Revisionist Views of Woman Suffrage 

The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Women’s Rights and the American Political Traditions

By Sue Davis

New York: New York University Press, 2008, 298 pp., $49.00, hardcover

Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement

By Sally G. McMillen

New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 310 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Suffragists in an Imperial Age: US Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870-1929

By Allison L. Sneider

New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 209 pp., $19.95, paperback

Reviewed by Kathi Kern

Consider our romance with the Founding Fathers rekindled. Walk through any airport bookstore and right there, holding their own among the murder mysteries and self-help manuals, an array of books beckons you to spend your layover deepening your engagement with John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or even the quirky Benjamin Franklin. During an era marked by the failure of political leadership, the founding fathers started to look pretty smart.

But how did the founding mothers of American democracy fare during the Bush administration? Not so well. In the early 1980s, feminist documentary editors began to collect and edit the scattered papers of leading American feminists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Margaret Sanger. This work was underwritten by universities but largely funded through federal grants, and in 2006, two of those major projects were denied the lion’s share of this funding. As pioneers like Stanton, Anthony, and Sanger fell off the federal funding radar, papers projects on a whole string of greater and lesser presidents, including Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, garnered the federal dollars In fact, the National Endowment for the Humanities website lists papers projects for ten presidents and 25 literary and historical figures. Only two of the projects are on women: Willa Cather and Elizabeth Browning.

Despite this political climate and the funding crisis it has generated for feminist scholarship, Ann D. Gordon, the longtime editor of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony papers, has managed to produce 45 reels of microfilmed documents and four published volumes of selected papers, with another two on the way. Three new books on the women’s rights movement draw extensively from the scholarly legwork of this historical documentary project and testify to the abiding interest in analyzing the nation’s “first wave” of feminism.

In The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the political scientist Sue Davis makes a convincing case for Stanton’s significance as a central figure in the American political tradition. She analyzes Stanton’s thinking on a broad range of topics, from marriage and divorce to religion and evolution. Davis skillfully demonstrates that Stanton drew from several quintessentially American political traditions and reworked those frameworks to advance the discourse on women’s rights. “Although it may seem paradoxical at first glance,” Davis explains, “Cady Stanton’s ideas … grew out of the very traditions that she seemed to reject so thoroughly.”

Davis bases this conclusion on Rogers M. Smith’s multiple traditions thesis, which contends that American political culture can best be explained by the tension generated by the nation’s conflicting ideological traditions. Davis identifies four discrete traditions that Stanton drew upon and that characterize her political thinking.

The first is the liberal/egalitarian tradition, a constant in her work. Inspired by William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionism, Stanton drew from him several key components of her commitment to a liberal tradition, including her anticlericalism and her foundational belief in the moral individual as the agent for social change. Davis points out, however, that Stanton rejected Garrison’s refusal to work within formal political parties and structures. Her main intellectual and political project was to take the liberal concept of “natural rights,” a legacy of the American Revolution, and force its application to women citizens.

A second tradition important to Stanton, republicanism, also had its roots in the American Revolution. But with republicanism, the focus shifted from the individual to the common good of the community. Again, Stanton manipulates this tradition, which made little space for women, and asserts the centrality of women as “virtuous citizens” who have a duty to participate in public life.

The third theme, which Davis calls “ascriptive forms of Americanism” or simply “ascriptivism,” is less coherent, but Davis uses it as a catch-all category for essentialist thinking on topics of race, gender, and ethnicity. Davis borrows each of these traditions from Smith’s model but adds a fourth tradition of “radicalism” to encompass areas of Stanton’s thinking—particularly her novel ideas about marriage and religion—that do not seem to fit neatly elsewhere.

Despite the disciplinary conventions of political science that frame the discussion, this book will be of great interest to historians, biographers, and general readers. Davis is particularly adept at distilling the particular mix of these four themes at any given moment and demonstrating how, over time, the blend shifted in discernable ways. At Seneca Falls, for example, Stanton was committed to eradicating the essentialist idea of women’s domestic nature and replacing it “with the liberal principle of natural rights and equality.” But by the 1850s, Stanton too was drawing upon “ascriptivism” and arguing that women would bring a natural moral superiority to government. Women’s “instinctive love of justice and mercy and truth,” Stanton asserted, would rehabilitate the country by opposing American men’s wars of aggression against Indians and Mexicans, and ridding the country of that “relic of barbarism,” capital punishment.

