very least, ambivalence. While she writes an apparently linear and chronological narrative that emphasizes the stability of her personality and her faith in the order and progress of the world as well as in the successful outcome of her life's mission, the narrative is constantly interrupted by a variety of discontinuous forms—anecdotes, for the most part, but also letters and excerpts from speeches and published articles by herself and others. Though she is writing about weighty and controversial issues, she resorts to light and humorous anecdotes to make her points. While she wants to convince us that her childhood was a happy and normal one, she also must show the unusual emotional and intellectual sources of her dedication to the cause of women's rights. Though she treats her father with the greatest respect, it is apparent even at the age of eighty-two that she still thinks of him with fear and a great deal of unrecognized anger. While she regales us with her exploits aboard trains, bathing crying babies or airing stuffy parlor cars, she turns out speeches, lectures, petitions, and pamphlets undauntedly, traveling day and night under superhuman conditions. While in her travels on the lyceum lecture circuit, she feels comfortable and sisterly with ordinary women whose hospitality she accepts despite often unhealthful food and unsanitary sleeping accommodations, she has easy access to the homes of famous people in and out of the reform movement in her own country and abroad because of her family's social position. While she is completely reticent about her sex life, she is outspoken on such controversial issues as hypocrisy in the Bible, incompatibility as grounds for divorce, and the enfranchisement of former slaves only on condition of enfranchisement for women also—positions that brought the profoundest attacks upon her not only from the mass public but even from within her own movement.
The final paradox is that at the time Stanton wrote her autobiography, she had not achieved the goal to which she had dedicated her entire life—the enfranchisement of women. Yet campaigns, attacks on bills, struggles for propositions and amendments, petitions, speeches, etc., all the various efforts she describes here appear as victories. We complete this autobiography with the very positive impression that Stanton's public career was a success.
The primary means by which she conveys this image of her work, despite its immediate failure, are to omit anything that might cast a negative light on her achievements and always to emphasize the positive. She excludes anything about her personal or public life that is irrelevant to the movement or that might give detractors ammunition to undermine the cause. Stanton's unflinching self-confidence and her positive vision of her work—qualities that produce leaders and heroes—made a success of her effort to educate her readers and to convince them of her cause and resulted in their acceptance of her two-pronged self-image. The resolution of her self-image—the dialectic between her being one with all women and at the same time above them—has contemporary overtones, especially in Kate Millett's efforts in her autobiography Flying to reconcile her individual needs with the collective goals of her cause.
Let us look at how Stanton develops her two unstated intentions—presenting herself as an ordinary human being and furthering the cause of women's suffrage. In the first third of the book, she deals with the influences that shaped her personality and character during her childhood, girlhood, marriage, and early motherhood, to the age of thirty-three in 1848. Here we see the most ambivalent or paradoxical treatment of her life study, for she is dealing with her personality more than the movement. In the second and longest section, the emphasis shifts to her efforts for the cause, from 1848 to 1881; here we see less ambivalence and more direct omitting of information to further her intention. In the final section, which continues the theme of her work for women's suffrage, she spends more time describing her travels and visits with her grown children; here, there is both omission and paradox, but to a lesser degree than in either of the two earlier sections.
First, let us look at the ambivalence evident in Stanton's description of her early years. She pictures herself, on the one hand, as a healthy, romping girl full of enthusiasm and energy, enjoying her school work, her games with her two younger sisters, and all kinds of outdoor activities at her central New York state home of Johnstown. Her upper-class family supported a number of servants, nurses, and tutors, and the three girls played joyfully in the attic or the cellar, where the many barrels of produce from her father's tenants served as playthings. She presents no terrifying experiences or a sense of deprivation either emotional or physical in these descriptions.
So intent is she on demonstrating that she had a happy childhood that whenever she does introduce a "sorrow" from her childhood, it is immediately followed by one of joy. Some complaints are common to children, like the starched collars that tore at her neck but about which she was rebuked for even complaining. Or the all-red outfits that she and her younger sisters wore throughout their childhood, leaving with Stanton a permanent hatred of that color.
