Suffrage and Social Change

The Organizing Strategies of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Andrea S. Libresco

As new curricula emerge intent on "inclusion," most teachers have dutifully shoe-horned a few famous women into an already stuffed American History curriculum. Much is lost, however, in presenting a catalogue of heroines to be committed to memory. It is only infrequently that the differences among women reformers and suffragists in philosophy, personality, goals, and tactics are highlighted in our secondary social studies classes.
Every reform movement has had people and ideas at all points of the political spectrum; herein lies the richness and messiness of history. The collaboration between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was one of the driving forces of the nineteenth-century women's movement. Yet while the two women were best friends and elected to present a united front to the world, they had significant differences in goals and tactics. At different times in their lives, each of the women also changed her own objectives and tactics.

Stanton was the intellectual and philosopher, interested in revealing what she believed to be the truths behind women's subordination, even if these led her onto the difficult terrain of anti-clericalism and issues such as easy divorce. Anthony was the organizer, seeking always to increase the ranks of the women's movement and maintain their cohesion, even if this meant compromising by not raising divisive issues. As a leader, along with Stanton, of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and later of the larger American Woman Suffrage Association, into which NWSA merged, Anthony sought to rally as many women as possible to the cause.

Inequality within the Family
Before the Civil War, the barriers to women's political action were daunting. One formidable barrier back then, which remains formidable today, was the time needed for child care and housekeeping. At the time of Seneca Falls in 1848, Stanton had three children, aged six, four, and three. She became the mother of four more children in the next ten years. Stanton herself recognized the difficulty of her efforts to combine public affairs and maternity. Her apology to Anthony in the mid-1850s was "My whole soul is in the work, but my hands belong to my family" (Griffith 1984, 85).
When her sixth child, a second daughter, was born, Stanton had, understandably, mixed feelings: "I am very happy... that the result is another daughter. But I feel disappointed and sad at the same time at this grievous interruption of my plans. I might have been born an orator before spring, you [Anthony] acting as midwife.... My whole thought for the present must center on bread and babies" (Griffith 1984, 88).

Happily for Stanton and the women's movement, Anthony helped her resist the lure of "narrow family selfishness" (Stanton 1971, 165) by installing herself in Seneca Falls and supervising the children, while Stanton wrote without interruption at the dining room table. According to Henry Stanton, "Susan stirred the puddings, Elizabeth stirred up Susan, and then Susan stirs up the world!" Or as Elizabeth Stanton put it, "I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them" (Griffith 1984, 74).

In spite of the domestic barriers to public activism, Stanton pulled off a coup in organizing the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. Her most brilliant tactic was using Jefferson's language from the Declaration of Independence, comparing man's oppression of women to the tyranny of the king over the colonists, making the case for revolutionary change: "We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed--to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support ..." (DuBois 1981, 31).

Stanton understood the importance of political equality as a means of obtaining other kinds of equality. Law played a major role in setting men over women, and women would have the power to change laws only by obtaining the vote. Stanton had felt the pain of dilemmas faced by her father, a judge, who had been unable to circumvent the law to alleviate the sufferings of widows "who had brought all the property into the family only to be made an unhappy dependent on the bounty of an uncongenial daughter-in-law and dissipated son" (Stanton 1971, 31). In the narrow, private world of the family, women were often pitted against their own fathers and husbands. By demanding political power, they could struggle collectively against their own degradation, seeking legislation that would resolve aggravating problems.

This use of revolutionary language and the focus on republican government was to become a recurring theme in Stanton's and Anthony's speeches. Stanton began a speech to the New York legislature on women's rights reminding the men of their revolutionary pact: "We, the daughters of the revolutionary heroes of '76, demand at your hands the redress of our grievances-a new code of laws."

When Anthony voted illegally in 1872, and proclaimed the fact in public, she continued to use the language of the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution, she pointed out, said, "We, the people, not we, the white male citizens." Giving a new twist to the taxation without representation claim, Anthony argued, "If you insist that the use of the masculine pronouns he, his and him ... is proof that only men were meant to be included in their provisions ... we shall insist that you be consistent and ... exempt women from taxation for the support of the government and from the penalties for the violation of laws. There is no she or her or hers in the tax laws ..." (DuBois 1981, 152-65).

