In a Lonely Place
How might one make a coherent whole out of Stanton's ideas? Gornick, unfortunately, does not try. Her account of the speech, piecemeal and truncated, has all the problems of the speech itself, and more, for she adds to Stanton's already problematic text the idea that it is a sense of shame that has caused women to close off their inner world from others. According to Gornick, Stanton "realized that to the greatest degree the solitude is self-created, the result of being locked from birth into a psychology of shame." This sentiment, for which I find no evidence in the speech itself, and which seems to me quite foreign to Stanton's unabashed personality, as Gornick herself depicts it, strengthens the idea that solitude is something unfortunate and nonadmirable, and even casts doubt on Stanton's own insistence that it is inevitable. (For surely, women might learn not to be ashamed of themselves, and let's hope that there is a lot less shame around now, in connection with being female, than there was in the nineteenth century.) Moreover, Gornick also connects the "solitude of self" to Stanton's unpleasant experiences with rivalry and animosity within the feminist movement, thus further bolstering the idea that solitude is all bad. That reading, however, just won't do as a reading of the whole text and its most powerful arguments.
I think we might put Stanton's two theses together as follows. We see that we must ultimately live and die alone. At first this condition seems horrible to us. But as we investigate it, we find that there is something precious in the solitude of the inner self, a world within each person "more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea." These romantic images of the beauty of solitude, of which Stanton was fond, suggest a further romantic thought: This inner life is actually something awe-inspiring, something sublime, to which we can rightly give the names "conscience" and "birthright to self-sovereignty." Once we start thinking this way and learn to love, even revere, the sublime beauty of each person's inner life, we see that we have not just one but two reasons for educating women and giving them the vote: not just because they may need these practical abilities in some time of abandonment but because conscience deserves respect, and to respect conscience is to give it space to unfold.
This reconstruction not only makes sense of the whole; it also links Stanton's speech, as she herself did, to America's Puritan heritage, where similar ideas can easily be found (for example, Roger Williams's beliefs about religious liberty). The speech still isn't a successful example of political thought, since Stanton never works out the contradictions in it to arrive at a clear thesis. But if we understand her in this way, we can see what it means to say that her feminism taps a distinctively American tradition, creating a type of feminism that is both radical and utterly in line with deep American traditions and ideas. In this sense, Gornick is right to say that this sort of feminism is distinctively American. It is very different, for example, from the feminisms I encounter in India, where images of women's solidarity abound and images of inner beauty are far rarer. Gornick, unfortunately, does not help us understand the speech, because she does not even find it puzzling and inconsistent. Indeed, she gives Stanton high marks as a philosopher, comparing her to Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir and John Stuart Mill.
Gornick's book, then, fails to accomplish one of its goals, that of helping us understand Stanton's distinctive ideas and see them as major contributions to thought. It succeeds admirably, however, in its primary purpose, that of bringing to life an activist whose anger, energy and uncompromising hunger for justice still serve today as a paradigm of American feminism at its best.