Her more sorrowful memories are of the worms that dangled from the poplar trees of the town, the sight of which made her tremble, and the many bells that tolled on every conceivable occasion and seemed to her like "so many warnings of an eternal future."1 Years later, in her sixties, she experienced the same frightened reaction that she had as a child to the mournful sound of church bells. Of the many festivities that early nineteenth-century Americans celebrated with such enthusiasm like the Fourth of July, it is the terrifying sounds of the cannon she most remembers.
Stanton evidences ambivalence not only toward the "joys and sorrows" of her childhood but also toward authority. On the one hand, she is incapable of defying her nurses until her younger sister convinces her that they will be punished anyhow, so they might as well have some fun. "Having less imagination than I, she took a common-sense view of life and suffered nothing from anticipation of troubles, while my sorrows were intensified fourfold by innumerable apprehensions of possible exigencies" (p. 11). On the other hand, she rails against the nurses who "were the only shadows on the gayety of these winter evenings.… I have no doubt we were in constant rebellion against their petty tyranny" (p. 6).
Her upbringing must have been strict and rigid though she gives us little clue to the rules which suffocated her enthusiasm and energy.
I have a confused memory of being often under punishment for what, in those days, were called "tantrums." I suppose they were really justifiable acts of rebellion against the tyranny of those in authority. I have often listened since, with real satisfaction, to what some of our friends had to say of the high-handed manner in which sister Margaret and I defied all the transient orders and strict rules laid down for our guidance. If we had observed them we might as well have been embalmed as mummies, for all the pleasure and freedom we should have had in our childhood. As very little was then done for the amusement of children, happy were those who conscientiously took the liberty of amusing themselves.
But perhaps the source of her fear of authority came as much from a severe religious code of behavior as from the nurses in her home. At the time Stanton was writing this autobiography, she was also writing The Woman's Bible, an exegesis and attack on the Bible and the clergy who preached women's inferiority. Writing the Bible must have reawakened her anger against the tyranny of the church, one source of authority in her childhood about which she evidences no ambivalence. "I can truly say, after an experience of seventy years, that all the cares and anxieties, the trials and disappointment of my whole life, are light, when balanced with my suffering in childhood and youth from the theological dogmas which I sincerely believed …" (p. 24).
When in her teens she attended Emma Willard's Troy Seminary for girls, she was so overcome by the hellfire sermons of the Reverend Charles G. Finney, that "terrifier of human souls," that because of "my gloomy Calvinistic training in the old Scotch Presbyterian church, and my vivid imagination," she became one of the first of his "victims" (p. 41). She roused her father so often at night to pray for her soul that he, her sister, and her brother-in-law took her on a six-week summer trip where the subject of religion was tabooed and they talked about nothing but "rational ideas and scientific facts." She then concludes this unpleasant subject with a rather rapid recovery, lest her readers be too saddened by her account. After this trip, "my mind was restored to its normal condition" (p. 44).
Stanton's mention of waking her father at night to help her and of his taking her on a trip to cure her would seem to indicate a warm relationship. However, about her father she exhibits much ambivalence. He was, she writes, "a man of firm character and unimpeachable integrity," "sensitive and modest to a painful degree," and though "gentle and tender, he had such a dignified repose and reserve of manner that, as children, we regarded him with fear rather than affection" (p. 3). With her father, Stanton had probably the most traumatic experience of her childhood. When she was eleven, her only brother, who had recently graduated from Union College, died. "He was the pride of my father's heart. We early felt that this son filled a larger place in our father's affections and future plans than the five daughters together" (p. 20). Stanton yearns so much for her father's affection that she accompanies him on his almost daily visits to the boy's gravesite. When she tries to comfort him, he says:
"Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" Throwing my arms about his neck, I replied: "I will try to be all my brother was."
Then and there I resolved that I would not give so much time as heretofore to play, but would study and strive to be at the head of all my classes and thus delight my father's heart. All that day and far into the night I pondered the problem of boyhood. I thought that the chief thing to be done in order to equal boys was to be learned and courageous. So I decided to study Greek and learn to manage a horse.… They were resolutions never to be forgotten—destined to mold my character anew.
Her efforts are futile, however, though she accomplishes her two goals.
