Reflection: Which side was Elizabeth Cady Stanton on?

By Hayley Robb, F/G Scholar

How can a woman who attends London’s World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 also be considered a white supremacist amidst all her efforts? Despite the world knowing her as the woman who led the suffrage movement and helping grant future women the same rights as their male counterparts, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is described as both.

In a biography on “The Women’s Rights Movement and the Women of Seneca Falls,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton is idolized as one of the leaders of the convention for women led by women. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was meant “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” Stanton along with Lucretia Mott was said to be one of the hallmark voices striving for a world in which women would be looked at no different than their husbands or brothers. Stanton met Mott just 10 years earlier at an international abolitionist convention. Stanton was a northerner and graduated from Emma Willard Troy Female Seminary, which was said to have sparked her fight against slavery and women’s rights. Stanton helped draft the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances and added to its preamble that women “hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…” On the second day of the convention, men were permitted to attend, and the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances was ratified by the assembly with Frederick Douglass being one man in attendance.

In another New York Times article, “How to Celebrate a Complicated Win for Women,” op-ed writer, Brent Staples, described that same Stanton as embarking on “a Klan-like tirade against the amendment.” This quote is referring to the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote. Stanton thought a woman’s vote would mean less if a Negro man was allowed to vote too. Staples (2018) implies Stanton’s actions would have encouraged groups like the Ku Klux Klan to gain momentum.

In an NPR interview with Lori Ginzberg (2010), the author of, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life,” she says Elizabeth Cady Stanton was certainly the hero history writes for some women but not all women. She fought for equal rights no matter a person’s sex but when she said the word “woman,” she had only one type of woman in mind: the white, middle-class, protestant, propertied and well-educated woman. She argued for women like herself. Ginzberg (2011) says she begins to disagree with Stanton when she makes claims that put women like herself above others. I disagree with Stanton when her words differ from her actions. Stanton counted herself as an abolitionist, Ginzberg said (2011). There was a debate during the Civil Rights Era on whether the 15th amendment should be passed to give black men the right to vote or if suffragists should wait for an amendment that would give universal rights for all. Stanton and her friend, Susan B. Anthony, could not let black men get the right to vote before everyone else so they waited and claimed demanding the rights for all was the highest moral of all (Ginzberg, 2011).

Ginzberg (2011) said Stanton didn’t just make the claim that her morals were above everyone else’s, but she would make racist comments such as: “We educated, virtuous white women are worthier of the vote.” Stanton said that granting black men the right to vote would continue to disgrace their “Saxon” fathers. So like Ginzberg (2011), I ask how many people’s rights was Stanton willing to dismiss in order to gain her own?

When discussing Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we really have to be conscious of which women we are talking about. It is certainly not black women as noted in Staples’ (2018) op-ed on the betrayal of black women in the suffrage movement. It is certainly not low-income mothers raising an entire family. Although Stanton was a northerner married to an abolitionist and within a community of abolitionists (Giesberg, 2011), she was not always what she appeared to be. Stanton’s 1848 “Declaration of Sentiments” was silent on the issue of slavery’s injustices to women and her pursuit of white-only rights post-1865 was not a change of heart, but rather ideas she had always held coming from a wealthy and privileged family (Ginzberg, 2010). This is what set her apart from other activists of her time like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott (Ginzberg, 2010, p. 120). Ginzberg (2010) said they often remarked her racism and xenophobia was “intolerable” (p.120).

What Stanton’s character reveals to me is that we cannot continuously believe history as it is written in a textbook or even in a news article. Just because someone stands for the abolition of slavery does not necessarily mean they feel someone should share equal rights with them. And I think we are seeing this resurface even today. Slavery seems like nonsense. Yet, there are still transgender individuals being turned away from potential apartment complexes. There are still resumes being judged at first glance just because their name holds a stereotypical African American connotation. These people in power may not agree with slavery but they definitely don’t consider the person they just turned away or the resume in the trash can as equals to them.

Stanton was no different. She was so concerned with her own thoughts and her own voice being heard that it blinded her from the other voices she was leaving silenced. It is why the black women were told to march together at the end of the 1913 suffragist parade in Washington (Staples, 2018). It is not because it would “anger the white Southerners” as noted in Staples’ (2018) article. Stanton reveals her elitist view in a comment reiterating Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” (Poirot, 2010, p. 195).

“It is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one,” she said (Poirot, 2010, p. 195).

When I was reading both biographies on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the contrasting descriptions drew a red flag much like the aforementioned quote. How could a person promote anti-slavery but also be racist?

Turns out, we are still answering that question nearly two centuries later. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a woman I was told to praise in United States History class but is now a woman I cannot wholeheartedly support.

I cannot help but wonder what Elizabeth Cady Stanton would think of our women and activists today. What would Stanton think of me? Would I fit her credentials to be a woman she would have fight for?

I don’t know.

References
Giesberg, J. (2011). Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American life – By Lori D. Ginzberg. Historian, 73(3), 561–563. https://doi-org.libsrv.wku.edu/10.1111/j.1540-6563.2011.00301pass:%5B_%5D10.x

Ginzberg, L. D. (2010). Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American life. New York: Hill and Wang.

Ginzberg, L. (2011, July 13). For Stanton, All Women Were Not Created Equal [Interview]. Retrieved October 6, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137681070/for-stanton-all-women-were-not-created-equal

Gordon, A. D. (2018, August 27). How to celebrate a complicated win for women. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/27/opinion/how-to-celebrate-a-complicated-win-for-women.html

Poirot, K. (2010). (Un)Making Sex, Making Race: Nineteenth-century liberalism, difference, and the rhetoric of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 96(2), 185–208. https://doi-org.libsrv.wku.edu/10.1080/00335631003796677

Staples, B. (2018, July 28). How the suffrage movement betrayed black women. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/28/opinion/sunday/suffrage-movement-racism-black-women.html

Worthen, M. (2017, July 13). The women’s rights movement and the women of Seneca Falls. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://www.biography.com/news/seneca-falls-convention-leaders

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