This ascriptive thinking seems harmless enough, but Davis points out that Stanton’s faith in “natural” qualities also carried her in more problematic directions. Like other midcentury reformers, Stanton perceived drunkenness as a feminist issue. Women were too often the victims of domestic violence or perpetual poverty as a result of men’s habitual inebriation. Stanton alienated more cautious reformers in the 1850s by insisting on the radical demand that a woman victimized by a drunken husband should be able to secure a divorce. Divorce alone, however, would not solve the array of problems caused by drunkenness. Stanton also advocated that inebriate men be prohibited from marriage and reproduction to reduce the risk of engendering mental deficiencies in the next generation.

Davis’s fresh approach allows us to see in a new light questions that have been nagging women’s historians for several generations. Perhaps the most significant insight Davis offers is that Stanton’s racism did not emerge out of the blue during the national debates over enfranchising African American men during Reconstruction. Rather, as her efforts to curb the reproduction of inebriates illustrate, “ascriptivism” had been a latent quality in Stanton’s thinking, “a change in emphasis rather than a break with the way she had earlier blended the different traditions.” The intellectual tools that Stanton employed to construct these essentialist arguments changed over time, but a central strain of “ascriptivism” became increasingly pronounced by the end of Stanton’s life. Like her deployment of liberalism and republicanism for the greater cause of women’s rights, this seals Stanton’s position as a central figure in American political thought.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton also figures prominently in Sally G. McMillen’s Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement, published as part of the “Pivotal Moments in American History” series by Oxford University Press. The author uses the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights as a launching pad for retelling the history of the women’s rights movement, a 72-year struggle culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment, which removed sex as a barrier to voting rights. Dedicated to McMillen’s students, the book aims at a broader audience and focuses the story through the interconnected biographies of four movement leaders: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone.

In a lively narrative, McMillen recounts the significant events of the nineteenth-century movement. She lays out the legal, political, economic, and cultural disabilities women endured in the years leading up to Seneca Falls, following the movement and her four principle subjects through the well-worn terrain of women’s rights history. On the heels of Seneca Falls, women held nearly annual conventions throughout the 1850s, then took a hiatus during the Civil War to work to secure the Union victory and the abolition of slavery. After the war, reformers foundered over their support of the Reconstruction-era Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed that the right to vote could not be abridged by color or previous servitude. In often racist tones, Stanton and Anthony objected to the proposed amendments because they did not extend voting rights to women and because they inserted the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. The movement remained divided until 1890, at which point McMillen closes her story. An epilogue brings the reader to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

McMillen is at her best when she brings to bear her talents as a Southern and social historian to the task. She gently reminds readers of the disparate class and regional locations of American women and offers insight into how the ideas in the movement were received in different regions of the country. With an eye for a good anecdote, McMillen weaves in the stories of average women, like the octogenarian sisters Julia and Abby Smith of Glastonbury, Connecticut, who in 1873 attempted to register to vote. Having failed, in 1874 they asserted “no taxation without representation” and refused to pay up. The tax collector of the town seized seven of their eight cows and eventually a chunk of their land as well. The story of the Smith sisters’ civil disobedience reverberated in the nation’s press and inspired similar acts by others. 

While McMillen’s approach is engaging, the resulting history will not significantly revise existing scholarship on Seneca Falls or the movement for women’s rights. The current debate among scholars as to whether or not Seneca Falls constitutes a “pivotal moment” is buried in McMillen’s footnotes. That sort of question of historical significance—what “counts” as a beginning to a movement, its pivotal moment—is one that draws in readers, particularly students, and it seems a lost opportunity not to take it on directly. McMillen relies heavily on previously published biographies of the movement leaders but does not take full advantage of now classic works on the topic by the historian Ellen Carol DuBois or the extensive newer scholarship on the history of women’s rights. The new work has shifted the focus away from the handful of movement celebrities, challenged the mythic stories they often told of themselves, and acknowledged a broader cultural terrain to account for the origins of the movement than the singular story of Seneca Falls. Early feminists developed a critique of state power and masculine authority drawn not only from their own life experiences and their rejection of the prevailing “woman’s sphere” rhetoric, but also from their active engagement in questions of rights and Constitutionalism. They debated the fugitive slave law, capital punishment, sabbatarianism, and the Mexican War. These directions in the scholarship are not reflected in the McMillen’s popular, synthetic history.