I surprised even my teacher, who thought me capable of doing anything. I learned to drive, and to leap a fence and ditch on horseback. I taxed every power hoping some day to hear my father say: "Well, a girl is as good as a boy, after all." But he never said it.
In 1854 when Stanton was thirty-nine, her father asked to hear her first speech on the issue of divorce that she was to deliver before the New York legislature.
On no occasion, before or since, was I ever more embarrassed—an audience of one, and that the one of all others whose approbation I most desired, whose disapproval I most feared. I knew he condemned the whole movement, and was deeply grieved at the active part I had taken.
When she finished her rehearsal, Judge Cady offered no opinion for or against her political work then or ever after but "gladly gave me any help I needed, from time to time, in looking up the laws, and was very desirous that whatever I gave to the public should be carefully prepared" (p. 189). But more important to this study is the fact that Stanton evidences no bitterness toward her father's disapproval of her as a female. She treats him as one more influence on her life. At the above meeting, Judge Cady's response on hearing her speech is primarily surprise at her emotional complaints.
"Surely you have had a happy, comfortable life, with all your wants and needs supplied; and yet that speech fills me with self-reproach; for one might naturally ask, how can a young woman, tenderly brought up, who has had no bitter personal experience, feel so keenly the wrongs of her sex? Where did you learn this lesson?"
And Stanton's response is, "'I learned it here, in your office, when a child, listening to the complaints women made to you'" (p. 189). Stanton does not want to remind her readers of her emotional crisis at eleven lest her readers attribute her devotion to her cause to merely a neurotic source.
Even her father's objection to her marriage to Henry Brewster Stanton did not seem to change her affection for him. Her cousin Gerrit Smith, the abolitionist, at whose Peterboro, New York, home she met Henry, also objected to the marriage and for similar reasons, that an abolitionist reformer and orator, as Henry was, would not be a good provider. After their wedding trip to Europe, however, Judge Cady took Henry into his law office to train him for the bar, and for three years the couple and their growing family lived in the Cady household. Apparently Daniel Cady was both a stern father and a reasonable man. Though Stanton does not include it in her autobiography, it is known that at one time he disinherited his suffragist daughter but changed his mind before his death in 1859.2
Of her mother, Mary Livingston, from the prestigious colonial family, Stanton writes hardly anything at all. We know that her mother "took the deepest interest in her father's political campaign for Congress, at which he succeeded during the year of her birth; this prenatal influence, Stanton suggests, may account for her own interest in politics. To her mother's side of the family, she attributes her self-reliance, derived no doubt from General Livingston, whose Revolutionary War fame came from using his own judgment and firing upon a British man-of-war. This action earned him not only General Washington's commendation because it saved many of his troops, but also a warning that under normal circumstances the action would have earned him a court-martial. Stanton describes her mother as a "tall, queenly looking woman,… courageous, self-reliant, and at her ease under all circumstances and in all places" (p. 3). One wonders how she evidenced her courage and what control was mustered to be at "ease under all circumstances and in all places." It is clear that Stanton, who was short and progressively stouter as she grew older, must have envied her mother's queenliness because she attributes this characteristic to women she most admires. Stanton never mentions her mother after the first early pages, a curious omission, for which she gives no clue.3
Stanton's relationship with her husband seems to have been a satisfactory one though she gives us very little to go on in this autobiography. When she met him, he was considered
the most eloquent and impassioned orator on the anti-slavery platform.…Mr. Stanton was then in his prime, a fine-looking, affable young man, with remarkable conversational talent, and was ten years my senior, with the advantage that that number of years necessarily gives.
On their first outing together on horseback, they seem to have fallen immediately in love, though they had talked in groups on other occasions.
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.
One outcome of those glorious days of October, 1839, was a marriage, in Johnstown … and a voyage to the Old World.
That is the extent of Stanton's description of her courtship and marriage to Henry Stanton. We can only guess whether or not he objected to her taking out the word "obey" from their marriage ceremony, but she does tell us, quite objectively, that at the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, which they attended as part of their honeymoon trip, when the issue of women's participation in the proceedings came up for a vote, Henry cast his in the negative. She expresses no feelings on this early event of her marriage, but she does recount enthusiastically the position of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who sat in the observation gallery with the women and refused to take part in the segregated proceedings.
