Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The Making of a Feminist

Today’s women’s movement owes a great debt to many heroic pioneers, but none was more indispensable than Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was born this week (Nov. 12) in 1815.

For starters, she was a prime organizer of the Seneca Falls Conference in 1848, which galvanized the women’s movement and made it a force to be reckoned with. At that conference she wrote a woman’s Declaration of Independence modeled after the original, except that it made men the villain in the same way that Tom Jefferson had made England’s King George III the villain.

Stanton was also co-founder with Susan B. Anthony of the National Woman Suffrage Association.  This organization later joined the American Woman Suffrage Association to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (Whew!).  NAWSA was to women’s rights what the NRA is to gun ownership, and among its legacies is the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

Stanton was a brilliant speaker and talented journalist — she edited the first women’s feminist magazine, Revolution — and she was tireless, even fanatical in her efforts to gain equality for women.  As a result, many a historian has examined the forces that shaped Stanton’s passion, and although it is generally agreed that her feminist conversion occurred while working in her father’s law office — where she saw first-hand the legal discrimination against women — I have my own theory, based on a little-known event in her life.

Elizabeth Cady was born in Johnstown, New York, the seventh of eleven Cady children, and while she was an exceptional child in every way, her oldest brother was the apple of the family’s eye — especially Mr. Cady, who doted on the boy.  Alas, the lad died in childhood, and Mr. Cady went into a state of grief that deeply affected Elizabeth, who vowed she would fill the void that her brother’s death had caused in her father’s life.  And so she became an exceptional athlete and student.  Among other physical pursuits, she was a horsewoman extraordinaire, and she excelled in the classroom, winning many academic honors at the Troy Female Seminary, now the Emma Willard School, in Troy, N.Y. (Troy, where I misspent much of my youth, is the home of the real life character on which America’s “Uncle Sam” is based).

Then one day she won one of New York State’s most prestigious scholastic prizes, and when she showed it to her father she expected that this accomplishment would fill him with parental pride.  Instead, he gave out a loud sigh, shook his head and said sadly, “Oh, Elizabeth, if only you had been born a boy!”

My guess is that was the beginning of her journey into the women’s movement.