Early Life and Family Background
Acclaimed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born on November 12, 1815, in Johnstown, New York. She was the eighth of Daniel and Margaret Livingston Cady’s eleven children. Daniel was a prominent attorney who represented New York’s 14th District in the 14th U.S. Congress (March 4, 1815–March 3, 1817) and who later served as justice of the New York Supreme Court (June 7, 1847–January 1, 1855). Elizabeth’s mother, Margaret, was the daughter of Colonel James Livingston, an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
Unlike most young women of her time, Elizabeth benefitted from formal education. She attended Johnstown Academy where she excelled as a student. However, despite her academic achievements, Cady was not permitted to attend college due to her gender. Instead, she furthered her education at Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary (now known as Emma Willard School), graduating in 1832. Afterward, she learned much about the principles of law by studying her father’s books and by interacting with his male apprentices.
Introduction to 19th Century Reform Movements, and Lucretia Mott
As a young woman, Cady became active in the temperance and anti-slavery movements. In 1839, while visiting her cousin Gerrit Smith (a member of the “Secret Six” who later supported John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry), Cady met Henry Brewster Stanton. Also an ardent abolitionist, Stanton was a lawyer and an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Following a brief courtship, the couple wed on May 1, 1840. At Cady’s request, the minister omitted the traditional “promise to obey” her husband from their wedding vows. Later in life, she explained that “I obstinately refused to obey one with whom I supposed I was entering into an equal relation.”
While on their honeymoon in London, England, the newlyweds attended a World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Due to her gender, Elizabeth was not permitted to participate in the proceedings. Instead, she was relegated to observing from the gallery where she met Lucretia Mott, a leading American female abolitionist of the time. Their exclusion from the meeting cemented a mutual commitment to engendering women’s equality.
Upon returning to America, the Stantons settled in Boston where Henry practiced law and Elizabeth applied herself to raising the first of their seven children. While living in Boston, the couple broadened their intellectual growth by socializing with other prominent progressives of the day including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Seneca Falls, Rochester, and the National Women’s Rights Convention
In 1847, the Stantons moved to Seneca Falls, in upstate New York. For the next few months, Elizabeth worked with Martha Coffin Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, and Jane Hunt to organize “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women” to be “held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July.” The Seneca Falls Convention, also known as the First Woman’s Rights Convention, attracted 200 to 300 attendees.
On the first day of the meeting, attended solely by women, Stanton presented the “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” a treatise she drafted modeled upon the Declaration of Independence. After enumerating the injustices to which women were subjected, the monograph exhorted American women to stand up for their rights.
Men were invited to attend the convention on the second day, and roughly forty did. Many of them joined with the first day’s participants in adopting twelve resolutions endorsing specific equal rights for women. Only the ninth resolution, which stated that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” did not pass unanimously. Many of the attendees considered a demand for the right to vote so radical that it would diminish the gravity of the other resolutions. Passing by only a small majority nonetheless, the adoption of the ninth resolution is often considered as the genesis of the women’s suffrage movement in America.
Two weeks after the Seneca Falls Convention, Stanton attended a follow-up second Woman’s Rights Convention held in Rochester, New York, on August 2, 1848. Two years later, she declined an invitation to speak at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention (held in Worcester, Massachusetts, October 1850) because she was pregnant at the time.
Introduction to Susan B. Anthony and Beginning of Their Collaboration
In 1851, a mutual friend introduced Stanton to Susan B. Anthony in Seneca Falls. The introduction marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship and a milestone in the history of the women’s rights movement. The two like-minded women possessed disparate but mutually complementary skills. For the next sixty years, Anthony, the superior speaker, vocalized the pair’s collaborative thinking as expressed on paper by Stanton, the more accomplished writer.
As Stanton recalled nearly a half-century later:
We never met without issuing a pronunciamento on some question. In thought and sympathy we are one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains.
Their collaboration also proved to be beneficial on another, more practical, plane. The demands of raising a large family often placed severe limits on Stanton’s time. It was not unusual for Anthony to visit Stanton’s home and tend to her children while Stanton drafted new treatises supporting women’s rights. When Stanton’s family responsibilities prevented her from attending rallies or conventions (as they often did), the more-effusive Anthony proved to be the perfect messenger for presenting their shared convictions. As Stanton later succinctly described her partnership with Anthony, “I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them.”
For over sixty years, Stanton and Anthony politicked for numerous social causes including abolition, temperance, female suffrage, and equal rights for women. In 1863, they united to form the Women’s Loyal National League, focusing on the passage of a 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery in the United States.
American Equal Rights Association
Following the Civil War, Stanton helped organize the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention, held on May 10, 1866, in New York City. During the proceedings, delegates voted to create the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). Under the guidance of Stanton, Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, the new organization worked to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.” Within three years, however, AERA members were at odds with each other over support for the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution because the proposed reforms established voting rights for African American men, but did not enfranchise women.