She briefly mentions Henry when, because of his frequent travels to courts and abolitionist meetings, he delegates to her the complete management of their homes, first in Boston and Chelsea, later in Seneca Falls. After 1848, when Stanton's political work began, Henry is not mentioned until thirty-seven years later at his eightieth birthday celebration in 1885.
There must have been a policy of live-and-let-live during their forty-seven years together until Henry's death in 1887, which also is not mentioned. We know from sources other than this autobiography that he, like her father, though reformist in every other political cause, always objected to her work for women's rights. We know that he threatened to leave town if the first women's rights convention was held in their town of Seneca Falls, and he did.4 We also know that Stanton's father frequently helped the couple financially and that she undertook the lyceum tours in part to earn money for their children's education. But Elizabeth Stanton does not include this information in her life study; it might discredit her husband, herself, and the movement. Writing in 1897, in Eighty Years, of their minister's superstitious objection to their marriage on a Friday, she sums up her view of her relationship with her husband:
as we lived together, without more than the usual matrimonial friction, for nearly a half a century, had seven children, all but one of whom are still living, and have been well sheltered, clothed, and fed, enjoying sound minds in sound bodies, no one need be afraid of going through the marriage ceremony on Friday for fear of bad luck.
Though Stanton also leaves out any personal references to sexuality, her awareness of it is evident. For one thing, she frequently notices the good looks or fine physiques of the men she meets in her travels, but even earlier, she writes of her experiences as a child when she studied with boys at the Johnstown Academy, then moved on to Emma Willard's Troy Seminary for girls only. She was flabbergasted by the intrigue stirred up by the girls there without boys present and argues strongly for coeducation, which most adults of her time opposed.
Stanton describes the period between her graduation from Willard's seminary to her marriage as "the most pleasant years of my girlhood" primarily because she "rejoiced in the dawn of a new day of freedom in thought and action" (p. 45). Her description of this time of her life is filled with echoes of sexual awakening:
Then comes that dream of bliss that for weeks and months throws a halo of glory round the most ordinary characters in everyday life, holding the strongest and most common-sense young men and women in a thraldom from which few mortals escape. The period when love, in soft silver tones, whispers his first words of adoration, painting our graces and virtues day by day in living colors in poetry and prose, stealthily punctuated ever and anon with a kiss or fond embrace. What dignity it adds to a young girl's estimate of herself when some strong man makes her feel that in her hands rest his future peace and happiness! Though these seasons of intoxication may come once to all, yet they are seldom repeated. How often in after life we long for one more such rapturous dream of bliss, one more season of supreme human love and passion!
Closely following this passage is Stanton's effusive description of her brother-in-law Edward Bayard, "ten years my senior … an inestimable blessing to me at this time" (p. 45). We know that Stanton was infatuated with Bayard, but she judiciously rejected his advances beyond a platonic attachment5 and soon after fell in love with Henry Stanton, like Bayard ten years her senior. She excluded any hint of an attachment to a member of her own family, which might have been construed as an unrequited love affair "explaining" her "discontent" with the male way of running the world.
Of the intellectual influences on her life, we have already learned how, as a youngster, Stanton frequented her father's law office and heard the complaints of abandoned wives and mothers with no recourse to the law. Nonetheless, from these experiences and her frequent visits to the county jail, she writes, "I gleaned some idea of the danger of violating the law" (p. 14). Her respect for the law explains why Stanton was conservative when it came to tactics and deferred in that department to her complement Susan B. Anthony; it also explains why she was such a logical and thorough debator. But her respect never seems to have intimidated her or deterred her from fighting laws she felt were unjust or discriminated against women.
Stanton's political and reform spirit was nurtured in the home of Gerrit Smith, where as a late teenager she met her first runaway slave. But Stanton never felt the force of the tyranny of slavery as much as she did that tyranny of her own childhood and womanhood. When push came to shove, she opposed enfranchisement for male blacks when it was denied women after the Civil War, though she had given up her suffrage efforts for five years to help the cause of the North.
