Victor Nuovo: Remembering ‘the ladies’
Editor’s note: This is the 54th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Early in the spring of 1776, as the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to consider what steps to take towards independence, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John to express her zeal for independence: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency;” and to make a suggestion: “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies;” and she added a warning: “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could … If particular care is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”
John responded to Abigail’s letter by making light of it. He suggested that male dominance was more theory than reality, that in reality women are the true masters. “We [men] are [your] subjects. We have only the Name of Masters” and “to give up this … would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat.”
He also worried that an incautious move towards independence would “loosen the bands of government everywhere.” This was a common fear among the founders, all of them men.
In the end, history would prove Abigail right. But it would take almost three-quarters of a century before the rebellion came. It came in the form of women’s rights convention, which met in Seneca Falls, N.Y., on July 19-20, 1848. The moral fervor of the Abolitionist Movement was a source of its inspiration.
Its chief result was a document, “A Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), a principal organizer of the convention. Stanton was a well-educated patrician; a graduate of Emma Willard’s school, she read law with her father, who was a prominent jurist, but she was not allowed to take the bar examination. Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) was another organizer; she was an abolitionist and Quaker activist. Frederick Douglass attended the convention and delivered one of the principal addresses.
Stanton fashioned the “Seneca Falls Declaration” after the “Declaration of Independence” and borrowed heavily from it. It was a declaration of women’s social, political and economic independence. She began by declaring that “the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the rights not only of all men but also of all women, and that whenever any government is destructive of these ends, “it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it,” the right to rebel.
She then proceeded to itemize the reasons for rebellion, and began with this observation: “The history of mankind is a history of injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman” whose sole purpose was to establish “an absolute tyranny over her.” She followed this with a list of every woman’s grievances. Men who are the sole lawgivers of this nation have denied a woman’s right to vote, so that she has no representation in government. Nor is it different in the family. In the eye of the law, marriage makes a woman civilly dead [Note: When she married, Stanton refused to take the infamous vow of obedience]. In effect, American civil law is unjustly patriarchal. She notes that divorce laws favor the interests of husbands, and limit a woman’s right to property; that men have monopolized all profitable employments in life; the learned profession is men’s exclusive domain as are the best schools. Finally, she noted the deep psychological harm that men have inflicted on women: they have “endeavored … to destroy [woman’s] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
Everything that she wrote is true, and if her words caused fear and anxiety in the hearts of any men, then or now, it is discomfort well deserved.
It should be no surprise to any who read her writings that Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the chief philosopher of women’s rights movement. The power of her mind and the depth of her insight into human nature and history is evident in them, and irresistible. She rightfully deserves the title of great American philosopher (see the next essay). The writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton inspired Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), and what followed was a powerful coalition of thought and practice that shaped the woman’s suffrage movement in the 19th century.
But the primary goal, a woman’s right to vote, was not attained in that century — the 19th amendment that established this right was not ratified until 1920. The crisis of the Civil War intervened. After the war, as Congress deliberated the 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution, Stanton became embroiled in conflict with abolitionists. It should be remembered that the 14th amendment granted citizenship to all Freedmen; the 15th amendment granted them the right to vote. Stanton believed that the time had come to grant the right to vote to women as well as men. This did not happen, in spite of her eloquent demand.
Her failure to carry the day caused her deep anger. It was indeed a righteous anger, for she rightly saw that the goals of the “Seneca Falls Declaration” were to be achieved only if women were fully enfranchised to vote and hold government office, only if women, like men, had access to the power of government as fully enfranchised participants would they gain the standing of autonomous, sovereign persons, which was their right. If this were denied, then little would be gained.
But her anger clouded her judgment, and she railed against those who had just emerged from slavery, who were victims themselves with just grievances. She failed to recognize the sisterhood she might cultivate with Black women. And she allowed her anger to find expression in what she wrote and said. In short, she used racial epithets and succumbed to this nation’s original sin. It was against her better judgment.
Postscript: Two excellent volumes provide selections of Stanton’s writings with commentary: “Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker,” edited by Ellen Carol DuBois and Richard Candida Smith, and “The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader.” Consult your local bookstore.
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