National Woman Suffrage Association
The rift spurred Stanton and Anthony to leave the AERA and found the exclusively female National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in May 1869. In November of the same year, more moderate women’s rights advocates, led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). For the next two decades, the two organizations operated independently of each other to secure equal rights for women.
As president of the NWSA, Stanton authored and edited articles in the association’s weekly newsletter, The Revolution. Printed under the masthead that read “Justice, not Favors.—Men, their Rights and Nothing More; Women, their Rights and Nothing Less,” the periodical featured articles concerning sex education, rape, domestic violence, marriage, divorce, oppressive women’s fashions, prostitution, and reproductive rights.
Following ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton publicly embraced the contention of Victoria Claflin Woodhull (another famous women’s rights advocate) that the changes to the Constitution actually did enfranchise American women. Claflin reasoned that the 14th Amendment cited no exceptions (including gender) when affirming that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens.” Therefore, women had a right to vote because the amendment went on to state that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Employing Woodhull’s logic, Stanton unsuccessfully attempted to vote in the election of 1880 (just as Anthony had done in the election of 1872).
1876 U.S. Centennial
In 1876, the NWSA requested permission to make a formal presentation at the official celebration of the U.S. Centennial in Philadelphia on July 4. After the United States Centennial Commission denied their request, five NWSA members (Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Sara Andrews Spencer, Lillie Devereux Blake, and Phoebe W. Couzins) interrupted the culminating Grand Ceremonies of the celebration. Anthony marched to the speaker’s platform and presented acting U.S. President Thomas Ferry with a four-page document entitled the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States.
Meanwhile, the other four women distributed copies to surprised spectators. Expecting to be arrested, the group then moved to a nearby platform where Anthony read the entire document to a growing crowd. Written by Stanton, with the help of Gage, the pamphlet mirrored the style of the Declaration of Independence of the United States by enumerating “a series of assumptions and usurpations of power over women.” Signed by twenty-four prominent suffragists of the day, the narrative proclaimed “full equality with man in natural rights” and concluded by requesting “that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” Although the performance did not initiate any immediate legal reforms, it did heighten public awareness of the struggle for equal rights for women.
History of Woman Suffrage
During the late 1870s, Stanton, Anthony, and Gage began collaborating to write the History of Woman Suffrage. The prolific work, published in three installments in 1881, 1882, and 1886 respectively, chronicled the annals of the women’s suffrage crusade from 1865 to 1885. Although the work is considered as a definitive primary source documenting the history of the campaign, it does so at the expense of other groups and individuals who competed with the authors for the movement’s leadership. Three later editions were published in 1902 and 1922 (long after Stanton’s death) covering the years from 1885 until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 enfranchised women in the United States.
President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association
In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA reconciled their differences and consolidated to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). During the unified association’s first convention in February 1890, the delegates selected Stanton as their first president. At seventy-five years of age, Stanton’s election was largely symbolic. In reality, Anthony handled most of the organization’s administrative duties until 1892 when she succeeded Stanton as president.
The Woman’s Bible
Stanton’s radicalism did not diminish with her advancing years. While Anthony was effectively running the NAWSA in America, Stanton was in Europe organizing a group of twenty-six women to scrutinize the original Hebrew and Greek texts translated by scholars to create the King James Bible. In 1895, Stanton’s “Revising Committee” published the first of a two-volume work entitled The Woman’s Bible, a commentary describing how male theologians used Christian theology and Biblical dogma to relegate women to second-class status. Although the publication was a best-seller, it was not well received by many of the moderate members of the NAWSA. Fearful of alienating men and religious supporters from their quest for enfranchisement, delegates to the 1896 convention voted to disavow the publication. Undaunted, Stanton went on to publish a second volume in 1898, further distancing herself from mainstream suffragists.
Stanton’s Memoirs: Eighty Years and More; Reminiscences 1815-1897
During the same year that the second volume of The Woman’s Bible appeared, Stanton published her autobiography entitled Eighty Years and More; Reminiscences 1815-1897. By that time her fight with blindness and poor health, coupled with her estrangement from NAWSA conservatives, diminished Stanton’s role in the women’s suffrage movement.
On October 26, 1902, Stanton succumbed to heart failure at her daughter Margaret’s home in New York City, just a few weeks before her eighty-seventh birthday. Her remains were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City, beside her husband who preceded her in death by fifteen years.
Susan B. Anthony lived four years beyond Stanton’s death. Partly because Anthony was the more visible of the two, and partly because Stanton’s viewpoints were more radical and diverse, Anthony, rather than Stanton, is more commonly recognized as the founder of the women’s suffrage movement in America. Still, although neither woman lived to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, they each played distinct but equally significant roles in posthumously achieving their mutual goal that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”