It is not surprising that the tyranny Stanton felt was exercised over her as a child was the foundation for her later rebellion against the tyranny over her and all her sex as female. And it is not surprising that she should use the very same phrase to describe those two areas of tyranny over her life: "the constant cribbing and crippling of a child's life" (p. 11) and "the most cribbed and crippled of Eve's unhappy daughters" (p. 204).
The crucial experience that ignited her already informed sympathies for the lot of women came at that antislavery convention in London on her honeymoon trip. It wasn't until eight years later, when longing for more intellectual challenges than those evoked by the management of a large house, servants, and many children, that she and Lucretia Mott placed a brief notice in the local newspaper. Four days later, fifty women met at the Methodist church in Seneca Falls, New York, and started the first feminist movement in North America.
At this point in her life story, female readers probably have no trouble in identifying with Stanton's frustrations after eight years of dedicating herself exclusively to domestic duties. She has convincingly proven herself an ordinary human being and justified her gradual involvement in a "public career." Perhaps now her audience will be receptive to her as a person and treat her ideas seriously.
We now turn to the bulk of Eighty Years and More, where Stanton concentrates on her public career, the stated nonintention of her book. While the first part was informed by ambivalence and paradox because of the need to convey the self-image of both an ordinary and superior person, with some omission to protect the women's movement, this second section is informed more by omission than paradox because her political work is the central focus. Her aim is to educate her audience about women's rights, and she does so by creating a positive image of the cause by leaving out anything that might devalue it in any way. There is still some paradoxical treatment or ambivalence in her presentation of herself, but it is less evident here than in the first section. Here everything is positively shaped for the cause.
All the chapters in this middle section have titles that refer to issues or events in the women's rights movement. Nonetheless, the subjects of these chapters are usually minimally treated. As in the first section, Stanton continues to use amusing and pleasant anecdotes, now to educate her audience painlessly about serious issues. The transition chapter "The First Woman's Rights Convention" deals less with that event than with Stanton's preconvention boredom as her duties become tedious, with her postconvention relief in talking to women about their rights, and with her door-to-door efforts for signatures to petition the state legislature for more liberal property and divorce laws. Her female readers, no doubt, could identify more with her concrete domestic experiences than with the convention itself, though she manages to convey its significance in bringing together for the first time an organized protest against women's inferior legal treatment. True to her determination to be positive, Stanton tells us nothing about her husband's negative reaction to the meeting.
The next two chapters, which constitute a portrait of Susan B. Anthony, break the chronology, for it extends from 1851 when the two women met, three years after the Seneca Falls convention, to the 1890s. By including this portrait of Anthony (a revision of one she wrote for Eminent Women of the Age, 1868), Stanton reveals how far from her stated intention this autobiography is. For Anthony was the lifelong friend of her public career, and her portrait emphasizes how closely the two worked together.
In thought and sympathy we were one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years; arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains.
Stanton omits any tension or problems with her friend. Their partnership was, indeed, predominantly a harmonious one, but they did disagree at times. Though Stanton was more revolutionary in respect to the movement's ideas, Anthony was more militant when it came to tactics. Nonetheless, Stanton exposes none of the disagreements or tensions in the upper echelons of the movement, nothing that might give cause for dissention in the ranks or for gossip among their detractors.
In this chapter Stanton also reminds her readers that she is not neglecting her children while she and Anthony work. She describes the mischievous games her children play around them that often require quick rescues and adult participation. She also directly faces the issue of Anthony's single life, which she knows her readers are curious about. She uses the portrait as an occasion to praise all single women who dedicate their lives to important causes: "All honor to the noble women who have devoted earnest lives to the intellectual and moral needs of mankind!" (p. 157). She quotes Anthony's stand on the question of marriage, thus educating her audience in the process:
She could not consent that the man she loved, described in the Constitution as a white male, native born, American citizen, possessed of the right of self-government, eligible to the office of President of the Great Republic, should unite his destinies in marriage with a political slave and pariah. "No, no; when I am crowned with all the rights, privileges, and immunities of a citizen, I may give some consideration to this social institution; but until then I must concentrate all my energies on the enfranchisement of my own sex."
It is unstated, but one may infer that Stanton is aware that she had accomplished what few women before, during, or since her lifetime had accomplished, and that is the total dedication to a political cause and the achievement of a career as wife and mother.