One seemingly innocuous issue facing nineteenth-century feminists was dress reform. Stanton thought the bloomer costume seemed practical and potentially popular and that dress reform offered a way of awakening women to an understanding of their oppression. For some time, conservative doctors and health reformers had railed against women's fashions. With innumerable petticoats, skirts trailing in the mud, and tightly laced waists, women's clothes damaged their bodies.

No one who adopted the baggy trousers and shorter dress expected the furor it engendered. Bloomers-wearing women were accused by newspapers of advocating an end to marriage and family, caricatured by graphic artists as masculine, and taunted by small boys. As Anthony put it, "The attention of my audiences was fixed upon my clothes instead of my words" (Barry 1988, 82). Stanton, Anthony, and other feminists ultimately let down the hems of their dresses, realizing that stylish dress disarmed the opposition and gave their dissident views greater respectability (Banner 1980, 157).

Many of the efforts by Stanton and other feminists to expand the rights of married women to own property met with more success. Most women, and ultimately the majority of male legislators in New York, came to support The Married Women's Property Act (1848), which protected a wife's property against her husband's creditors. The scope of the bill was enlarged in 1860 to provide a wife the right to hold property without her husband's interference, to collect and use her own earnings, to share joint custody of their children, to sue and be sued, and to inherit equally with any children on the death of her spouse.

Appearing before the New York legislature, Stanton declared that women, being "the companion of not only the statesman, the orator and the scholar, but the vile, vulgar and brutal man, as his mother, his wife, his sister, his daughter ... has witnessed at her own fireside [scenes worse than can ever] be realized at the polls" (Griffith 1984, 101). She called her address "A Slave's Appeal." The Married Women's Property Act passed the New York legislature the next day.

Emboldened by her reception in Albany, Stanton next took on divorce, an issue that proved to engender an enormously hostile reaction. In Stanton's view, marriage was a "man-made institution," inherently unjust to wives. Women needed the escape hatch of liberalized divorce laws. Abolitionist and feminist colleagues of Stanton opposed divorce reform vehemently and even sought to remove it from the record of a women's rights convention. Although reaction was negative, Stanton continued to argue for divorce and other controversial reforms, such as an end to prostitution, women's control over the frequency of sexual intercourse in marriage, and redress for wives against violent, drunk husbands. Stanton's critique of American society and traditional sexual mores later isolated her from a more narrowly focused women's rights movement.

The Struggle for Suffrage
The movement for women's suffrage grew in the years following the Civil War. Women's rights activists were outraged when the 15th Amendment to the Constitution extended suffrage to black men, but not to women.
Stanton and Anthony have been criticized for their decision to oppose feminism to black suffrage, and for their argument that educated white women were more deserving of the vote than ex-slaves. As historian Ellen Carol DuBois points out, "The more subtle habit of seeing women's grievances from the viewpoint of white women had been firmly established within the suffrage movement" (DuBois 1981, 92).

Anthony argued that the new amendment "put 2,000,000 colored men in the position of tyrants over 2,000,000 colored women." Former allies like Frederick Douglass stated, to great applause, that they could not see how anyone could pretend that there was the same urgency in giving the ballot to the woman as to the Negro. Anthony responded, "If Mr. Douglass had noticed who applauded when he said 'black men first and white women afterwards,' he would have seen that it was only the men.... he himself would not today exchange his sex and color with Elizabeth Cady Stanton" (Barry 1988, 193). Anthony's core belief was that "the question of precedence has no place on an equal rights platform" (Barry 1988, 192), but when Douglass placed his oppressed group and its cause above all others, Anthony did the same with her own group: "I would sooner cut off my right hand than ask the ballot for the black man and not for woman" (Barry 1988, 171).

The passage by abolitionists and Republicans of a 15th Amendment that did not include suffrage for women was a turning point. Two separate

suffrage organizations were formed: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Stanton and Anthony led NWSA, an organization open to all (though men could not hold office). NWSA emphasized grass roots organizing and was committed to working for a national constitutional amendment through lobbying in Washington, D.C., and a national speaking schedule. AWSA, on the other hand, was made up of delegates from local organizations, and its strategy was to work within states. Men could hold office (indeed, Henry Ward Beecher was the first president).

