Both Central and Marginal

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

By Lori D. Ginzberg

New York: Hill and Wang, 2009, 272 pp., $25.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Allison L. Sneider

Elizabeth Cady Stanton is a formidable subject for any biographer. Making sense of the sheer volume of her production, the complexity of her thinking, the myriad of personal and political enthusiasms that captured her attention over the course of her long life, and the precise nature of her legacy to several generations of US and international feminists represents a considerable challenge to even the most devoted of historians. This is a challenge that Lori D. Ginzberg has taken up with both expertise and care, and the result is at once a great read, a fascinating study, and a well-crafted and judicious portrait of a woman who successfully “butts in” to almost every conversation about race, rights, marriage, citizenship, religion, and gender in the nineteenth century. As Ginzberg notes early on, “wrestling with Stanton’s life and legacy” is at once “compelling and infuriating.”

To Ginzberg’s credit, she sets about her task by placing herself firmly in Stanton’s orbit, by asking herself and her readers to imagine having “a place at her table, literally or metaphorically.”  It is only from this close perspective that we can at once grasp and appreciate Stanton’s wit, her “probing, flashing, breathtaking, mind,” her enormous self-confidence, charisma, and energy.  It is not that Ginzberg asks us to become Stanton’s friend, her intimate, or her partisan in the battle over Stanton’s precise place in the pantheon of heroic US feminists. After all, Ginzberg notes, Stanton was closed about her feelings and utterly convinced of her own right-mindedness. Rather, Ginzberg’s invitation is subtler and more productive. She is an accomplished social historian who, she says, has been “arguing” with Stanton “about one thing or another for my entire adult life,” including about the meaning of the vote, intolerance, racism, and the appropriate balance between national and local politics.  Ginzberg invites readers to take front-row seats at this conversation between two long-time students of American history, the nineteenth-century woman’s rights activist and her twenty-first-century biographer. “Arguing with a dead woman is an odd experience,” Ginzberg writes. Watching this argument close up, however, is at once wonderfully entertaining and highly informative.

Stanton has had several biographers, many of whom are historians, and was herself the author of a memoir that she fully intended to shape her legacy. Ginzberg’s biography follows closely familiar milestones in previous narratives of Stanton’s life. In Chapter One we meet the young Elizabeth Cady and are invited to “consider the world and the rules” into which women like her were born, including coverture—the laws of marriage and inheritance that limited wives’ access to property and legal personhood in antebellum America. During Stanton’s childhood visits to her cousin Gerrit Smith’s home, she was introduced to the circle of abolitionists and radicals in the antislavery cause who would spark her imagination and school her in the debates that shaped her own women’s-rights thought. Ginzberg explores the links between abolitionism and woman’s rights activism. She also notes, though, that in some ways these visits “were simply among the many pleasures of those years.”

In Ginzberg’s telling, Stanton was never a committed abolitionist, although she increasingly drew her friends and even her husband, Henry Stanton, from abolitionist circles. In Ginzberg’s modern parlance, “Henry Stanton’s gift of gab was sexiness itself” to the young Elizabeth Cady. It was the joy of animated conversation that drew Elizabeth to Henry, more than a shared commitment to his antislavery views.  When the couple attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention on their honeymoon in 1840, Elizabeth, according to Ginzberg, was a novice, “happy to observe the fray” and to soak up the talk, the excitement, and the new ideas about women’s rights expressed by fellow travelers including Lucretia Mott. However, as Ginzberg points out, “that is not the way Elizabeth Cady Stanton remembered the events in London.” Later Stanton would claim that it was there that she and Mott first resolved to convene a woman’s rights convention. Arguing with Stanton, Ginzberg concedes that, “London may have been the turning point in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life, but it is unlikely that the idea for the first woman’s rights convention emerged there.” Letting Stanton argue back, Ginzberg allows that whenever the idea for such a convention did arise, “the idea was clearly hers.”