It is in the next chapter, "My First Speech Before a Legislature" (in 1854 on behalf of the civil rights of married women), that Stanton gives her father her intellectual explanation for her sense of "keenly felt wrongs" against women—hearing the complaints of women in his law office—not the "negative" explanation of her traumatic emotional experience at eleven. Certainly, it was a common experience in her day for female children to be treated as inferiors to boys, but Stanton's explanation reflects her preferred emphasis on the law as the basis for her struggle.
In chapter after chapter, Stanton treats her material with this positive emphasis. In "Views on Marriage and Divorce" she manages to convey the impression of success in 1860 as she traveled around New York state trying to get a liberal divorce bill passed. We hear amusing anecdotes about generous people and her pleasant experiences while traveling from one city to another, but nothing of the results of the bill. In "Westward Ho!" she describes her trip in the early 1870s to lecture throughout the state of Nebraska for a proposition to strike the word "male" from the state constitution. She gives a favorable description of the results of her efforts, but we really do not know if the proposition passed or not.
For the 1876 centennial celebration, she attempted to get enough tickets so that every state was represented by a woman, but received only six tickets in response to her polite but firm letters, which she quotes in their entirety. She concentrates, however, on Anthony's daring rush to the platform to shove the Woman's Declaration of Rights into the presiding officer's hand, thus succeeding in making it a part of the day's proceedings. Of the Woman's Pavilion at the centennial, though she praises the woman engineer who ran its turbine to the surprise of the male organizers, she was obviously not satisfied with its contents. Rather than criticize what was in it, however, she lists all the things that should have hung on its walls: "the yearly protest of Harriet K. Hunt against taxation without representation," "all the laws bearing unjustly upon women," "the legal papers in the case of Susan B. Anthony, who was tried and fined for claiming her right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment," and "decisions in favor of State rights which imperil the liberties not only of all women, but of every white man in the nation" (pp. 316-17).
It is only in the case of the proposition to extend suffrage to women in Kansas in 1867 that Stanton evidences any anger at the failure of their efforts. She blames the failure on those in the East who "feared the discussion of the woman question would jeopardize the enfranchisement of the black man" (p. 247). But women also learned another
important lesson—namely, that it is impossible for the best of men to understand women's feelings or the humiliation of their position. When they asked us to be silent on our question during the War, and labor for the emancipation of the slave, we did so, and gave five years to his emancipation and enfranchisement.…I am now… sure that it was a blunder.…
The issue of black enfranchisement without women's suffrage spilt the women's movement into two factions, those who were willing to wait and take a back seat to black (male) suffrage and those who were not willing to support one without the other. Stanton led the latter camp, but nothing is mentioned in Eighty Years and More of this split in the movement nor of the establishment of two rival women's organizations in 1869. The union of the two groups eleven years later, in 1890, is easily missed in a quoted letter in which she mentions her election to the presidency of the new national organization.
Though Stanton expresses some anger about the Kansas failure early in the chapter "Pioneer Life in Kansas," the dispute over black and women's suffrage is pretty much buried thereafter as she concentrates on her harrowing experiences among settlers in the backwoods, sleeping in soiled and flea-ridden beds and eating starchy and sometimes inedible foods, but always admiring the frontier women whose sacrifices in settling the west go unrecognized. Many of the anecdotes in these chapters where Stanton is touting her seemingly successful efforts focus on her encounters with people, usually women, whom she praises with obvious pride in their accomplishments.
Many of the anecdotes, however, have to do with her own experiences traveling around states as a lyceum lecturer from 1869 to 1881, from the age of fifty-four to sixty-six, from October through June, enduring an extremely physically demanding regime with crowded schedules, often twelve-to-eighteen-hour train rides with no time to rest or eat before appearances, even frequent blizzards that snowbound the hardiest. But not Stanton: "As I learned that all the roads in Northern Iowa were blocked, I made the entire circuit, from point to point in a sleigh, traveling forty and fifty miles a day" (pp. 261-62).
