A Passion for Equality

Linda Gordon



The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton
by Vivian Gornick
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 133 pp.

Occasionally a marvelous writer turns her attention to a subject who suits her perfectly. This is the case with Vivian Gornick’s exquisite meditation on the nineteenth-century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Gornick almost seems to be remembering a friend, a soulmate, or even a lover. She has given us not only an appreciation of Stanton’s passion for justice but also the story of her own deep intellectual and political attraction to Stanton, which is so strong that it verges on the erotic. The book virtually sparks with electricity.

Stanton was, in my view as well as in Gornick’s, the leading intellectual of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement and a drastically under-recognized political thinker. This elegant little book (only 130 small-dimension pages), which is not a biography but rather a highly subjective rumination, reveals as much about Stanton’s thought as anything yet published.

Gornick identifies the "passion for equality" that she shares with Stanton and shows how Stanton’s passion produced her radical democratic thought, which evolved throughout a sixty-year career that lasted from the 1840s until her death in 1902. Stanton’s thought prefigured that of contemporary feminists. For example, like Our Bodies Ourselves in the 1970s, Stanton challenged the medical experts of her day and insisted that she did so not out of feminine instinct but out of scientific reason. Gornick tells an anecdote about one of Stanton’s six children, who was born with a bent collarbone. The doctor’s bandage turned the baby’s hand blue from lack of circulation. Stanton invented a bandage that went across the baby’s shoulders and back like suspenders, which did the job. The doctor said condescendingly that a mother’s instinct had proved better than a man’s reason, to which Stanton replied, "There was no instinct about it. I did some hard thinking before I saw how I could get a pressure on the shoulder without impeding the circulation as you did." After this, Stanton recollected acidly, she "trusted neither men nor books absolutely ... but continued to use my ‘mother’s instinct’ if ‘reason’ is too dignified a term to apply to woman’s thoughts."

This kind of thinking was fundamental to Stanton’s feminist politics. To her, the rhetoric of gender difference and women’s uniqueness imprisoned women in political powerlessness. She emphasized instead women’s fundamental humanity and similarity to men. With stunning chutzpah, Stanton distributed leaflets attacking unequal, oppressive marriage laws and promoting divorce--at a wedding. She refused to condemn Free Love. She opposed tight corseting and advocated fresh air for women and children. Yet she was a movement activist, not an isolated intellectual: she understood that activists need at times to choose their battles. When a few feminists rejected the long skirts of the day, which collected dirt and hobbled them for the sake of modesty, and instead adopted a costume made by Amelia Bloomer--a shorter skirt over harem pants tight at the ankles--they were subjected to relentless abuse. After three years of it, Stanton advocated giving up the campaign. "We put the dress on for greater freedom, but what is physical freedom compared with mental bondage?"

Gornick titled her book after a famous lecture Stanton gave late in her life, "The Solitude of Self." It is an existential declaration of human freedom and responsibility and a rejection of all kinds of deterministic thinking, whether religious or biological. Thus Gornick offers a fundamentally romantic take on Stanton. Ultimately the individual stands alone in her suffering and her moral obligation to speak the truth—personal truth, apprehended subjectively, not socially constructed. Gornick emphasizes Stanton’s abstract radical individualism over her strategic thinking. (She does not explore the tension between Stanton’s passions for equality and for freedom, or Stanton’s willingness to settle for a franchise for educated women only.) Stanton’s prophetic stance emerged more strongly as she aged, quite in contrast to the pattern, often assumed to be universal, of becoming more patient and gradualist with age. In her youth she had been infuriated by the view of several abolitionist leaders that women’s worst problem was other women’s acquiescence in their own subordination. But at the end of her life, she herself articulated that very thought. She became increasingly isolated politically, as the women’s rights movement grew more conservative, more exclusively focused on suffrage, and more engaged in mainstream politics.
The problem with this individualist existential position is the problem of the Marxist concept of false consciousness, which assumes that anyone who stubbornly refuses to accept the feminist viewpoint has been either fooled or blinded by ideology, unable to identify her own self-interest. Stanton did not investigate the possibility that conservative women had material interests in, and might even benefit from, the existing gender system.