Her approach also emphasizes personal, petty conflicts among movement leaders at the expense of issues of historical significance. For example, McMillen laments the fractious differences in strategy and personality that divided woman suffragists during Reconstruction into two weak, rival camps. Neither group made much headway for twenty years. In 1890, the rivals mended fences and limped along with few discernable victories until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In McMillen’s assessment, suffragists have only themselves to blame for this bleak scenario: “Had American women united and worked together, one can only wonder if they would have won their right to vote sooner.” Indeed, McMillen suggests that time and energy expended in “jealous competitive behavior” kept the goal of suffrage at bay as women struggled “all too often against each other—to win the right to vote.”

Allison L. Sneider takes this version of the past and upends it. In her analysis, the central conflict was not among women suffragists, but rather was the battle suffragists waged with the men of the US Congress. The “woman question” was not an isolated, languishing campaign in the late nineteenth century; it was at the heart of the struggle to determine what it meant to be an American citizen. The civic destiny of American women was intricately tied up with the destiny of the men and women of Santo Domingo, of newly enfranchised African Americans, of American Indians and Mormons, of Hawaiians, of Cubans and Filipinos, and of Puerto Ricans.

Sneider argues that the central question of the late nineteenth century, and the one that ultimately united the woman question with the imperial project, was this: who has the power to determine the voting rights of citizens? Did the right to vote inhere in the condition of national citizenship? Suffragists asserted that it did when they launched the New Departure strategy during Reconstruction. Women had been enfranchised, they contended, by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. They tested this conviction by voting, or attempting to vote, in record numbers. The Supreme Court’s 1875 determination, in Minor v. Happersett, that the right to vote could be decided only by the states, not by the federal government, seemed to close the door on the New Departure.

Or did it? Taking a fresh and original approach, Sneider probes each historical moment between 1870 and 1929 when the electorate threatened to expand or contract, either through territorial expansion (Santo Domingo, Hawaii, Puerto Rico) or through the enfranchisement or disfranchisement of other “dependent” citizens (Mormons, American Indians, African Americans, women in Western territories). The federal government emerges as a central actor in this study, as suffragists attempt to exploit its inconsistencies in asserting power over voting rights. How could a nation that amended the Constitution to guarantee the right to vote in the Fifteenth Amendment determine that voting rights are not inherent to citizenship? Suffragists returned to this issue time and again, as the admission of new Western states, where women were sometimes already enfranchised, threatened to “inadvertently set federal precedents authorizing women’s ballots.” How could a Congress that claimed the right to vote as one reserved to the states move to disfranchise certain citizens, as it did Utah women voters through the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887?

From the 1870s through the turn of the century, suffragists became increasingly invested in expansion as an opportunity to bring the question of women’s voting rights before the Congress. Sneider is careful to point out the differences of opinion that ranged among these “complex critics” of US empire. But she charts a trajectory that helps illuminate the growing appeal of the nation’s imperial ambitions. The race- and gender-neutral citizenship championed by women in the New Departure of the 1870s gave way by the 1890s to a different conception altogether. Suffragists of the 1890s were less concerned with the inherent rights of citizenship than with preventing the spread of a “male oligarchy” overseas. The “civilizing” mission took precedence over the citizenship mission. In a study that will prove to be one of the most innovative and important to emerge on the women’s rights movement, Suffragists in an Imperial Age demonstrates the centrality of the movement for women’s rights to the larger debate over the literal and metaphorical boundaries of the nation.

Kathi Kern is a history professor at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Mrs. Stanton’s Bible (2001). 

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