This week marks the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Nineteenth Amendment, which finally gave American women the right to vote. Signed into law on August 26, 1920, the amendment bears the name of Susan B. Anthony. It does not bear the name of her close friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who actually started the American women’s rights movement with a convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848.
Stanton and Anthony remained close throughout their lives, and both were agnostics. Both saw orthodox religion as a major source of women’s oppression. The difference between them was that Stanton refused to stop talking about the importance of religion to the subordination of women and Anthony held her tongue for fear of driving away women of faith from the suffragist cause and offending religious men who had the power to continue to deny women the vote.
Was Anthony tactically right? Undoubtedly. But Stanton–who first proposed the suffrage amendment–had a broader vision and a deeper understanding of the vast array of cultural forces that had held women back and would continue to do so even after they gained the vote. In 1975, unless you were a committed feminist, you would not have known who Elizabeth Cady Stanton was. The second wave of American feminism adopted Stanton’s broader vision and revived her reputation. But in her own time, and until the revival of feminism in the 1960s, Stanton was deliberately purged from the history of the women’s movement. Here’s how it happened.
In 1885, at an annual meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Stanton proposed a resolution that would have condemned all religions “teaching that woman was an afterthought in creation, her sex a misfortune, marriage a condition of subordination, and maternity a curse”–in other words, just about every religion.
“You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman,” she declared. “What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons pepetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, `Thus saith the Lord,’ of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us Christ is the head of the Church, so is man the head of women, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages? You Christian women look at the Hindoo, the Turkish, the Mormon women, and womder how they can be held in such bondage…
“Now I ask you if our religion teaches the dignity of woman? It teaches us the abominable idea of the sixth century–Augustine’s idea–that motherhood is a curse, that woman is the author of sin, and is most corrupt. Can we ever cultivate any proper sense of self-respect as women take such sentiments from the mouths of the priesthood?”
Anthony, who was working to forge an alliance between Christian women’s organizations (including the powerful Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and the secular organization that she and Stanton had founded, persuaded the delegates to table Stanton’s resolution. After all of the pro-suffrage organizations–religious and nonreligious–merged in 1890, Anthony–who was placed in charge of the day-to-day operations–expressed an almost wistful hope that the new organization’s platform “be kept broad enough for the infidel, the atheist.”
No way. This was the point at which the argument for suffrage was presented on the basis of women’s supposedly superior moral goodness rather than on women’s right to basic civic equality. Stanton was eased out of power and concentrated on writing The Woman’s Bible, which Anthony urged her not to publish becaue it would set back the cause of suffrage. Stanton’s Bible, written by her and a number of female scholars, re-examines the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as literary fictions of men. This approach has become so common in religious studies today that it is tough to imagine how revolutionary (and offensive to the clergy of many faiths) it was in 1895, when the book was published. The Woman’s Bible did to Stanton’s reputation exactly what Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason had done to his reputation in America a century earlier.
Stanton was as funny as she was irreverent. She quoted from Paul’s well-known First Epistle to Timonthy, in which he insisted that women must “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array…Let the women learn in silence with all subjection.” Stanton commented, “It appears very trifling to men, commissioned to do so great a work on earth, to give so much thought to the toilets of women. Ordering the men to have their heads shaved and hair cropped, while the women were told to have their locks hanging around their shoulders, looks as if they [the men] feared that the sexes were not distinguishable and that they must finish Nature’s work.”
Jews were no more pleased than Christians by Stanton’s views about religion. Stanton once told a group of Jewish women, coming to dispute with her, that Jewish men would be much better advised to say, “I thank thee, O Lord, that I was not born a jackass,’ than the traditional, “I thank thee, O Lord, that I was not born a woman.”
The unified National American Women Suffrage Association passed a resolution disavowing The Woman’s Bible–repudiating, in effect, the founder of the entire suffrage movement. On this occasion, Anthony finally rose to the defense of her old friend and her own secular convictions. “Are you going to cater to the whims and prejudices of people who have no intelligent knowledge of what they condemn?,” she asked. “You would better eduacte ten women into the practice of liberal principles than to organize ten thousand on a platform of intolerance and bigotry.”
The censure resolution passed, of course, and from that day forward Stanton was written out of the official history of the women’s movement. In 1923, a ceremony commorating the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention made no mention of Stanton in the program or brochure. As recently as 1977, when runners carried a torch from Seneca Falls to Houston for a meeting in honor of International Women’s Year, Anthony’s grandniece sat on the dais but no descendant of Stanton’s had been invited (which took some doing, since Stanton had seven children and, as might be expected, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren).
Even her own children contributed to the long obfuscation of their mother’s antireligious views, altering her autobiography and cutting her entire chapter on women and theology. Fortunately for the new feminist historians who came along in the 1980s, the children had not been able to burn every copy of the originally published autogiography or tear up and burn many of her personal letters.
No matter. In this case, history has caught up with Stanton. Time has borne out the truth of her assertion that no woman could be free as long as she let her minister, priest, rabbi or imam tell her what she could do and define her as an inferior human being. And Stanton’s refusal to silence herself, even though it was not the politically smart thing to do, stands as one of the landmarks in the history of reason. Like Thomas Paine, she was no summer soldier or sunshine patriot.
Note: I’m on vacation this week and will post again on August 31.