One afternoon in January 1892, in a packed convention hall in Washington, DC, the 76-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton rose from her seat to address the annual meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, of which she was president. She looked out at the few thousand faces before her, many belonging to people she’d been gazing at for more than forty years. She was the oldest living radical feminist among them: the first to demand suffrage, the first to denounce the laws regarding marriage and divorce, the first to declare organized religion the sworn enemy of equality for women. Now, she was stepping down from the presidency. This would be her last public address as head of the woman suffrage movement.

The speech Stanton delivered, “Solitude of Self,” was to become famous the world over. While the idea of human individuality was a declaration of proud independence, she suggested, it was also a recognition that we are, in fact, a world of Robinson Crusoes, each of us alone on the island of life. Loneliness, Stanton observed, was the norm, connection an ideal. In our innermost being we remain solitary and, as we grow older, the solitariness increases. How unspeakable, then, it struck her, that worldly arrangements should contribute to the forlornness of one’s natural state! Politics is meant to mitigate the misery to which our inborn condition consigns us, not add to it. It is precisely because this loneliness is our inner reality, she continued, that “every human soul [should be fitted] for independent action.” To deny anyone the tools of survival–that is, the power to act–is criminal. The strongest reason she knew for giving women every means of enlarging their sphere of action was the ultimate solitariness of life.

Stanton read these words into a silent room. No one clapped, no one spoke. Not because the audience was profoundly moved but because a voice speaking existential truth was not, at this politically conservative moment, what was wanted. Yet, it was a very American speech, one that any of the original Revolutionaries might have made, bent as he would have been on forcing politics to reflect a secular insistence: the idea that equality would let one grow a self strong and independent enough to do battle with life’s irreducible starkness. Not another American feminist had ever, until that moment in 1892, placed the cause of women’s rights so squarely at the center of such perceptions. I can still remember thinking, with gratitude and excitement, as I read Stanton’s words for the first time eighty years after they were written, “We are beginning where she left off.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Elizabeth Stanton since George Bush won the election. Here’s the train of my thought:

During Stanton’s time (1815-1902) thousands of reformers like herself–abolitionists, suffragists, temperance workers–committed their lives to understanding better the relation between politics and the human condition. These commitments were met with violent opposition by those who dreaded the potential for unrest that such considerations threatened. Opposition created a cultural divide that deepened into crisis. The great reform movements, as well as the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species–not to mention the Civil War itself–had influenced the shared sensibility more profoundly than was popularly understood and left millions psychologically stranded. Many found themselves unable to retreat into the Christian simplicity of God is Love, yet equally unable to go forward into the cold excitement of science and secularism. The crisis induced an astonishing upsurge in spiritualism–that is, a belief in communion with the dead. Thousands of altogether worthy people began to sit stock still, extending their hands around the séance table, praying with eyes wide shut that this intolerable littleness to which life had brought them wasn’t, couldn’t, be all that there was. The list of famous and accomplished men and women who, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, subscribed to spiritualism is deeply moving.

The liberationist movements of the 1960s and ’70s–blacks, women, gays–raised the same issues and the same anxieties as did the reform movements of the nineteenth century. They spoke to the same core question–“What exactly does a human being need from society to go on feeling human?”–and they created the same dynamic: a large incursion on the public consciousness induced a gathering alarm culminating in a major retreat into nearly mystic religious belief. This last is now the declared character of the culture war that began forty years ago and has climaxed in the election of a Christian fundamentalist to the presidency. As a result, America is regarded as one of the most religious countries in the West. But in fact, the culture is best described as strongly if insecurely secular. This rise in religious belief is always a symptom, never a cause, in this country, of the deep unrest brought on by every serious effort to achieve a more just democracy.

Elizabeth Stanton spoke that day in 1892 in Washington more in sorrow than in anger. She understood fully that the mass of people cannot bear the psychological weight of being asked to live with the sense of breakup that comes with social change. In our own time, legalized abortion and gay marriage have become the symbols of a similar request–and the fear and excitement they have generated is nothing short of remarkable.

To my mind, these developments are a measure of how far the insights of the 1960s went, and how live a nerve the liberationist movements have struck. George Bush is not the beginning of something new in America, he is the end of one more round in the ongoing drama of America’s struggle with itself to face directly into the meaning–and consequence–of something that cuts deeper than class interests. In every century, the reformers and their opponents have come to represent a war within the culture (ongoing since the Revolution) between those who quail before the specter of unlimited secular democracy and those who would take the idea to the point where it meets the declared promise of the Republic. This perpetual inner division parallels uncannily that of a single human being struggling to resolve the internal conflicts that hobble every one of us.

However crippling our conflicted condition is, it is the known reality; and what we know, we become ineluctably devoted to. In order to reach the deeper reality we must leave the known one behind. We understand this, and with our intelligence we agree to it, but even as we struggle to do so we are regretting the loss of that with which we have lived so long; a terrible nostalgia for the comfort of familiar dysfunction endangers the entire effort every step of the way. It takes work–harder, more sustained, more resolved than anyone could have imagined–just to stay with it.

The paradox is that by doing the work required to reach the deeper truth about ourselves we individuate–and it is only through individuation that we acquire the freedom to connect with our fellow creatures. For a society as well as an individual, it is equally true that only by giving up the false comfort of the familiar does it arrive at the place where it can extend to its citizens the moral compassion that alone derives from seeing things as they are.