Born in Johnstown, New York, Elizabeth Cady received the best female education available at the time, at Emma Willard’s Academy, but regretted not having a full-fledged college education. She spent her postacademy years like other young women of leisure, in visiting and social activities, primarily at the home of her cousin, the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. There she fell in love with another abolitionist, Henry B. Stanton. An older, romantic figure, Henry was part of the exciting world of reform and politics to which she was drawn. Despite her father’s opposition, they married in 1840 and for their honeymoon went to London to attend the World’s Antislavery Convention. There Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott, the leading American female abolitionist, and began to study the Anglo-American traditions of women’s rights.
In 1847, the Stantons moved to rural Seneca Falls, New York, where Elizabeth bore the last three of their seven children and grew resentful of her domestic confinement. In 1848, with the help of Mott, she organized the world’s first women’s rights convention. Despite Mott’s reluctance, she insisted on including the right to woman suffrage in its resolutions. In 1851, Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony, with whom she formed a lifelong partnership based on their common dedication to women’s emancipation. Three years later, she addressed the New York legislature on an omnibus women’s rights bill. In 1860, most of the legal reforms she sought in women’s status, with the notable exception of enfranchisement, were secured.
Cady Stanton threw herself into the political drama of the Civil War and with Anthony formed the National Women’s Loyal League on behalf of the constitutional abolition of slavery. After the war, the two created deep conflicts among reformers by attempting to link woman suffrage to black suffrage and, when their efforts failed, by criticizing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for ignoring woman suffrage. Determined to use the Constitution to enfranchise women, they established in 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association, forerunner of the organization that eventually secured the Nineteenth Amendment.
Cady Stanton’s interests extended far beyond the vote. She had always advocated divorce law liberalization, and in 1860 she precipitated a heated debate among women’s rights advocates by urging women to leave unhappy marriages. In the late 1860s, she began to advocate what she called the ‘right to self-sovereignty’-women should take deliberate measures to avoid becoming pregnant. These beliefs led her in the early 1870s into association with the notorious ‘free lover,’ Victoria Woodhull. Because of Cady Stanton’s advocacy of liberalized divorce laws, reproductive self-determination, and greater sexual freedom for women, hers became an increasingly marginalized voice among women reformers in the 1880s.
Cady Stanton also diverged from the mainstream women’s movement over religion. Her deep dislike of organized religion grew out of a traumatic youthful conversion experience. In the 1880s, she visited England, where she was influenced by freethinkers and biblical critics. Back in the United States, she learned that Christian political activists were attempting to close public institutions on the Sabbath, undo divorce law liberalization, and even establish Christianity as the state religion. Determined to oppose them, she found herself on a collision course with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a new generation of suffrage leaders, and even Anthony. In 1898 she published The Woman’s Bible, a scholarly but irreverent feminist commentary, for which the National American Woman Suffrage Association censured her. Although embittered, she continued her independent course on behalf of women’s emancipation until her death in 1902.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.