"Chapter XII." by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
WOMEN had been willing so long to hold a subordinate position, both in private and public affairs, that a gradually growing feeling of rebellion among them quite exasperated the men, and their manifestations of hostility in public meetings were often as ridiculous as humiliating.
True, those gentlemen were all quite willing that women should join their societies and churches to do the drudgery; to work up the enthusiasm in fairs and revivals, conventions and flag presentations; to pay a dollar apiece into their treasury for the honor of being members of their various organizations; to beg money for the Church; to circulate petitions from door to door; to visit saloons; to pray with or defy rumsellers; to teach school at half price, and sit round the outskirts of a hall, in teachers' State conventions, like so many wallflowers; but they would not allow them to sit on the platform, address the assembly, or vote for men and measures.
Those who had learned the first lessons of human rights from the lips of Henry B. Stanton, Samuel J. May, and Gerrit Smith would not accept any such position. When women abandoned the temperance reform, all interest in the question gradually died out in the State, and practically nothing was done in New York for nearly twenty years. Gerrit Smith made one or two attempts toward an "anti-dramshop" party, but, as women could not vote, they felt no interest in the measure, and failure was the result.
I soon convinced Miss Anthony that the ballot was the key to the situation; that when we had a voice in the laws we should be welcome to any platform. In turning the intense earnestness and religious enthusiasm of this great-souled woman into this channel, I soon felt the power of my convert in goading me forever forward to more untiring work. Soon fastened, heart to heart, with hooks of steel in a friendship that years of confidence and affection have steadily strengthened, we have labored faithfully together.
From the year 1850 conventions were held in various States, and their respective legislatures were continually besieged; New York was thoroughly canvassed by Miss Anthony and others. Appeals, calls for meetings, and petitions were circulated without number. In 1854 I prepared my first speech for the New York legislature. That was a great event in my life. I felt so nervous over it, lest it should not be worthy the occasion, that Miss Anthony suggested that I should slip up to Rochester and submit it to the Rev. William Henry Channing, who was preaching there at that time. I did so, and his opinion was so favorable as to the merits of my speech that I felt quite reassured. My father felt equally nervous when he saw, by the Albany Evening Journal, that I was to speak at the Capitol, and asked me to read my speech to him also. Accordingly, I stopped at Johnstown on my way to Albany, and, late one evening, when he was alone in his office, I entered and took my seat on the opposite side of his table. On no occasion, before or since, was I ever more embarrassed–an audience of one, and that the one of all others whose approbation I most desired, whose disapproval I most feared. I knew he condemned the whole movement, and was deeply grieved at the active part I had taken. Hence I was fully aware that I was about to address a wholly unsympathetic audience. However, I began, with a dogged determination to give all the power I could to my manuscript, and not to be discouraged or turned from my purpose by any tender appeals or adverse criticisms. I described the widow in the first hours of her grief, subject to the intrusions of the coarse minions of the law, taking inventory of the household goods, of the old armchair in which her loved one had breathed his last, of the old clock in the corner that told the hour he passed away. I threw all the pathos I could into my voice and language at this point, and, to my intense satisfaction, I saw tears filling my father's eyes. I cannot express the exultation I felt, thinking that now he would see, with my eyes, the injustice women suffered under the laws he understood so well.
Feeling that I had touched his heart I went on with renewed confidence, and, when I had finished, I saw he was thoroughly magnetized. With beating heart I waited for him to break the silence. He was evidently deeply pondering over all he had heard, and did not speak for a long time. I believed I had opened to him a new world of thought. He had listened long to the complaints of women, but from the lips of his own daughter they had come with a deeper pathos and power. At last, turning abruptly, he said: "Surely you have had a happy, comfortable life, with all your wants and needs supplied; and yet that speech fills me with self-reproach; for one might naturally ask, how can a young woman, tenderly brought up, who has had no bitter personal experience, feel so keenly the wrongs of her sex? Where did you learn this lesson?" "I learned it here," I replied, "in your office, when a child, listening to the complaints women made to you. They who have sympathy and imagination to make the sorrows of others their own can readily learn all the hard lessons of life from the experience of others." "Well, well!" he said, "you have made your points clear and strong; but I think I can find you even more cruel laws than those you have quoted." He suggested some improvements in my speech, looked up other laws, and it was one o'clock in the morning before we kissed each other good-night. How he felt on the question after that I do not know, as he never said anything in favor of or against it. He gladly gave me any help I needed, from time to time, in looking up the laws, and was very desirous that whatever I gave to the public should be carefully prepared.
