Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't think it shocking to spend her honeymoon at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. But there, she was appalled that women weren't allowed to speak. What an outrage, she wrote, that abolitionists would defend the natural rights of slaves while denying "freedom of speech to one-half the people of their own race."
Stanton (1815–1902) wasn't the only one to think so. In the 1830s and 1840s, thousands of women joined the abolition movement. And as they became politically active for the first time, they began to discover their own oppression. "In striving to strike the slave's chains off," said one woman, "we found most surely, that we were chained ourselves."
In 1848, Stanton and another abolitionist, Quaker minister Lucretia Mott, held the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to advocate the rights of women. Delegates drafted a Declaration of Sentiments that protested the "absolute tyranny" of men and called for access to higher education, employment, and the ministry. They also asserted women's right to vote and to own property.
Stanton would go on to devote her life to the fight for woman's rights. She also raised seven children. She died in 1902 at age 86, 18 years before women would win the vote. The following is taken from her 1898 autobiography, Eighty Years and More.
As my father's law office joined the house, I spent much of my time there, listening to the clients stating their cases, talking with the students, and reading the laws in regard to women. In our Scotch neighborhood, many men retained the old ideas of women and property. Fathers, at their death, would will their property to the eldest son, with the proviso that the mother was to have a home with him. It was not unusual for the mother, who had brought all the property into the family, to be made an unhappy dependent of an uncongenial daughter-in-law and dissipated son.
The tears and complaints of the women who came to my father for legal advice touched my heart and drew my attention to the injustice and cruelty of the laws. I could not understand why my father could not alleviate the sufferings of these women. So, in order to enlighten me, he would take down his books and show me statutes.
The students, observing my interest, would amuse themselves by reading to me the worst laws they could find, over which I would laugh and cry by turns. One Christmas, I showed them my presents, a new coral necklace and bracelets. They all admired the jewelry and then began to tease me with hypothetical cases of future ownership. "Now," said one students, "if in due time you were my wife, those ornaments would be mine. I could take them and lock them up, and you could never wear them. I could even exchange them for cigars and you could watch them evaporate in smoke."
With this constant bantering from students and the sad complaints of the women, my mind was perplexed. So, when my attention was called to these odious laws, I would mark them with a pencil, and I resolved to cut every one of them out of the books. However, this mutilation of my father's volumes was never accomplished, for the housekeeper warned him of what I proposed to do.
Without letting me know that he had discovered my secret, he explained to me that even if his library should burn up, it would make no difference in woman's condition. "When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech," said he, "you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators. Tell them all you have seen in this office — the sufferings of these Scotchwomen, robbed of their inheritance and left dependent on their unworthy sons, and, if you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter."
In 1840, Elizabeth Cady married abolitionist Henry Stanton. They moved to Seneca Falls, New York.
In Seneca Falls, my life was comparatively solitary. I had poor servants, and an increasing number of children. To keep a house and grounds in order, keep the wardrobes of a dozen humans in proper trim, take the children to dentists, shoemakers, and schools, made sufficient work to keep one brain busy.
But I suffered with mental hunger, which, like an empty stomach, is very depressing. I had books, but no stimulating companionship. I now fully understood the practical difficulties most women had to contend with in the isolated household, and the impossibility of woman's best development if in contact, the chief part of her life, with servants and children. The general discontent I felt with woman's portion as wife, mother, housekeeper, physical, and spiritual guide, the chaotic conditions into which everything fell without her supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women impressed me with a strong feeling that some measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general and of women in particular.
In this tempest-tossed condition of mind I received an invitation to spend the day with Lucretia Mott. At her house I poured out the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent. We decided, then and there, to call a "Woman's Rights Convention."
These were the hasty initiative steps of the most momentous reform that had yet been launched on the world — the first organized protest against the injustice which had brooded for ages over the destiny of one-half the race."
Gentlemen, Now It's Our Turn
Within a few years, Stanton was, as her father had half-seriously advised, preparing to argue for women's rights before state lawmakers.
In 1854, I prepared my first speech for the New York Legislature. I felt very nervous. My father felt equally nervous and asked me to read my speech to him.
Accordingly, late one evening, I entered his office and took my seat. I knew he condemned the whole movement, and was deeply grieved at the active part I had taken. However, I began with a dogged determination not to be discouraged. I threw all the pathos I could into my voice and language, and, to my satisfaction, I saw tears filling my father's eyes. I cannot express the exultation I felt thinking that now he would see the injustice women suffered under the laws he understood so well.
Feeling that I had touched his heart, I went on with renewed confidence and, when I had finished, I saw he was thoroughly magnetized. I waited for him to speak.
At last he said: "Surely you have a happy; comfortable life. How can a young woman, tenderly brought up, who has had no bitter personal experiences, feel so keenly the wrongs of her sex? Where did you learn this lesson?"
"I learned it here," I replied, "in your office, when a child, listening to the complaints women made to you. They who can make the sorrows of others their own, can learn all the hard lessons of life from others."
Adapted from Scholastic Search, March 1993.