By Pamala Nolan
“The right is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton
In 1848 a small group of progressive thinkers including Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met for tea at the home of Jane Clothier Hunt in Waterloo, New York. They began planning a woman’s rights convention to be held five days later in Seneca Falls, and drafted their Declaration of Sentiments.
Written in the style of the Declaration of Independence, it detailed the myriad ways men had politically and socially subjugated women, and included a resolution which demanded the vote. With this powerful document women declared their right to rebellion in the same manner as the founding fathers. “Sentiments” became the defining script for the women to begin their great journey. The New York Evening Post reported that at the convention, “it was seriously resolved that all men and women are created equal!”
The Declaration of Sentiments had Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s imprint all over it. Reformer, philosopher, and prolific writer, Stanton’s revolutionary ideas drove the woman’s movement for over a half century. Her prescient proposals for women’s property rights, equitable divorce and children’s guardianship became laws.
Stanton met Susan Brownell Anthony, a temperance worker, in 1851 and together they forged a great partnership. A dedicated mother, Stanton frequently worked from home “fashioning the thunderbolts that Susan fired.” Stanton was the intellectual, Anthony the agitator.
Anthony believed that the vote was the one right that would secure change. In 1854 she wrote suffrage leader Matilda Jocelyn Gage, “we must push forward this great central question, which underlies all others.”
Unmarried and free to travel, stately Anthony became the face of the women’s movement as she traversed the country speaking at venues large and small. She was routinely attacked in the press and called manly and unsexed.
As a Quaker, she dressed simply and almost always in black, and reportedly loved feminine petticoats. Anthony weathered the misogyny with wit and humor, and never backed down.
Tagged as “The Woman Who Dared,” Anthony, along with many others, decided to test the fourteenth amendment and their rights as citizens. Some succeeded in voting in the presidential election of 1872.
Days later all were arrested for knowingly casting an illegal vote.
Anthony had a sham trial with the judge instructing the jury to find her guilty. She was fined, but refused to pay because as she stated she was found guilty by “laws made by men, under a government of men, interpreted by men and for the benefit of men.” The trial received an enormous amount of publicity.
The only black person at the Seneca Falls convention was Frederick Douglass. Douglass worked as a lecturer, writer and publisher, and was a self-proclaimed “radical woman suffrage man.”
But after the Civil War he turned his attention to gaining the vote for black men at the expense of women.
Although the radicals were allies in intertwined reform causes, they differed as to whether the vote for women or black men should take precedence.
Douglass viewed it from the lens that black men had an immediate need for racial and political justice. Stanton and Anthony, along with Sojourner Truth, resolutely believed that both should gain the vote simultaneously.
The Fifteenth Amendment passed allowing black men to vote with no mention of the female gender. Women’s rights leaders had devoted many years to abolition and had even ceased their suffrage campaigns during the Civil War to focus on it. They felt a bitter sense of betrayal as once again women were deemed irrelevant.
Others though, including Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, were willing to concede that it was “the Negro’s hour.” The women’s movement was fractured in half with one contingent urging the other to bide their time. Stanton and Anthony were having none of it!
It would not be until 1890 with the formation of the National Association of Woman Suffrage that the two groups were reconciled. Suffrage leaders were pragmatic enough to realize they had to work together to make any advancements at all.
In 1888 Douglass vowed that, “whatever time may be given me on earth will be devoted as far as I am able to this great cause of woman.”
He was true to his word. Douglass died the evening he returned home from a suffrage meeting in 1895. Portraits of Stanton and Anthony hung in his home, and one of Douglass held a prominent place in Anthony’s.
Next week: The Militants