AWSA and its most important early leader, Lucy Stone, wanted to narrow the focus of the women's movement, believing that issues like divorce reform would damage its success. Stanton and Anthony, however, had a broader agenda. They named the short-lived journal of NWSA The Revolution. The reason was, in Stanton's words, that "the establishing of woman on her rightful throne is the greatest revolution the world has ever known or will know" (Stanton 1971, vi). The NWSA statement of purpose was far-reaching: "The woman question is more than a demand for suffrage.... [It] is a question covering a whole range of women's needs and demands ... including her work, her wages, her property, her education, her physical training, her social status, her political equalization, her marriage and her divorce" (Griffith 1984, 140). At this time, Stanton and Anthony were in agreement that cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and advocates, and bear the consequences. (Griffith 1984, 141)

To keep the issue of suffrage before the public, Stanton and Anthony gave speeches around the country, even touring every county in Kansas by sleigh in the dead of winter. At every stop, they collected petitions that they delivered to state and national legislators. Their speeches were stirring, but as Stanton noted, they did not fully reflect the real rage in hers and Anthony's hearts. Their newspaper, The Revolution, with its motto "Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less" (Barry 1988, 184) reached thousands and gave their more radical views an outlet.

Anthony also took the step of engaging in civil disobedience by voting illegally in 1872. While awaiting trial, she visited every village in her county to educate any possible jurors. The judge then ordered a change of venue whereupon Anthony canvassed the new county. Ultimately, the judge (who had prepared his opinion before the case had even begun) directed the jury to bring in a guilty verdict. Although he tried to silence Anthony after his verdict, insisting that she had been tried according to the forms of law, she challenged his command, citing the revolutionary maxim "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God" (Barry 1988, 254).

Anthony and Stanton also used national holidays and celebrations to put forward their own platform. On the occasion of the Centennial of the Fourth of July, Anthony and a few others infiltrated the official celebration at Independence Hall by obtaining reporters' passes; once inside, they boldly made their way up to the platform after the Declaration of Independence was read, and Anthony read the Declaration of Rights for Women, which then became part of the day's proceedings. Over a decade later, the movement celebrated Foremothers' Day as a counterpoint to Forefathers' Day, to which the women had never been invited.

The same year as the Centennial protest, Stanton, Anthony, and Mathilda Gage agreed to write a general history of women's rights with sketches of the movement's leaders so that the battles of the past would not be forgotten. The History of Woman Suffrage proved to be an enormous undertaking, growing to four volumes during Anthony's lifetime and two more published after her death. In addition to reaching out to American women, Stanton and Anthony traveled to Europe and organized an International Council of Women in 1888.

When the merger between the NWSA and the AWSA movements took place in 1890 (creating NAWSA), the differences in goals and tactics of Stanton and Anthony became more pronounced. Anthony tried to unite all reform-minded women to vote, whatever their differences on other issues, while Stanton challenged women whenever she thought them too conservative on a wide variety of issues. Anthony resolved to stay non-partisan so that the women's movement could obtain support from men in both political parties.

A suffrage-first strategy was anathema to Stanton: "Miss Anthony has one idea and she has no patience with anyone who has two.... I cannot sing suffrage evermore; I am deeply interested in all the questions of the day." In her diary she declared, "I get more radical as I grow older, while [Anthony] seems to grow more conservative" (Griffith 1984, 194-95). But Anthony's supporters were often critical of Stanton, charging that her enthusiasms were counterproductive: "Mrs. Stanton's greatest delight," wrote Harriet Upton Taylor, "was to spring some quite radical statement on the assemblage ... confounding poor Susan and causing setbacks to the Cause" (Banner 1980, 140).

The contrasting approaches of the two women were evident when Frederick Douglass married a white woman, and Stanton and Anthony differed on the appropriate response of the movement. Stanton was about to make a statement supporting Douglass's interracial marriage, but Anthony argued against it. The issue was not the intermarriage question, but her desire to keep the suffrage movement out of a controversy that might divide its supporters.

Stanton's systematic critique of Christianity became a major cause of division within the suffrage movement. In the late nineteenth century, Christian ideology was gaining strength in the movement. Centered in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Christian reformers were agitating for a constitutional amendment recognizing Christianity, and demanding state and local laws enforcing Sunday closings, censorship, anti-divorce, and other social purity legislation.

