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In a Lonely Place | The Nation

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In a Lonely Place

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Gornick, however, wants us to find in Stanton not just an admirable revolutionary but a profound thinker. Stanton's 1892 speech "The Solitude of Self" provides the book not just with its title but also with ideas that Gornick sees as key to a proper understanding of what is American in the feminist movement, and what has made it flourish in America as, perhaps, nowhere else. (I'm not sure what the comparison class is: Surely feminism flourishes in Western Europe and Scandinavia, in India, in Africa, in much of the developing world.) Here trouble begins, for the ideas of Stanton's speech are in fact extremely unclear, and Gornick's account of it is even more problematic.

About the Author

Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago, is the author of numerous books, most...

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In "The Solitude of Self," Stanton gave two very different accounts of what the "solitude of self" is and, correspondingly--though without in any way signaling the difference--two very different accounts of why equal education and citizenship for women are important. The speech, in fact, is a mess; to get anything out of it one must forage around in it and reconstruct it.

On one account, which Stanton repeatedly emphasizes, the "solitude of self" is simply the fact that "we come into the world alone...[and] we leave it alone." Each woman, like each man, "must make the voyage of life alone." As a variant on this theme, Stanton often observes that, however much we may like to depend on others, we never can: Any person can be abandoned at any time. "Rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman; it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself." Here, solitude is something bad and usually painful, a "march" and a "battle." It is, however, inevitable. Because solitude is the inevitable condition of our existence, each person must be schooled to deal with it, taking responsibility for his or her own life: "As in our extremity we must depend on ourselves, the dictates of wisdom point to complete individual development." Women have never been given this development, and this is unfair, since they need it as much as any. Even if they think they can depend on men, they can't. It is unjust not to prepare them for self-sufficiency.

There is, however, another very different account of solitude in the speech, one that tugs against the first. Every human life, Stanton suggests, contains a precious inner world, one that no other person can enter, an inner space that is rightly called "conscience" and "our self." Included in "conscience" is the power of autonomous choice, and this power is seen as something deeply precious, hidden away inside us, "more hidden than the caves of the gnome." Here, solitude is not a painful absence of connection but a joyous realization of one's inner depths.

This second conception of solitude, which Stanton explicitly connects to an American Protestant heritage, yields a different explanation of why women should be given education and political rights: because this inner world is precious and sublime, and demands respect. Respecting it means developing it. Here Stanton speaks of a woman's "right of individual conscience and judgment," her "birthright to self-sovereignty." In other words, even if women could depend utterly on men and would never lack external support, it would still be an egregious offense to fail to give them the freedom of choice and self-development. It is their right, because of the depth and preciousness of the self.

The tension between the two accounts is not just a prissy philosopher's problem: It impedes any attempt to read the speech and to be moved by a coherent set of emotions. The speech's rhetoric jolts oddly back and forth between horror at solitude and love of the rich inner life that is revealed in solitude. Is solitude something ugly or something precious? A grim fate or a sublime opportunity? It is difficult to follow the speech emotionally, so jarring are these attitudinal shifts.

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