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Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Abolitionist and Women's Rights Activist

By Edited Apr 28, 2016 2 2

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was a tireless crusader for women's rights and the abolition of slavery in the US, and, after the Civil War, for voting rights for the newly freed slaves.  Raised on Boston by a father who made no secret of his wish that she'd been a son to take the place of her brother who had died young, Stanton tried to become what her father would expect of a male child - in part by pursuing the best education she could get.  Her efforts to win her father's approval must have failed, though, because in 1840 she defied his wishes by marrying and moving to New York.

An active supporter of the Abolitionist movement in the US, Stanton and fellow activist Lucretia Mott sailed to London in 1840 to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention only to find themselves barred from speaking - because they were women.  This event may have been the inspiration for her to expand her labors to include women's rights.

In her view, the struggles of slaves and women were one and the same; women, she would argue, suffered a form of slavery imposed on them by society.  "The prolonged slavery of women," she once wrote, "is the darkest page in human history."


Universal suffrage petition
Stanton first began to achieve real notoriety in 1848 when, with help from four other local activists, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention.  Under the guidance of Stanton and others, the conventioners drafted a "Declaration of Sentiments" and a list of resolutions which Frederick Douglas declared a "grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women."

Her long fight for women's rights spanned not just voting, but many other aspects of society where double standards exist.  Many of the subjects she addressed are still alive and well in today's political debates, like reproductive rights and equal pay.  She helped pass legislation allowing married women to own property and have equal guardianship of children, and she helped loosen strict divorce laws that made it difficult for women to escape broken relationships.

In the 1850s, Stanton began a long friendship and working partnership with Susan B. Anthony.  Together they would found the American Equal Rights Organization, and later the National Woman Suffrage Association.  In 1890, that group merged with another to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and Stanton, now in her 70s, was elected its first president.

With Anthony she established a political weekly called The Revolution, and in the 1880s co-authored the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage.  She published her own autobiography, "80 Years and More", in 1898, four years before her death.  She lived to see the emancipation of slaves and the passage of the 15th Amendment which would allow them - at least the men - to vote.  It was not until 1920, 18 years after Stanton's death, when that same right would be acknowledged for women.


Thomas Paine, considered a hero of the American Revolution, spent most of his later years in unofficial exile in France.  He'd fallen into disfavor back home after his publication of "The Age of Reason", a scathing deistic critique of religious institutions in general and western Christianity in particular.

Stanton made no effort to hide her distaste for religion, and in fact blamed it in part for the suppression of women's freedoms: 

"When women understand that governments and religions are human inventions; that bibles, prayer-books, catechisms, and encyclical letters are all emanations from the brains of man, they will no longer be oppressed by the injunctions that come to them with the divine authority of 'Thus sayeth the Lord."

Her own "Age of Reason"-style backlash was felt in the wake of "The Woman's Bible", published in two volumes in 1895 and 1898.  She and a number of other women combed the Bible to extract every phrase that could be construed as misogynistic in any way and compiled them into a collection of anti-religious writings that many found shocking.  Even within the organization she had helped create, many either took offense at her assertions or felt her presence had become a publicity nightmare, so she was officially rebuked and condemned by NAWSA in 1896.  Her argument in her own defense was based on the same principles which had guided her all her life:

"What you should do is to say to outsiders that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our Association than an atheist.  When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself shall not stand upon it.  Many things have been said and done by our orthodox friends that I have felt to be extremely harmful to our cause; but I should no more consent to a resolution denouncing them than I shall consent to this."

Whatever one might think of her views on the spiritual, she was at least consistent in her fight for equality.


Modern America would be a very different place without the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her fellow Suffragists and Abolitionists.  They spent lifetimes attaining rights we take for granted today - rights that were once the sole purview of land-owning white males like me, but are now shared (albeit imperfectly, sometimes, and to varying degrees) by all.  The echoes of their struggles were heard in the labor movements of the early 20th century, as workers fought to escape sweatshop conditions, and in the civil rights movement of the 60s that helped chip away at more of the lingering institutional inequalities in our society.

Some, depending on one's personal policital leanings, might see some of that spirit kindled in the Tea Party or the Occupy movement that are making headlines today.



Dec 7, 2011 2:49pm
This woman is one of the great unsung heroines of abolition and general human and civil rights as well. Good work, and thanks for bringing her up.
Jan 10, 2012 11:12am
I love this article! During college, I was in a play about Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Thanks for sharing this; it brings back very cool memories for me! Google + and posted to Facebook.
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  2. Biography.com "Elizabeth Cady Stanton." Biography.com. 4/12/2011 <Web >
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  6. "Seneca Falls Convention." Wikipedia. 4/12/2011 <Web >
  7. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton Quotes." BrainyQuotes. 4/12/2011 <Web >

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