This was not a hospitable environment for Stanton's 1896 publication The Woman's Bible, a feminist commentary on the Old Testament. Stanton insisted that religions be denounced "for their degrading teaching with regard to women" (Stanton 1971, 381). Anthony disagreed. "You say women must be emancipated from their superstitions before enfranchisement will have any benefit, and I say just the reverse, that women must be enfranchised before they can be emancipated from their superstitions" (Barry 1988, 293).

Moderation and Its Consequences
Eventually, Anthony questioned her belief that political power in the hands of women would change and elevate politics in the country. When NAWSA passed a resolution disavowing any connection to The Woman's Bible, this action clearly shook her: "You would [be] better [to] educate ten women into the practice of liberal principles than to organize ten thousand on a platform of intolerance and bigotry.... This year it is Mrs. Stanton; next year it may be I or one of yourselves who may be the victim," she insisted.
Anthony had underestimated the impact of the younger, less radical women on the women's suffrage movement. The women's clubs had refused to be associated with any political issues and avoided controversy. Some of the new suffragists argued for women's rights by stating that these would improve the quality of housekeeping and child care. Instead of challenging the domination of women in the home, activists argued instead that women's private sphere would remain unchanged if women got the vote, and that men should therefore not fear women's suffrage (Barry 1988, 314).

This new generation of suffragists rejected anti-clerical action as politically inexpedient. By dissociating themselves from radicals, they found it easier to acquire money and legitimacy. As radical suffragists were attacked for trying to destroy home and family, the club women and social housekeeping suffragists began to look more acceptable as the alternative to the radical change that Stanton and Anthony had once envisioned.

Suffrage soon became an end in itself, rather than a means by which women would bring about a radical change in male-female relations. Carrie Chapman Catt (to whom Anthony bequeathed the leadership of NAWSA) and her colleagues managed to convince most American women that obtaining the vote would itself guarantee a solution to the problems arising from women's inequality. Once they were enfranchised, many suffragists packed up their banners and went home, confident that they had ensured perfect justice for their sex.

Stanton died in 1902, Anthony four years later. The last minutes of their lives provide a striking contrast. Stanton's daughter recalled that two hours before her death, the eighty-seven-year-old woman had herself fully dressed and "drew herself up very erect and there she stood for seven or eight minutes, steadily looking out proudly before her. I think she was mentally making an address" (DuBois 1981, 265). Two hours later, she died in her sleep. Her obituary was written by an atheist, published in a secularist magazine, and stressed the challenges Stanton had mounted against religious authority.

Anthony's tribute, on the other hand, was written by Anna Howard Shaw, the first woman ordained as a Methodist minister and a representative of Christian feminism. Shaw described the last afternoon of Anthony's life:

She suddenly began to utter the names of the women who had worked with her, as if in a final roll call.... Young or old, living or dead, they all seemed to file past her dying eyes that day in an endless, shadowy review, and as they went by she spoke to each one of them, [thanking them for] the sacrifices they have made. (DuBois 1981, 260)

After their deaths, they were remembered quite differently. Anthony's home was made into a museum, and she was the subject of several honorific biographies. Eventually, her likeness ended up on a silver dollar. Stanton, however, was not even the subject of a full-length biography until 1940. The breadth of her historical contribution (including advocacy of divorce reform, secularism, and the vote) was largely forgotten. While Stanton was honored only for the Seneca Falls convention, Anthony was identified with the whole history-and eventual triumph-of the women's suffrage movement. Although the uneven honor paid Stanton and Anthony is unfair, it is understandable. Stanton's perspective of larger social reform and of the Garrisonian ideal of principle over politics had largely been defeated, whereas Anthony's more moderate path of unifying enormous numbers of women around the demand for the vote and forcing the enfranchisement of women had triumphed. Dubois suggests that remembering Anthony while forgetting Stanton is more than a historical half-truth; it is a serious obstacle to assessing the full meaning of the women's suffrage movement. If Anthony's triumph is an index to the movement's successes, Stanton's defeat has a great deal to tell us about its failures. In particular, the defeat of Stanton illustrates why the suffrage movement did not do more to transform itself into an enduring political force addressing more basic causes of inequality than the lack of the vote (DuBois 1981, 192).

Banner, Lois W. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman's Rights. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980.Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.DuBois, Ellen Carol, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton/Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.Griffith, Elisabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.

Andrea S. Libresco is a high school social studies teacher on Long Island. She was recently the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for research on women's rights activists.