Miss Anthony printed twenty thousand copies of this address, laid it on the desk of every member of the legislature, both in the Assembly and Senate, and, in her travels that winter, she circulated it throughout the State. I am happy to say I never felt so anxious about the fate of a speech since.
The first woman's convention in Albany was held at this time, and we had a kind of protracted meeting for two weeks after. There were several hearings before both branches of the legislature, and a succession of meetings in Association Hall, in which Phillips, Channing, Ernestine L. Rose, Antoinette L. Brown, and Susan B. Anthony took part. Being at the capital of the State, discussion was aroused at every fireside, while the comments of the press were numerous and varied. Every little country paper had something witty or silly to say about the uprising of the "strong-minded." Those editors whose heads were about the size of an apple were the most opposed to the uprising of women, illustrating what Sidney Smith said long ago: "There always was, and there always will be a class of men so small that, if women were educated, there would be nobody left below them." Poor human nature loves to have something to look down upon!
Here is a specimen of the way such editors talked at that time. The Albany Register, in an article on "Woman's Rights in the Legislature," dated March 7, 1854, says:
"While the feminine propagandists of women's rights confined themselves to the exhibition of short petticoats and long-legged boots, and to the holding of conventions and speech-making in concert rooms, the people were disposed to be amused by them, as they are by the wit of the clown in the circus, or the performances of Punch and Judy on fair days, or the minstrelsy of gentlemen with blackened faces, on banjos, the tambourine, and bones. But the joke is becoming stale. People are getting cloyed with these performances, and are looking for some healthier and more intellectual amusement. The ludicrous is wearing away, and disgust is taking the place of pleasurable sensations, arising from the novelty of this new phase of hypocrisy and infidel fanaticism.
"People are beginning to inquire how far public sentiment should sanction or tolerate these unsexed women, who would step out from the true sphere of the mother, the wife, and the daughter, and taking upon themselves the duties and the business of men, stalk into the public gaze, and, by engaging in the politics, the rough controversies and trafficking of the world, upheave existing institutions, and overrun all the social relations of life.
"It is a melancholy reflection that, among our American women, who have been educated to better things, there should be found any who are willing to follow the lead of such foreign propagandists as the ringleted, gloved exotic, Ernestine L. Rose. We can understand how such a man as the Rev. Mr. May, or the sleek-headed Dr. Channing, may be deluded by her into becoming one of her disciples. They are not the first instances of infatuation that may overtake weak-minded men, if they are honest in their devotion to her and her doctrines; nor would they be the first examples of a low ambition that seeks notoriety as a substitute for true fame, if they are dishonest. Such men there are always, and, honest or dishonest, their true position is that of being tied to the apron strings of some strong-minded woman, and to be exhibited as rare specimens of human wickedness or human weakness and folly. But that one educated American should become her disciple and follow her insane teachings is a marvel."
When we see the abuse and ridicule to which the best of men were subjected for standing on our platform in the early days, we need not wonder that so few have been brave enough to advocate our cause in later years, either in conventions or in the halls of legislation.
After twelve added years of agitation, following the passage of the Property Bill, New York conceded other civil rights to married women. Pending the discussion of these various bills, Susan B. Anthony circulated petitions, both for the civil and political rights of women, throughout the State, traveling in stage coaches, open wagons, and sleighs in all seasons, and on foot, from door to door through towns and cities, doing her uttermost to rouse women to some sense of their natural rights as human beings, and to their civil and political rights as citizens of a republic. And while expending her time, strength, and money to secure these blessings for the women of the State, they would gruffly tell her that they had all the rights they wanted, or rudely shut the door in her face; leaving her to stand outside, petition in hand, treating her with as much contempt as if she was asking alms for herself. None but those who did that work in the early days, for the slaves and the women, can ever know the hardships and humiliations that were endured. But it was done because it was only through petitions–a power seemingly so inefficient–that disfranchised classes could be heard in the State and National councils; hence their importance.
