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Stanton’s Masterpiece

June 2024
2min read

THE SCREENWRITER discovered that one of his subjects had composed a little-known testament that deserves a place in our highest literary canon

Among the many things I did not know about Elizabeth Cady Stanton when I set to work on the script for Not for Ourselves Alone and the book meant to accompany its showing on public television was that she was an extraordinary writer. In an age when political rhetoric was often self-consciously ornate, Stanton’s best writings were crisp, clear, and to the point. In 1850, just two years after first demanding the ballot for women, she laid out the case against the men who ruled her world for an Ohio women’s meeting with the wit and gusto that would characterize her prose all her life:

“They tax our property to build Colleges, then pass a special law prohibiting any woman to enter there. A married woman has no legal existence; she has no more absolute rights than a slave on a Southern plantation. She takes the name of her master, holds nothing, owns nothing, can bring no action in her own name; and the principle on which she and the slave is educated is the same. The slave is taught what is considered best for him to know—which is nothing; the woman is taught what is best for her to know—which is little more than nothing; man being the umpire in both cases. A woman cannot follow out the impulses of her own immortal mind in her sphere, any further than the slave can in his sphere. Civilly, socially, and religiously, she is what man chooses her to be—nothing more or less—and such is the slave. It is impossible for us to convince man that we think and feel exactly as he does, that we have the same sense of right and justice, the same love of freedom and independence. Some men regard us as devils, and some as angels; hence one class would shut us up in a certain sphere for fear of the evil we might do, and the other for fear of the evil that might be done to us; thus, except for the sentiment of the thing, for all the good it does us, we might as well be thought the one as the other. But we ourselves have to do with what we are and what we shall be.”

Stanton’s years as a leader of the suffrage movement were filled with almost ceaseless struggle, first because of the implacable opposition of most men—and a great many women—to the notion of full equality for her sex but also because, as her daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch proudly wrote, she was a “many idea’d” woman, constitutionally unable to temper her views to suit her audience. Over the years her vigorous opinions on everything from divorce and family planning to interracial marriage and the need for absolute separation between church and state alienated many of her more conservative allies. Even Stanton’s protégée and long-time collaborator Susan B. Anthony privately came to see her chronic outspokenness as a dangerous distraction from the cause that Anthony called “the one & sole point of woman disfranchised.”

Stanton professed to be unconcerned. “Miss Anthony has one idea and she has no patience with anyone who has two,” she told a friend late in life. “I cannot … sing suffrage anymore; I am deeply interested in all the questions of the day.” But more and more she found herself isolated, by turns patronized and ignored by a new generation of suffragists with no firsthand knowledge of the battles she had fought on their behalf.

On January 18, 1892, she resigned the presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association after delivering a farewell speech that she believed to have been “the best thing I have ever written.” Susan B. Anthony didn’t like it much at first—it contained too little on the vote that had become her central focus—but she later called it “the strongest and most unanswerable argument and appeal ever made by mortal pen or tongue for the full freedom and franchise of women.” It is hard to argue with that assessment. Still little known outside the classroom, “The Solitude of Self” seems to me to be worthy of comparison with the essays of Stanton’s old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is at once a forceful plea for women’s full equality, a memorable hymn to the individual human spirit, and the most eloquent possible reminder that in the end “we ourselves’—men as well as women—“have to do with what we are and what we shall be.”

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