In 1840 the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London with her new husband, abolitionist politician Henry Stanton. At least she tried to attend it. On her arrival at the convention site, the people in charge refused to seat her because she was a woman. All the women were required to withdraw to the periphery, where, Vivian Gornick writes in her new book on Stanton, The Solitude of Self, “they could see but not be seen, hear but not be heard.” Most of the men, including her husband, went along with this arrangement, unwilling to complicate discussion of the all-important antislavery issue. Only a few, notably William Lloyd Garrison, refused to participate on terms that excluded women. Stanton recalled later that it was on this day that she realized for the first time that “in the eyes of the world I was not as I was in my own eyes, I was only a woman.”
So began the career of one of America’s greatest radicals. Perhaps, however, it really began much earlier. When Stanton, around age 12, heard of a local woman who had suffered outrageous but legally sanctioned injustice at the hands of her dead husband’s son, she grabbed a knife and cut the offending passage out of the law book on her father’s desk. Her father told her that she could work to change the law but that, in Gornick’s words, defacing the book was “not only forbidden…it was also useless.” She reflects that at this point it was “already too late: an educated, upright, law-and-order household had spawned a daughter who was going to cut the laws out of the books with a knife.”
Gornick loves Stanton’s uncompromising radicalism, her inextinguishable and rather joyous sense of outrage. In this woman who raised seven children during the day and wrote at night, her prolific output fueled by an abiding passion for justice, Gornick finds the archetype for the feminist movement she knew in the 1970s, with its creative energy, its excitement at having identified the problem to be solved: “That is a 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 in the same place at the same time, meeting again and again in restaurants, lecture halls, and apartments for the pleasure of elaborating the insight and repeating the analysis. It is the joy of revolutionary politics, and it was ours.” Stanton, Gornick argues, is the model for this revolutionary feminism, because she was the one who always refused to scale back her just demands out of political expediency, who remained faithful to the radical vision of full equality.
Stanton’s revolutionary life was not entirely happy. Although she and her husband initially shared political passions, they gradually grew apart, and the whole abolitionist movement, with its insistence that slavery had to be the sole focus of attention, came to seem to her deeply compromised. Stanton’s radical demand for equality for both blacks and women lost her, moreover, the friendship of many feminist women, who were willing to postpone the suffrage fight to be on good terms with powerful men and to preserve solidarity with the abolitionist cause. (Stanton’s occasional racist remarks denigrating the intelligence of some black men arose, Gornick suggests somewhat unconvincingly, from intense frustration at finding women’s equally just demands neglected, time and again.) Nonetheless, Stanton loved her life and her enduring friendships, and she loved her struggle. In 1878, after recalling the exhausting efforts she and other feminists had expended in the cause, she then says, “And all our theme is as fresh and absorbing as it was the day we started…. In this struggle for justice we have deepened and broadened our own lives, and extended the horizon of our vision.”