Stanton never complains about the many difficulties she encounters in her travels but describes her experiences with enthusiasm and cheerful good humor. For example, in Dubuque, she arrives by train at a desolate station in the early hours of the morning but manages to attract attention by shouting, "John! James! Patrick!" When her feminist friends rib her for not hollering for "Jane, Ann, and Bridget," she retorts, "as my sex had not yet been exalted to the dignity of presiding in dépots and baggage rooms, there would have been no propriety in calling Jane and Ann" (p. 281). In Kansas, where her experiences seem to have been the most trying physically, she writes, "In spite of the discomforts we suffered in the Kansas campaign, I was glad of the experience. It gave me added self-respect to know that I could endure such hardships and fatigue with a great degree of cheerfulness" (p. 252).
The amazon image that Stanton conveys throughout this second section of her autobiography sits side by side with her image as an ordinary person. She sleeps on a lounge in the woman's salon of a ship during a two-week voyage because she can open a window there and avoid the stuffy staterooms. While all others are suffering with seasickness below, she enjoys the ocean breezes while strolling or reading on deck. She precariously descends a mountain in Yosemite National Park, grabbing for roots and branches to steady herself, an undignified but impressive picture for a heavy woman in her sixties. Stanton never mentions a single illness in her life study; she rarely, and then discreetly, refers to her weight which grew considerably each year; and only parenthetically does she refer to her lameness from a "severe fall" in her seventies.
ON THE SUBJECT OF…
THE REVOLUTION, A NEWSPAPER DEVOTED TO WOMEN'S RIGHTS OF WHICH STANTON WAS A CONTRIBUTOR
[It] made a contribution to the women's cause out of all proportion to either its size, brief lifespan, or modest circulation … Here was news not to be found elsewhere—of the organization of women typesetters, tailoresses, and laundry workers, of the first women's clubs, of pioneers of the professions, of women abroad.
But the Revolution did more than just carry news, or set a new standard of professionalism for papers edited by and for women. It gave their movement a forum, a focus, and direction. It pointed, it led, and it fought, with vigor and vehemence.…
Not only do we get this paradoxical self-image of Stanton as both an ordinary person and one of almost superhuman physical stamina, but in her descriptions of the people she meets and stays with, we also get a double message. On one hand, she stays with poor pioneer women in cabins in the midwest and west; on the other, she is hosted by famous people in the United States and abroad. Her egalitarian attitude came from her genuine political commitment, whereas her pleasure in meeting the famous came from her upper-class family background, which opened doors to her not open to the usual suffragist. It is also clear from the many names listed, most of which are unknown to readers today, that she is using this autobiography to thank these people for their generous support of the women's movement in hosting her and financing her efforts. There is no question, finally, that her name-dropping is meant to indicate her superior status not just in intelligence but also in social position, which should certainly entitle her in any just society to full citizenship with the right to vote and hold office.
In her travels Stanton emphasizes the women she meets rather than their usually more famous husbands. And on only one occasion does she deviate from her usual tolerance for women who are unable to support the movement:
The history of the world shows that the vast majority, in every generation, passively accept the conditions into which they are born, while those who demanded larger liberties are ever a small, ostracized minority, whose claims are ridiculed and ignored.… That only a few, under any circumstances, protest against the injustice of long-established laws and customs, does not disprove the fact of the oppression, while the satisfaction of the many, if real, only proves their apathy and deeper degradation. That a majority of the women of the United States accept, without protest, the disabilities which grow out of their disfranchisement is simply an evidence of their ignorance and cowardice, while the minority who demand a higher political status clearly prove their superior intelligence and wisdom.
Such an outburst, which might antagonize those she most wants to win to her cause, is the exception rather than the rule in Eighty Years. Generally, the presentation and tone of the autobiography are mild and low-keyed. Stanton explains how she and the other women, often writing as a group, would argue, discuss, and plan their strategy in order to prepare speeches with acceptable arguments and ones that would not reap the abuse so often leveled at them:
so long as woman labors to second man's endeavors and exalt his sex above her own, her virtues pass unquestioned; but when she dares to demand rights and privileges for herself, her motives, manners, dress, personal appearance, and character are subjects for ridicule and detraction.
