Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born on November 12, 1815 in Johnstown, New York. Brash, uncompromising and fiercely intelligent, she spent more than 50 years as one of the leading voices of the American women’s rights movement. Though not as famous today as her close friend Susan B. Anthony, Stanton loomed large in the decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage, and her speeches and writings helped pave the way for discussions of economic opportunity for women, progressive divorce laws, interracial marriage and reproductive rights. On the bicentennial of her birth, learn nine fascinating facts about the woman Anthony called “the philosopher and statesman of our movement.”
1. Stanton’s passion for women’s rights was forged during childhood.
Stanton was the eighth of 11 children born to Margaret Livingston and Daniel Cady, a respected lawyer, judge and congressman. A precocious child, she spent much of her girlhood observing the goings on at her father’s law office, where she was disgusted to learn of the many inequitable laws restricting women’s freedom and ability to inherit property. She even schemed to snip the offending passages out of her father’s law books in the hope of invalidating them. While he would later disapprove of her activism, Judge Cady initially encouraged his daughter by loaning her law books and explaining that objectionable statutes could be overturned by public appeals to the government. “Thus was the future object of my life foreshadowed and my duty plainly outlined,” Stanton later wrote.
2. She got her start as an activist in the abolitionist movement.
In 1839, Elizabeth Cady met and fell in love with an abolitionist lecturer and journalist named Henry Stanton. The two were married a year later—Elizabeth insisted on having the word “obey” removed from their wedding vows—and went on to settle in Boston, where they became active in the anti-slavery cause and rubbed elbows with the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Along with providing a blueprint for her later social activism, Stanton’s experiences in the abolitionist movement helped spark her involvement in women’s rights. A key incident came at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where women delegates were unfairly excluded from the proceedings and banished to a visitors’ gallery. Stung by the hypocrisy of their male counterparts, Stanton and fellow abolitionist Lucretia Mott resolved to begin a political crusade on behalf of their gender. They would remain allies until Mott’s death in 1880.
3. Stanton organized the first women’s rights convention.
While living in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, Stanton joined with Lucretia Mott and others in convening 300 people for a convention “to discuss the social, civil and religious conditions and rights of Woman.” Stanton took center stage with a reading of her “Declaration of Sentiments,” a rewriting of the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” The document was accompanied by a series of resolutions to be ratified by those in attendance. Much to the chagrin of her fellow organizers, who feared they would be ridiculed, Stanton insisted on including a measure supporting women’s right to vote. The resolution passed after considerable debate, forever changing the direction of the movement and establishing Stanton as one of the most provocative thinkers on the subject of women’s rights.
4. She wrote many of Susan B. Anthony’s speeches.
Stanton gave birth to seven children between 1842 and 1859, but while she continued to write from the confines of her home, her duties as a wife and mother often prevented her from taking an active role in the women’s rights movement. The self-described “caged lioness” finally found a vehicle for her philosophy in 1851, when she met the Massachusetts-born Quaker and reformer Susan B. Anthony. The two women struck up a lifelong friendship, and the unmarried Anthony later traveled the country delivering speeches that Stanton had composed in between bathing her kids and cooking meals. Anthony sometimes even babysat the Stanton brood to give her friend time to work. Stanton returned to the road after her children were grown, but Anthony continued to serve as the face of the women’s rights movement for the rest of their lives. “I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them,” Stanton later said.
5. Stanton was a critic of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
Stanton strongly supported the abolition of slavery, but she and Anthony courted controversy during Reconstruction by opposing the 14th and 15th Amendments, which enshrined black voting rights in the Constitution. Their objections centered on the use of the phrase “male citizens” in the text of the 14th Amendment. Rather than risk a permanent setback in their own fight for the vote, the pair urged their fellow abolitionists to hold out for an amendment that included both men and women of all races. Stanton alienated many former allies by resorting to controversial arguments, once saying that it was better for a black woman “to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one.” Her pleas failed to stop either amendment, and by 1869, the debate had splintered the women’s rights movement into two rival factions. The groups wouldn’t be reunited until 1890, when they merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association with Stanton as its first president.
6. She was the first woman to run for Congress.
Though barred from voting, Stanton knew there was no law preventing her from taking national office if elected. With this in mind, she announced in 1866 that she was running for a Congressional seat in New York. “I have no political antecedents to recommend me to your support,” she wrote in a letter announcing her candidacy, “but my creed is free speech, free press, free men, and free trade—the cardinal points of democracy.” Stanton went on to receive a total of 24 votes—some of the first ever cast for a female politician.
7. Stanton’s radical ideas earned her a public rebuke from the women’s rights movement.
Stanton made a career out of pushing the envelope, but her ideas were occasionally too revolutionary even for her fellow activists. She caused a scandal by calling for more liberal divorce laws at an 1860 women’s rights convention, and later shocked many suffragists by embracing a brand of feminism that advocated everything from equitable wage laws to women’s rights to serve on juries and withhold sex from their husbands. By far the biggest controversy unfolded in 1895, when the octogenarian reformer published the first volume of “The Woman’s Bible,” a scathing examination of the role organized religion played in denying women their rights. The book was as instant bestseller, but it drew harsh criticism from Christian members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Ignoring protests from Susan B. Anthony, the Association later voted to formally denounce the book and distance itself from its author. Stanton would remain an outsider in the suffrage movement for the rest of her life.
8. She tried to donate her brain to science.
In 1887, fellow women’s rights activist Helen Gardener asked Stanton to will her brain to Cornell University for postmortem preservation and study. At the time, there were widespread claims that the shape and size of men’s brains made them naturally smarter than women, and Gardener hoped that an examination of Stanton’s grey matter would disprove them once and for all. Never one to doubt her own intelligence, Stanton approved a “Bequest of Brain to Cornell University,” but following her death in 1902, her children refused to honor the agreement. Undeterred, Gardener later donated her own brain to science after her death in 1925. It remains in the Cornell collection to this day.
9. Stanton’s daughter was also a prominent women’s rights activist.
In her later years, Stanton fought for women’s rights alongside her youngest daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch. A graduate of Vassar College, Harriot joined the struggle in the 1880s and later assisted her mother and Susan B. Anthony in completing their multi-volume “History of Woman Suffrage.” After Stanton’s death, she founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, an organization that enlisted thousands of low-income factory and garment workers into the suffrage movement. The group played a key role in finally securing passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, and Harriot went on to join reformer Alice Paul and others in lobbying for an additional Equal Rights Amendment. Concerned that Stanton’s contributions to the cause were being forgotten, she later collaborated with her brother Theodore on a 1922 book about their mother’s life and legacy.