In July 1848, about 300 people gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the present and future of American women. The culmination of the meeting came on 20 July when a Declaration of Sentiments and eleven resolutions, drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were read to the crowd for their consideration. The Declaration of Sentiments, modeled closely after the Declaration of Independence, asserted the "self-evident" truth that "all men and women were created equal," and it listed the "history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman." Stanton's resolutions emphasized, for the most part, the fundamental and divinely intended equality of men and women, but a few spoke to more specific grievances that had surfaced in recent years, such as the right of women to speak in religious and other public forums. One resolution declared it "the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise."29 It was the only resolution that almost failed to pass.
We often forget that the women's movement was not founded for the purpose of securing women the right to vote. Other issues, such as women's property rights, were more important to many early feminists. Many, moreover, believed that pursuing the vote was premature and dangerous to the movement. Lucretia Mott, in many ways Stanton's mentor in reform, was stunned by Stanton's inclusion of the voting resolution. "Thee will make us look ridiculous," the Quaker reformer said.30 Yet by the last decades of the nineteenth century, suffrage had become the centerpiece of the women's movement. How that happened is largely the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
To a certain extent, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born into the world of reform; to a certain extent, she married into it. Born Elizabeth Cady in Johnstown, New York, her father was a prominent and somewhat conservative judge. But her maternal cousin Gerrit Smith was active in the anti-slavery and temperance movements, and through Smith, Elizabeth was introduced to the world of reform and reformers. It was there she met her husband-to-be Henry Stanton, an ardent abolitionist, one of the young agents recruited by Theodore Weld for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Elizabeth and Henry were married in 1840, and shortly after, they traveled to Belleville, New Jersey to visit Theodore Weld and his wife Angelina Grimké Weld. Henry Stanton idolized Weld, and his young wife was equally excited to meet Grimké, the woman who had energized the antislavery movement and asserted women's right to participate as equals in the public forum. (Read that story here.) After leaving the Welds, the Stantons traveled to London to attend the World's Antislavery Convention. There, Cady Stanton received a lesson in the limitations within the reform community, much like that learned by Grimké a few years earlier. The British and Foreign Antislavery Society (which sponsored the convention) refused to seat the women delegates sent by several American antislavery groups. Instead, the women were relegated to the galleries and forbidden to join in the discussion or to vote. Cady Stanton, although only in attendance as an observer, sat with the women in solidarity. It was a fortuitous decision, for she met Lucretia Mott, and together they discussed the need to hold a convention to discuss the prejudices against women in American society.
The convention would not be held for eight years. Cady Stanton's growing family absorbed much of her attention; the social reformers and antislavery activists that frequently visited the Stantons in Boston also provided an adequate source of intellectual stimulation. But in 1847, the Stantons moved to Seneca Falls, in upstate New York, and there, cut off from her former social network, Cady Stanton grew depressed. She returned to her earlier thoughts about the limitations facing women in America, and she resolved to call the convention she and Mott had discussed years earlier.
Even though Cady Stanton insisted on the suffrage resolution at Seneca Falls, she did not focus on the issue of voting rights in the years immediately following. She concentrated first on temperance, but with a feminist emphasis. Alcohol turned men into brutes, she said, and corrupted marriages. Women were forced to endure the "animal appetites" of their drunken husbands, turning their once holy unions into "nothing more or less than legalized prostitution."31 To protect women, Stanton argued, intemperance should be made grounds for divorce and, therefore, the state should pass more liberal divorce laws enabling women to free themselves from marriages destroyed by alcohol.
During the 1850s, Cady Stanton's demands for more liberal divorce laws grew more comprehensive. The drunken husband remained the most powerful symbol of the broken marriage, but she also identified other sources of marital discord and, therefore, more extensive grounds for divorce. Too often, she argued, a youthful decision united "youth and old age, beauty and deformity, refinement and vulgarity, virtue and vice, the educated and the ignorant, angels of grace and goodness, with devils of malice and malignity."32 To force the perpetuation of these ill-suited marriages was a crime, she argued, and, therefore, divorce should be made more accessible.
Stanton's campaign for more liberal divorce laws did not entirely succeed. Even many feminists were unprepared for the breadth of her proposals. But she did succeed in forcing women and men to examine this core social institution. Moreover, she managed to link this conversation to even more ambitious planks within her reform platform. Always possessing a keen sense for what was politically possible, Cady Stanton used temperance to talk about divorce, and then divorce to talk about political power. She argued that the holy institution of marriage could only be protected by legislative action, and that lawmakers would only be responsive to women's needs if and when women had the power to elect or reject them.
For Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in other words, political power was always the key to protecting and advancing the rights of women. Although the nation (including many feminists) was not ready for woman suffrage during these early years, Cady Stanton worked to keep the issue percolating on the edges of the movement.
As the debate over slavery grew more intense during the late 1850s, Cady Stanton traveled the state of New York on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society. During the Civil War, she campaigned for the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Then, after the war, as northern reformers rallied to the plight of the freedmen and reached the conclusion that their rights could only be secured by guaranteeing to them the right to vote, Cady Stanton recognized an opportunity to place women's suffrage back into the center of the public discussion. Therefore, she and Susan B. Anthony helped found the American Equal Rights Association, dedicated to winning the vote for black men and all women.
But as Angelina Grimké had learned in 1837, and Cady Stanton had learned in 1840, most abolitionists were still unwilling to couple the oppression of women and African Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment they pursued and ratified in 1870, banning racial bars on voting, was understood to apply to men only. Even worse, the voting provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment were extended, explicitly, to only "male inhabitants" of the nation.
In response, Cady Stanton broke with her former colleagues in reform and founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1878, Stanton's colleague Susan B. Anthony drafted the language for a constitutional amendment extending the vote to women. It was introduced into Congress in every session until finally adopted and ratified in 1920.
While focusing on suffrage, Stanton did not abandon the broader agenda she advanced before the Civil War. She continued to advocate marriage and divorce reform, as well as expanding educational opportunities for women, but she operated from the premise that the ballot was central not just to winning but preserving any gains achieved in these areas. In 1849, just after the Seneca Falls convention, she explained to a colleague the premise that shaped all of her efforts on behalf of women's rights:
"Having decided to petition for a redress of grievances, the question is for what shall you first petition? For the exercise of your right to the elective franchise—nothing short of this. The grant to you of this right will secure all others, and the granting of every other right, whilst this is denied, is a mockery. For instance: what is the right to property, without the right to protect it? The enjoyment of that right today is no security that it will be continued tomorrow, so long as it is granted to us as a favor, and not claimed by us as a right."33
Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not live to see the Nineteenth Amendment ratified. She died in 1902 of heart failure. But the association she founded, re-organized in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was driven by the premise that Cady Stanton nursed, sometimes in the background of the movement, since 1848: the right to vote "will secure all others"; without political power, all other rights are "a mockery."