Anyone reading Stanton's History of Woman Suffrage or The Woman's Bible will be startled by the comparison with Eighty Years. The effort not to antagonize readers of her autobiography made her soften the presentation of her ideas here with anecdote. Her other writings are complex and brilliantly argued expositions; this life study appears simple and straightforward, almost childlike, by comparison. Where her public writings express the full force of her anger and rage at the injustice of the laws against women, here there is no anger, no rage, and no bitterness.
While some men have felt uncomfortable reading the autobiography, it is not because she ever affronts them personally but because of the force of her very logical attacks on the laws which discriminate against women. She is no man-hater and often expresses her appreciation for men who supported the movement and her understanding for those who could not. Though she wore the bloomer outfit for two years, she desisted when it was apparent that it caused her male companions too much embarrassment. When she reflects on how much abuse and ridicule men have suffered in supporting the women's movement, she understands, even in her eighties, why so few have been its supporters.
The third section of Stanton's autobiography, after 1881 when she was sixty-six and had retired from her lyceum lecturing chores, relies on the diary she began keeping at the suggestion of friends. The result is a more precisely documented narrative with notations of day, month, and year scrupulously recorded. The narrative thus becomes choppy and less integrated, with fewer extended anecdotes and much less humor. Though she continues to write, deliver speeches, and attend the annual meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the emphasis in this last section is once again on her private life. In the ten years between 1881 and 1891, she made six trips to Europe, primarily to visit her two children most active in women's work, Harriot Stanton Blatch and Theodore Stanton, who together edited her letters and other writings in 1922.
The emphasis here returns to the two-faceted image of ordinary woman and exceptional person. Though in 1881 her youngest child was twenty-two, she describes the joys of spending time with her "seven boys and girls dancing round the fireside, buoyant with all life's joys opening before them …" (p. 322). Invited to give an address at the sixtieth anniversary of her graduation from the Troy Seminary, she regales her audience with the memory of the time when she and a friend woke the entire school by ringing bells in the middle of the night without being caught. Her observations on differences in domestic accommodations between England and France continue her image of a woman concerned with ordinary matters. But she clearly wants to keep alive her exceptional image as well. Even in her seventies, she boasts of hiding her fatigue after a long trip when she arrives at a friend's house. And wherever she goes all over the world, she is treated as a celebrity with receptions in her honor and invitations to give keynote addresses at women's convocations.
Stanton ends her autobiography with a chapter on her eightieth birthday celebration in 1895, when she was honored for her fifty years of service to womankind with a gala reception at the Metropolitan Opera House. She leaves her readers here with the final paradox of the autobiography, the impression that her efforts were a huge success. She achieves this effect here by quoting several pages of an effusive article that reviewed the occasion, and then by quoting her own address where she summed up her life's work. Now it no longer required courage "to demand the right of suffrage, temperance legislation, liberal divorce laws, or for women to fill church offices—these battles have been fought and won and the principle governing these demands conceded" (p. 467).
As to the most important effort of her life, women's suffrage, rather than conclude with what still needed to be accomplished, she summarizes the victories: "municipal suffrage has been granted to women in England and some of her colonies; school suffrage has been granted to women in half of our States, municipal suffrage in Kansas, and full suffrage in four States of the Union" (p. 465). Though it wasn't until 1920, seventy years after her first call for suffrage in 1848 and eighteen years after her death in 1902, that the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed, yet the reader closes this autobiography with the distinct impression that Stanton's life was a success.
For after all, it was, and Eighty Years and More, indeed, is a success story. Without Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ordinary and exceptional woman that she was, the present women's liberation movement would now be in the dark ages. She provided the foundation and the tradition for contemporary feminists, who are closer—because of her—to an amalgam of the sexual with the political, the private with the public.
- Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 8. Subsequent page references, given in the text, are from this edition.
- Notable American Women, 1607-1950, ed. Edward T. James et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).
- Ellen DuBois (Feminism and Suffrage, Cornell University Press, 1978), an authority on Stanton, notes that nothing among Stanton's papers indicates her feelings about her mother.
- Catharine Stimpson, "'Thy Neighbor's Wife, Thy Neighbor's Servants': Women's Liberation and Black Civil Rights," in Woman in Sexist Society, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. 625.
- Notable American Women.