Gornick judiciously complicates her radical individualist interpretation by examining Stanton’s connectedness to her feminist comrades and personal friends--usually the same people--and the pleasure she took in sisterhood. Gornick knows about this because of her own feminist illumination, that "moment of joy, when a sufficiently large number of people are galvanized by a social explanation of how their lives have taken shape and are gathered together ... for the pleasure of elaborating the insight." She illustrates Stanton’s experience with excerpts from her correspondence, much fuller in those days without telephones and with rapid postal service than it might be now. I wish, however, that Gornick had made more of Stanton’s lifelong partnership with Susan B. Anthony—one of the great personal/political partnerships in history. (I would place it in the same category as that of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Stanton/Anthony partnership was the more powerful because of their differences: the strategic, practical, spinster Anthony and the iconoclastic, theoretical, eloquent Stanton, housewife and mother, able to write only because Anthony would come to stay in her house and tend to the children and housework.

To me, one of the most inspirational aspects of the collective practice of these first-wave feminists is how they learned public speaking, which did not come easily to women raised to keep their voices and profiles low. In those days, it was their only route to building a movement. Gornick quotes Garry Wills’ observation that public speaking was a “performance art, creating a people’s political identity." The women pushed and rehearsed each other, and several, Stanton among them, became masters of oratory.

Perhaps the wisest part of Gornick’s book is her recognition that there is something fundamentally mysterious, inexplicable, in the rise of social movements. Despite reams of sociological theory and historical analysis that identify preconditions and political opportunities, no one can predict when people will take to the streets in an attempt to remake their collective destiny. Yet Gornick concludes the book, inconsistently, with the claim that ultimately temperament makes history. This is not true. Stanton’s genius would have remained a private affair, politically inconsequential, had the women’s rights movement not bloomed when it did.

Gornick arrives at this strange conclusion because she does not question the radical individualist position closely enough. On the one hand, she does not appreciate how threatening Stanton’s advocacy of free divorce seemed to many women. Gornick compares Stanton’s position to that of Alex Kates Shulman, who in 1969 proposed a model marriage-and-housework contract that antagonized many with its explicit division of every conceivable household task (he vacuums every Monday; she vacuums every Thursday; he puts the baby to bed Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; she does it on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; they take turns on Sunday; etc.). Not everyone, not even every feminist, wanted to see detailed contracts and account-books for every task as a good model for intimate relationships. On the other hand, Gornick applies a romantic and ahistorical standard for marriage, insisting that "to live without intimacy in the most intimate of circumstances is to sustain permanent damage to the spirit." But women did not necessarily expect intimacy in their marriages 150 years ago, and many do not expect it today. Stanton was emotionally closer to her feminist comrades than to Henry Stanton, just as many wives today share more with their women friends than with their husbands. Stanton’s marriage held little excitement for her after the first few years, yet despite her advocacy of divorce, she apparently never considered it for herself. Unlike Gornick, though, I am not convinced that her marriage was a bust. It could well have been a source of sustenance, both financial and emotional.

Stanton’s most daring venture was her critique of religion, The Woman’s Bible, published in the last decade of her life, when she was 80. Just when women’s suffrage organizations were trying to downplay the radical implications of women’s rights, Stanton antagonized even her allies by denouncing religion as the fount of male supremacy. Stanton liked to announce that she saw no point in saying what people were ready to hear, and she practiced what she preached. Her critique of religion extended to all theories that emphasized women’s natural difference from men or the natural complementarity of the sexes. With such logic, she anticipated second-wave feminism by challenging the gender system altogether. Alone among nineteenth-century feminists, she even challenged women’s exclusive responsibility for housework, suggesting that women should organize their households so as to get men to "wait on themselves."

The shock and disapproval that greeted these ideas in the 1890s reverberate, of course, in today’s global fundamentalism, and nowhere more than in America’s own Christian Right. So a sense of failure, even of sadness, flows in Gornick’s last pages, and I think that in the end, she underestimates how much second-wave feminism achieved. But Stanton and Gornick both rightly recognize the close connection between women’s oppression and organized religions, especially when these religions ask that women submit to laws created by a force superior to human beings.

Linda Gordon teaches at New York University. Her latest book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, won the Bancroft Prize for best book in US history and the Beveridge Prize for best book on the history of the Americas. She is currently writing a biography of the photographer Dorothea Lange.

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