Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the Federal Marriage Amendment: A Letter to the President

Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the Federal Marriage Amendment: A Letter to the President

Article excerpt

Dear president Bush,

I have read of your call for a Federal Marriage Amendment to preserve the sanctity of the traditional marriage between one man and one woman. (1) The proposed constitutional amendment declares that "marriage in the United States shall consist of only the union of a man and a woman" and that no federal or state constitution can be construed to require otherwise. (2) I was surprised to see such a proposal put forth in light of the failed attempts at such a national marriage amendment in my time during the late nineteenth century. For over sixty years from 1884 to 1947, proposals were made by "pro-family" advocates like you to amend the federal Constitution to give Congress the power to legislate uniform laws of marriage. (3) Until my death in 1902, I was one of the leading opponents and most outspoken critics of the proposed marriage amendment of the prior century. I write to you now to advise you of the substantial grounds that I advanced against a constitutional marriage amendment, for the arguments continue to be relevant and applicable today.

The outcry for a uniform national marriage law rang loud as I approached my ninetieth year. I weighed in on the issue, as I did with all issues of importance to women, speaking at lectures and professing my views in the newspapers of the day. (4) Indeed, I was as "radical on the marriage question at the age of eighty-six as I had been a half century earlier." (5) Throughout my career, I agitated for equality in marriage, challenging the traditional marital patriarchy and advocating for marital property rights for women, elimination of the word "obey" from the marriage ceremony, the retention of a wife's birth name, and no-fault divorce.

With the advent of a national conservative movement against divorce in 1884, I articulated a multi-pronged analytical attack on the constitutional amendment. Marriage reformers then, as now, claimed the need of an amendment to protect against the exportation of liberal state laws of marriage through the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Yet, it seems to me that such claims of threats to federalism are mere pretexts for social targets--first women, and now homosexuals. I opposed the federal marriage amendment of the nineteenth century on grounds that it stunted state democratic action, perpetuated gender discrimination in the family, and denied the true contractual relation of marriage. (6) I recount those arguments here in the hope that perhaps they might be persuasive with regard to the parallel Federal Marriage Amendment championed in this new millennium.


Perhaps I should begin by introducing myself properly. You have referred to me in passing as a "courageous hero" when proclaiming presidential support for Women's Equality Days. (7) Others know me as a reformer who agitated for woman's suffrage with my cohort Susan B. Anthony. (8) Still others have remembered me as the leading philosopher and ideologue of the nineteenth-century woman's movement, even calling me "the most brilliant and dynamic feminist theorist" of the day. (9) Indeed, I spent most of my adult life from 1848 to 1902 working for the advancement of women's rights beginning with the first meeting on the woman question at Seneca Falls, New York. (10) This momentous first meeting has been memorialized in recent times in the monument to my work created at the National Women's Rights Park in Seneca Falls. (11) There, etched on the walls flowing with water are the words I wrote in the Declaration of Sentiments declaring equality for women in all aspects of social, political, and civil life.

In the Declaration of Sentiments, you will find my panoptic philosophy for the ultimate equality and empowerment of women. (12) Included in this broad agenda are attacks on the patriarchal marriage relation and calls for divorce reform so that women could escape unharmonious marriages. (13) As I often repeated, liberal divorce laws for oppressed wives are what Canada was for Southern slaves, (14) especially given the fact that the vast majority of applications for divorce in the late nineteenth century were made by women. …

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