The historical significance of Ginzberg’s quibble with Stanton over her role at the conference becomes increasingly clear when Ginzberg turns her attention to the first convention for woman’s rights, held in Seneca Falls in 1848. For new students of the suffrage movement, Ginzberg lays out the history of demands for women’s voting rights that preceded Seneca Falls, including the forum provided for such discussion by William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery weekly, the Liberator, and the 1846 petition of women in Jefferson County, New York, to their state legislature. The women who attended the Seneca Falls convention were already familiar with and “deeply engaged” in ongoing conversations to “define rights, citizenship, and independence for all freeborn Americans”: “there was, to use a modern phrase, chatter.” Ginzberg argues that “Stanton played a distinctive part in this conversation,” precisely because of her attenuated ties to the antislavery movement. Despite the bonds of marriage, friendship, and sympathy, Stanton “more easily loosed herself from the abolitionist cause to embark on a new crusade.” Demonstrating a remarkable ability to capture Stanton’s strengths as well as her flaws, Ginzberg writes that in embracing the cause of woman suffrage in 1848, “Stanton signaled not that she was more radical, but that she was on a different path, intellectually and politically, from her closest allies; she was also tone-deaf to their concerns.”

Ginzberg’s well-researched and delicate efforts to set the historical record straight characterize her retelling of many of the most contentious moments in suffrage history. To this end she has made good use of a wealth of historical monographs on the suffrage movement and new biographies of its leaders.  Especially welcome is her treatment of the contentious debates surrounding the 1870 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited the abridgement of voting rights on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.  Ginzberg lays out with an even hand the by-now familiar yet complicated debates among women’s rights activists about whether to support the amendment, which enfranchised black men yet for the first time inserted the word “male” into the US Constitution.

Stanton’s racism is well-documented and Ginzberg makes no effort to explain it away. Rather, she points to the impact of Stanton’s language in laying the “groundwork for a defense of woman’s rights based on race, respectability, religion, and class.” “The harm was deep and hurtful,” she says. Yet she offers this explanation for Stanton’s position: “To Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the battle over the Fifteenth Amendment was a battle between the sexes, in which all men, black and white, Republican and abolitionist, had joined forces to keep women in their place.” The result of Ginzberg’s judiciousness is a historical account that demonstrates both the logical force of Stanton’s “principled consistency in behalf of universal suffrage” and the costs of this position. Stanton made her case, says Ginzberg, by “drawing upon a powerful sense of her own class and cultural superiority.”

The agonizing debates among woman’s rights activists over the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth Amendments (1870) divided a generation of reformers, but they also left Stanton “free to pursue whatever principles she wished, unburdened by the tethers of compromise and coalition, and unrestrained by whatever competing principles might arise.” After the Civil War, Stanton travelled the country on the lyceum circuit, lecturing on woman suffrage, and marriage and divorce. She then turned her attention to two publication projects, the History of Woman Suffrage published in six volumes with Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Ida H. Harper (1881-1922); and The Woman’s Bible (1895, 1898).  If the History of Woman Suffrage insured Stanton a central place in movement history, her radical critique of the Bible pushed her to the margins. Both publication projects have their own complicated histories and are the subject of new monographic research. Ginzberg synthesizes much of this new scholarship into a readable narrative about the construction of public memory in suffrage history. In the main, Ginzberg seems largely sympathetic to Stanton’s own view that outrage against the Woman’s Bible “only reflected people’s, even Susan’s (Anthony), failure to recognize her radical vision.” From her position as a twenty-first-century feminist, Ginzberg notes that a good part of Stanton’s genius came from her efforts to investigate the multiple sources of women’s oppression: to “her impatience with limiting herself even to the radical demand for suffrage.”

In going over ground that others have walked before, Ginzberg’s aim is to address those questions that “absorbed Stanton and vex us still,” including the continuing legacy of racism in the modern women’s movement, the precise ways women struggle to balance work and family, and the impact of gender discrimination and expectations on women’s place in society. Ginzberg is interested in all of these as well as with with bringing to light how Stanton “epitomized both the strengths and limitations of the Protestant middle-class worldview from which she emerged.” Ginzberg is not interested in an assessment of Protestantism per se, but rather in unpacking how in “both [Stanton’s] appeal to universalism and her elitism, she exemplified the complexity of American thought.” “Stanton’s fiery words in behalf of woman’s rights offer stunning moments of moral absolutism in the American liberal tradition,” Ginzberg writes. For her, Stanton’s life seems to epitomize the inherent tensions betweens the grand ambitions of liberal universalism and its equally shallow appreciation of different communities, cultures, and nations—which in turn made its universal theorizing possible. With Stanton, these contradictions emerge in her universalist demands for rights for all women, yet her inability to see other women’s experiences as in any way different from her own. Ginzberg succeeds in “setting Stanton firmly in her time and place” and renders these personal inconsistencies both relevant and modern to a new generation of feminist thinkers.

Allison Sneider is author of Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870-1929 (2008). She is currently an independent scholar living in Portland, Oregon.

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