Stanton's Wisdom

Article excerpt

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 1857 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 seance 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. …