Victor Nuovo: The mind of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Editor’s note: This is the 55th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not only a pioneering feminist activist, she was also a philosopher of great sophistication and deserves to be remembered as such. This is amply demonstrated in her writings, two especially, which I shall review here: “The Woman’s Bible” and “The Solitude of Self.” She published them close to the end of her life. The former is a collection of critical essays about the Bible written by Stanton and other women scholars enlisted by her. The other is an address first delivered to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 1892, and subsequently to the annual convention of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Movement.
Stanton turned her attention to the Bible because it was commonly supposed that it contained proof that women are inferior to men and therefore should be ruled by them. Those who clung to this belief were mostly men with standing in the community, Protestant clergymen, who officiously cited Genesis 2:5–3:24 as sufficient proof. There it is written that after God created Man from dust of the ground (adam from adamah), he created a Woman from the Man’s rib; she was meant to be his helper, and the Man named her Eve, as a token of his dominion over her. In the same story, Eve is blamed for having brought evil into the world by disobeying God’s command not to eat any of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and by persuading Adam to do the same. This was supposed to be proof enough to uphold the prejudice of woman’s inferiority.
Stanton noted that the Book of Genesis contains another story about the creation of mankind that comes before the one previously considered. In the first chapter of Genesis it is written that God created Man in his image, “male and female created he them,” which is to say that the term “Man” signifies here not just a male human animal, but a species of dual sexuality, “male and female”; moreover it implies that the “image of God” is likewise “male and female; In sum, God is essentially bisexual. Stanton also noted that the names of God differ in the two chapters. In the first, God is called Elohim, which is a plural noun, properly translated “Gods” or the council of the Gods. In the second, God’s name is Jahweh Elohim(Jahweh of the Gods). This duality of names is common throughout the Bible, and a comparison of the several narratives reveals a difference in theology. Whereas Jahweh as a national God is anthropomorphic and patriarchal, beset by the foibles of patriarchy, Elohim, The Gods, or the Godhead, represents the council of Gods, as it were, the highest seat of wisdom in the universe, and therefore, properly the creator of heaven and earth. “Thus,” Stanton concludes, “Scripture [in its wiser and more coherent places], as well as science and philosophy, declares the eternity and equality of sex.”
The inconsistency in the Bible requires that it be made subject to the higher authority of reason and common sense, from which it is evident that “The masculine and feminine elements, exactly equal and balancing each other, are as essential to the maintenance of the equilibrium of the universe as positive and negative electricity.”
“The Solitude of Self” goes more deeply into the theme of human equality and discovers its roots in human individuality, which, Stanton’s observes, each one of us can discover in ourselves.
How is this so? Because every woman is a human being, and since every human being is a unique individual, each woman must decide her fate, and therefore the entire world must be made open to her, for human self-consciousness has no horizons. The same can be said also of every man as of every woman. And that is just her point.
The chief property of being human is self-consciousness, a state of being whereby every individual is altogether alone, where everyone is absolutely oneself. She regards this condition as sublime, awesome, terrifying, and yet also wonderfully fascinating. In her address, she appeals to all human beings to discover this awesome, indeed Godlike quality in themselves.
Stanton was not the first philosopher to write about the idea of human selfhood. The modern philosopher commonly credited with giving it prominence was John Locke (1632–1704). In 1690, he published “An Essay concerning Human Understanding,” which has become a philosophical classic. In it, he endeavored to explain how we come to acquire all the knowledge we possess, and his answer was “through experience,” by the perceptions of the senses, but also by the capacity we have to examine ourselves; and having discovered the world around us and the self within, to find oneself in a position to reflect upon what it all means.
Moreover, it is through their own self-consciousness that individuals discover their unique identity as persons. When I awake each morning, I remember that I am myself, the same person, even if I may not immediately recall where I am. And even in my dreams, I am conscious of myself acting or observing, for even when dreaming I am directly aware of myself; which is why, waking out of a nightmare brings such welcome relief.
Individual self-consciousness is also the basis of morality. We have the unique capacity to examine ourselves, judge ourselves, determine what is right, feel remorse whenever we fail to do it, and having acknowledged our moral successes and failures, to continue resolute to persevere in the right.
All of this was well known to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for she was an omnivorous reader, and she most likely read Locke carefully and appropriated much of what he wrote about the self. For example, Locke described the self metaphorically as a solitary voyager sailing his craft on the ocean of being. Stanton seized upon it and filled it with new meaning. Hence the title, “The Solitude of Self.” The self, like a voyager alone on an endless ocean must decide its own fate, for there is no one else to decide it. And this remains so, even if there are any many other selves, and they should join together in families or civil societies. They are obliged to treat each other as free and equal, for self-sovereignty is the birthright of each and all. It is on this basis that Stanton makes her case for the equality of women in every aspect of life. Her case is irrefutable.
Postscript: “The Woman’s Bible” and “The Solitude of Self” are available in affordable paperback editions. Consult your local bookshop.
Second Postscript: The social purpose of Genesis 2:5–3:24, to warrant the subordination of women, is unmistakable. Yet, its author, evidently a man, was a poet of high literary talent, who gave classic expression to male desires, among them not only a will to dominate, but also a longing for union (to become one flesh), and admiration, even respect: the name “Eve” is a play on the verb “to live,” and Eve is “the mother of all that lives.”
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