Susanne Marie Poulette:
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I have invited guest author Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D. to present today. Dr. Wagner is the Founding Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, and adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University. A founder of one of the first college-level women’s studies programs in the United States (CSU Sacramento), she holds one of the first doctorates awarded for work in women’s studies (UC Santa Cruz). Her publications include the influence of Indigenous women on the 19th century woman’s rights movement. She wrote the faculty guide for Not for Ourselves Alone, Ken Burns’ documentary on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and she has appeared in that film and other PBS women’s history programs. Her most recent publication is a chapbook series of Stanton’s edited writings, published by Syracuse Cultural Workers. Dr. Wagner was selected as one of “21 Leaders for the 21stCentury” by WomensENews.org in 2015.
If you are unacquainted with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, let me introduce you. Stanton was author, lecturer, and chief philosopher of the woman’s rights movement, framing the agenda for woman’s rights that guided the struggle to the present day. One of the most forward thinkers and prolific writers of her time, Stanton is often overshadowed today by her women’s rights colleagues who walked a less radical line. In 1848, she and four like-minded women gathered and planned the first Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York. Together they drafted the Declaration of Sentiments outlining the legal rights and privileges of citizenship that were denied to American women. Eleven resolutions were adopted, but not without great controversy over Stanton’s inclusion of women’s right to vote. Even Lucretia Mott, one of the “founding five” women warned, “Lizzie, thou wilt make the convention ridiculous.”
Stanton continued her quest for the full rights of citizenship for women beyond the vote. Among them: college education, property ownership, wages earned, inheritance, women’s authority over their own bodies, equal guardianship of children, and civil responsibility. Stanton accomplished much of this through writing. She wrote some of the most influential books, documents, tracts, and speeches of the women’s rights movement. She wrote a monthly column in Amelia Bloomer’s magazine Lily, and with Susan B. Anthony, she published a newspaper called The Revolution. Together with Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, she published the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage, a seminal work documenting the woman’s suffrage movement. Stanton published The Woman’s Bible; her autobiography Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences 1815–1897; and The Solitude of Self, which she first delivered as a speech at the 1892 convention of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C.
I am proud and grateful to present Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D.
THE REAL ELIZABETH CADY STANTON:
REMEMBERING HER ON HER BICENTENNIAL
By Sally Roesch Wagner
We know the iconic Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the plump, grandmotherly founding mother of the women’s rights movement, with her white curls encircling her sweet Martha Washington look-alike face, working from early life until the end for women’s right to vote. That sanitized Stanton would make her shake those curls in disbelief at the description. She was much more.
Stanton, in fact, complained that she was “sick of the song of suffrage” by the 1880’s. The attempt by religious conservatives to destroy the separation of church and state by placing God in the Constitution and prayer in the public schools seemed to her a far more pressing concern than the vote. “I would rather live under a government of men alone with religious liberty than under a mixed government without it,” she confided to a suffragist newspaper editor.
From clerical opposition to women speaking in pubic to wearing the “Bloomer” trousers to demanding equality, the church had stood in the way of woman’s progress. “I have passed from the political to the religious phase of this question,” she wrote a friend, “‘for I now see more clearly than ever, that the arch enemy to woman’s freedom skulks behind the altar.” With her typical boldness, Stanton drew together a Revising Committee of scholars and ministers to compile a Woman’s Bible, which interpreted the Scriptures from the perspective of women. Affronted by the name, as well as the content, clergy denounced the book as “the work of the devil himself,” to which Stanton calmly responded, “His Satanic Majesty was not invited to join the Revising Committee, which consists of women alone.”
As suffrage faded in importance for Stanton, the larger issues of women’s rights became the most important ones. She brought the strength of her voice and pen to attack the religious and legal denial of divorce to women who were sexually and physically abused in marriages. The press, in turn, attacked her for her unorthodox views. Still, after her lectures, a flood of women came up to share their experiences. “Plantation slavery is nothing to these unclean marriages,” she wrote in her journal. “The women gladly hear the new gospel so let the press howl.”
Every child born, she firmly believed, should be chosen, and every woman should be the “absolute sovereign” of her own body. A woman should have the right “to become a mother or not as her desire, judgment and conscience may dictate,” contended Stanton.
Nor did she give a hoot for public reaction to her ultra-views on economic injustice. “In this world of plenty, every human being has a right to food, clothes, decent shelter, and the rudiments of education. Something is rotten in Denmark, when 1/10 of the human family, booted and spurred, rides the masses to destruction,” she wrote in her autobiography. For women, the burden was the hardest, for “woman is the great unpaid laborer of the world,” she correctly analyzed, “the upstairs maid with no wages.”
At the huge gathering called by the National Council of Women to commemorate the 80th birthday of this grandmotherly figurehead of the woman’s rights movement, Stanton documented the progress women had made. Remembering back to how horrified “our conservative friends” were when she and a few women called for a meeting to “discuss their disabilities,” in the summer of 1848, she recalled that they said, “You have made a great mistake, you will be laughed at from Maine to Texas and beyond the sea; God has set the bounds of woman’s sphere and she should be satisfied with her position.” “Their prophecy was more than realized,” Stanton reminisced, as “we were unsparingly ridiculed by the press and pulpit both in England and America.” How sentiments had changed in 47 years, as “many conventions are held each year in both countries to discuss the same ideas; social customs have changed; laws have been modified” and “that first convention, considered a ‘grave mistake’ in 1848, is now referred to as ‘a grand step in progress.’”
With local and state victories under their belt, a full guarantee of women voting was only a matter of time. “We who have made our demands on the State have nearly finished this battle,” for “the principle is practically conceded,” Stanton stated.
Now it was time, she told the “thousands of welcoming faces” paying tribute to her on November 12, 1895 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, to go to the source of the problem. “As learned bishops and editors of religious newspapers are warning us against further demands for new liberties, and clergymen are still preaching sermons on the ‘rib origin,’ and refuse to receive women as delegates to their synods, it is evident that our demands for equal recognition should now be made of the Church for the same rights we have asked of the State for the last fifty years, for the same rights, privileges and immunities that men enjoy.” The Bible, like all documents written by man, is imperfect and limited by the prejudices of men at the time it was written. From time to time these documents are revised, like we have done with the Constitution, to reflect the changes in society. And now, she asserted, “We must demand that the canon law, the Mosaic code, the Scriptures, prayer books and liturgies be purged of all invidious distinctions of sex, of all false teaching as to woman’s origin, character and destiny.” It is time, Stanton said, to rewrite the Bible.
“I shall not grow conservative with age,” Stanton had promised. She kept her promise to the end.
This segment is adapted from “The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Collection” chapbook series, published by Syracuse Cultural Workers and available for purchase from http://www.sallyroeschwagner.com.
Heartfelt thanks to Dr. Wagner, ~ SMPoulette
To visit Dr. Wagner online and link to her video performances, go to http://www.sallyroeschwagner.com. To link directly to videos: http:// http://www.sallyroeschwagner.com/ecsbible/ http://www.sallyroeschwagner.com/ecsmotherhood/
To learn more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton:
Address by Elizabeth Cady Stanton on Woman’s Rights, September 1848: http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/ecswoman1.html
National Women’s History Museum: https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/elizabeth-cady-stanton/
PBS Not For Ourselves Alone: http://www.pbs.org/stantonanthony/resources/index.html?body=biography.html
National Park Service, Women’s Rights Historical Park: http://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/elizabeth-cady-stanton.htm
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Solitude of Self,” address before the U. S. Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, February 20, 1892: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/history/dubois/classes/995/98F/doc43.html
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” delivered at the first women ‘s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/senecafalls.asp