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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton became one of the best known and most radical women’s rights advocates of the nineteenth century. If Susan B. Anthony became the movement’s most effective organizer, Stanton became its leading philosopher.

No one would have predicted Stanton’s public role from the circumstances of her birth. She was born in Johnstown, New York, on November 12, 1815. Her father, Daniel Cady, was a judge, “a conservative of the conservatives,” as Stanton later recalled. Her mother, Margaret, came from the landed Livingston family of eastern New York and remained, according to her daughter, “blue-blooded, socially as well as physically.”

As a young girl, she was reminded often that sons would have been more welcome in her family than daughters. Of eleven children born to her parents, six died young, including all five of the Cady sons. When her eldest brother, Eleazer, died in 1826, Stanton tried desperately to comfort her father. All he would say was, “Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” Stanton learned early that such gender stereotyping was not personal but structural. In her father’s law office, where she acted as assistant, she discovered that everywhere, men had legal, political, and economic dominance.

In the 1830s, Stanton saw a far different vision of the world when she visited her cousins, Gerrit and Ann Smith. The Smiths were committed anti-slavery activists, and there Stanton met her future husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, a tireless and enthusiastic abolitionist lecturer. Henry and Elizabeth were married, despite strong parental misgivings, in May, 1840.

The Stantons spent their honeymoon in England, where they attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Among the delegates to the meeting, Lucretia Mott most attracted Stanton’s attention. Quaker minister from Philadelphia, founder of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and mother of six, Mott epitomized for Stanton the freedom and independence for women that Stanton had dreamed about but had never before seen.

The World Anti-Slavery Convention decided on the first day of its meeting not to seat women delegates. Angered by such discrimination, Stanton and Mott resolved to organize a convention, as soon as they returned home, solely to discuss women’s rights.

For eight years, however, they postponed action. The Stantons were immersed in starting a new career and a new family, first in Johnstown and then in Boston, where Henry began work as a lawyer and politician. Not until the Stantons moved to Seneca Falls would Elizabeth and Lucretia carry out their plan. There in Seneca Falls, the Stantons would raise four more children, to make seven in all. There, too, Elizabeth would begin her active career as a women’s rights reformer.

Perhaps three hundred people attended the Seneca Falls convention. One hundred of them (sixty-eight women and thirty-two men) signed the Declaration of Sentiments, asserting that “all men and women are created equal.” While Stanton discussed her own reasons for organizing this meeting, she said very little about why so many other people, on such short notice, would attend such a radical gathering.

Local people were in fact inspired to support women’s rights by their participation in three other reform movements. The first was the effort to pass a Married Women’s Property Act. For twelve years, the right of married women to own property had been seriously discussed throughout New York State. Wealthy men supported it so that they could give land to their daughters. Yet such an act had unsettling implications. Public debate over the Married Women’s Property Act was also a debate over the equality of women and men and, in fact, over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence itself. As republicans, Americans linked citizenship rights (including the right to vote) with economic independence. If married women could be economically self-sufficient, what would prevent them from demanding political independence, as well? This debate over women’s rights occurred simultaneously with efforts to give black males equal voting rights with white men in New York State. Both issues forced New Yorkers to consider the essential meaning of citizenship in their democratic republic.

Against this general background, two more reform efforts hit Seneca Falls and the neighboring village of Waterloo with particular intensity. In Waterloo, a large Quaker meeting split apart over issues relating to equality. One group formed the new Congregational Friends. Active in both abolitionism and women’s rights, almost every family in this group would attend the Seneca Falls convention. In Seneca Falls at the same time, traditional political parties exploded under the impact of the new Free Soil party, whose goal was to eliminate slavery in the western territories. Free Soilers in Seneca Falls would also support the women’s rights convention.

Because the Seneca Falls convention used the language of the Declaration of Independence, people reacted to its demands for women’s equality more positively than Stanton remembered. Many Americans agreed with Horace Greeley, editor of the nation’s most influential newspaper, the New York Tribune, when he admitted that “when a sincere republican is asked to say in sober earnest, what adequate reason he can give for refusing the demand of women to an equal participation with men in political rights, he must answer, None at all. . . . it is but the assertion of a natural right, and as such must be conceded.”

The Seneca Falls convention raised issues that Americans would debate through the mid-twentieth century. It touched off a series of local and national conventions that led to the formation of national women’s rights organizations, to women’s active presence in public life, and finally, seventy-two years later, to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920, giving women the right to vote. Americans remain ambivalent, however, about whether or not “all men and women are created equal.”

Stanton herself never deviated from her uncompromising commitment to women’s rights, which she called “the greatest revolution the world has ever known.” In her last public act before her death in 1902, she wrote one letter to President Theodore Roosevelt and another, the day before she died, to his wife, Edith K. Roosevelt, asking them to support a constitutional amendment for women’s right to vote.
Judith Wellman
State University of New York at Oswego

In the Heath Anthology
Declaration of Sentiments (1898)
Reprint in 1971
      from Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences (1898)  [n.b., Reprinted in 1971]

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Address: First Women's Rights Convention
The complete text of Stanton's speech.

National Park Service: Elizabeth Cady Stanton
A brief survey of Stanton's political contributions.

Secondary Sources