Monday, December 20, 2010

Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Gender Wars Radical

LAST TIME: Thomas Paine - Radical of the Revolution

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) is the third of five individuals profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Liberty and Equal Justice in America.

Stanton was born during the United States's early decades, an era when women were considered to occupy a "separate sphere" of existence essentially limiting them to activities within the home.  Groomed in her upbringing as daughter of a prominent judge in upstate New York to a conventional life as mother and homemaker, Stanton long endured mocking disdain from countless strangers and even her own father and husband for insisting that women were morally and legally entitled to equal treatment.

Yet with her lifetime of unflinching advocacy for women’s rights - including her two singular landmark creations, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments for the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and the Woman’s Bible in 1896 – Stanton did more than any single person to establish the framework for eventual gender legal equality in the United States (including the “right” to vote, gained some eighteen years after her death with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920).

Like the other radicals profiled in the book (Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Vine Deloria Jr.), Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that America's constitutional democracy requires a tolerant government. Specifically, Stanton demanded that government replace a legal regime imposing separate, inferior status on women with one that recognizes – or tolerates - the equal legal status of women.

Also like the others, Stanton too charged that clergy (or, more generally, organized religions) were responsible for much of society’s ills, especially for women. “I now see more clearly than ever, that the arch enemy to women’s freedom skulks behind the altar,” she ruminated in 1886. “No class of men have such power to pervert the religious sentiments and oppress mankind with gloomy superstitions through life and an undefined dread of the unknown after death.” But Stanton was convinced the clergy did not truly speak for the Almighty, reasoning, “I cannot believe that a God of law and order … could have sanctioned a social principle so calamitous in its consequences as investing in one-half the race the absolute control of all the rights of the other.”

To so baldly criticize mainstream Christian orthodoxy at the turn of the twentieth century was too radical even for most women’s rights activists - who distanced themselves from Stanton by issuing a formal censure at the 1896 NAWSA convention, and for decades after her death rendering her persona non grata, even while canonizing her longtime collaborator Susan B. Anthony.

NEXT TIME: W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Activist Radical