Oct 5 2009

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life by Lori D. Ginzberg

Phoebe Connelly

web exclusive


In the introduction to her biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lori D. Ginzberg, a professor of history and women’s studies at Penn State, confesses that her previous writing has focused on “more ordinary women.” Perhaps that is what allowed Ginzberg to write an accessible, if slim, portrait of the pioneering women’s rights activist.

Ginzberg gives equal attention to Stanton’s domestic concerns and her political ones. The suffragette came into the fight for women’s rights more by circumstance than by enterprise. Her marriage to antislavery lecturer Henry Stanton immersed her in the growing community of abolitionists, and it was there she found thinkers similarly concerned with the “woman question.” Still, it was her lifelong friendship with Susan B. Anthony that most informed and spurred Stanton’s politics. The two met at an abolitionist lecture in 1851 and quickly found their different temperaments well matched. (The charismatic Stanton described Anthony as possessing a “conscience tending to morbidity.”) As Stanton wrote to Anthony, “You are intertwined with much of my happy and eventful past, and all my future plans are based on you as a coadjutor.” The two not only led the movement as it gained steam but also collaborated, beginning in 1881, on what became a six-volume history of the battle for women’s suffrage.

Stanton may have helped launch the women’s rights movement with the Seneca Falls Declaration of the Sentiments in 1848, but she was easily distracted and disdained much of the grueling organizing, rallying, and speaking, which often fell to Anthony. Stanton, Ginzberg notes dryly, “much preferred the brilliant simplicity of lofty ideals and consistent principles.” These ideals occasionally left her at odds with her closest allies; indeed, Stanton was “somewhat tone-deaf to their concerns.” These differences of opinion were sometimes minor questions of tactics: for example, whether to challenge the institution of marriage. But, on Stanton’s part, it was sometimes outright racism. When, in the years after the Civil War, the battle lines began to be drawn between those pursuing suffrage for African Americans and those pursuing it for women, Stanton did not hesitate to invoke “worthiness” and “virtue” in making the case for women’s rights. “It is better,” she claimed, “to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one.”

Her bigotry was ultimately bound up with the privilege on which she founded her understanding of women’s rights. It is puzzling and, frankly, disheartening that the same woman who joined in brilliantly recasting the Declaration of Independence to call for women’s suffrage was largely blind to the need to make the women’s movement speak to the concerns of working women and women of color.

If the book has a failing, it’s that in chronologically following Stanton’s life, it is sometimes difficult keep a sense of the scope (much less the timeline) of the battle for universal suffrage and women’s equality. What comes through most clearly in Ginzberg’s account is how Stanton’s formidable intellect, matched with the right era and a good dose of discontent, produced an effective, if imperfect, revolutionary.

Phoebe Connelly is a writer based in Washington, DC, and the Web editor of the American Prospect.

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