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.”

Gornick’s account of Stanton’s life is exhilarating and deftly written. She follows Stanton from her rebellious childhood through the early days of her engagement with abolitionism to that moment of conversion in London when she realizes that women aren’t respected, even in the abolitionist movement. From there, the road leads to the famous meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848, when Stanton boldly showed her radical colors, demanding suffrage for women. The next fifty-four years (she died in 1902) were filled with passionate speech-making and activism, as Stanton traveled tirelessly around the country on the lecture circuit with her friend Susan B. Anthony. In one seven-month period, for example, they lectured 148 times in 140 towns in ten states. Gornick vividly conveys the combination of constructive anger and ceaseless activity that marked Stanton’s relationship to the world around her, and she makes her refusal to surrender her radical demands seem deeply right. Gornick makes a good case that Stanton is indeed the key precursor to the feminist movement of the late twentieth century, which refused to compromise while at the same time maintaining a hopeful attitude to the potential of law as a force for social reform.

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.

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.

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.