The frivolous objections some women made to our appeals were as exasperating as they were ridiculous. To reply to them politely, at all times, required a divine patience. On one occasion, after addressing the legislature, some of the ladies, in congratulating me, inquired, in a deprecating tone, "What do you do with your children?" "Ladies," I said, "it takes me no longer to speak, than you to listen; what have you done with your children the two hours you have been sitting here? But, to answer your question, I never leave my children to go to Saratoga, Washington, Newport, or Europe, or even to come here. They are, at this moment, with a faithful nurse at the Delevan House, and, having accomplished my mission, we shall all return home together."
When my children reached the magic number of seven, my good angel, Susan B. Anthony, would sometimes take one or two of them to her own quiet home, just out of Rochester, where, on a well-cultivated little farm, one could enjoy uninterrupted rest and the choicest fruits of the season. That was always a safe harbor for my friend, as her family sympathized fully in the reforms to which she gave her life. I have many pleasant memories of my own flying visits to that hospitable Quaker home and the broad catholic spirit of Daniel and Lucy Anthony. Whatever opposition and ridicule their daughter endured elsewhere, she enjoyed the steadfast sympathy and confidence of her own home circle. Her faithful sister Mary, a most successful teacher in the public schools of Rochester for a quarter of a century, and a good financier, who with her patrimony and salary had laid by a competence, took on her shoulders double duty at home in cheering the declining years of her parents, that Susan might do the public work in the reforms in which they were equally interested. Now, with life's earnest work nearly accomplished, the sisters are living happily together; illustrating another of the many charming homes of single women, so rapidly multiplying of late.
Miss Anthony, who was a frequent guest at my home, sometimes stood guard when I was absent. The children of our household say that among their earliest recollections is the tableau of "Mother and Susan," seated by a large table covered with books and papers, always writing and talking about the Constitution, interrupted with occasional visits from others of the faithful. Hither came Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Paulina Wright Davis, Frances Dana Gage, Dr. Harriet Hunt, Rev. Antoinette Brown, Lucy Stone, and Abby Kelly, until all these names were as familiar as household words to the children.
Martha C. Wright of Auburn was a frequent visitor at the center of the rebellion, as my sequestered cottage on Locust Hill was facetiously called. She brought to these councils of war not only her own wisdom, but that of the wife and sister of William H. Seward, and sometimes encouraging suggestions from the great statesman himself, from whose writings we often gleaned grand and radical sentiments. Lucretia Mott, too, being an occasional guest of her sister, Martha C. Wright, added the dignity of her presence at many of these important consultations. She was uniformly in favor of toning down our fiery pronunciamentos. For Miss Anthony and myself, the English language had no words strong enough to express the indignation we felt at the prolonged injustice to women. We found, however, that, after expressing ourselves in the most vehement manner and thus in a measure giving our feelings an outlet, we were reconciled to issue the documents in milder terms. If the men of the State could have known the stern rebukes, the denunciations, the wit, the irony, the sarcasm that were garnered there, and then judiciously pigeonholed and milder and more persuasive appeals substituted, they would have been truly thankful that they fared no worse.
Senator Seward frequently left Washington to visit in our neighborhood, at the house of Judge G. V. Sackett, a man of wealth and political influence. One of the Senator's standing anecdotes, at dinner, to illustrate the purifying influence of women at the polls, which he always told with great zest for my especial benefit, was in regard to the manner in which his wife's sister exercised the right of suffrage.
He said: "Mrs. Worden having the supervision of a farm near Auburn, was obliged to hire two or three men for its cultivation. It was her custom, having examined them as to their capacity to perform the required labor, their knowledge of tools, horses, cattle, and horticulture, to inquire as to their politics. She informed them that, being a widow and having no one to represent her, she must have Republicans to do her voting and to represent her political opinions, and it always so happened that the men who offered their services belonged to the Republican party. I remarked to her, one day, 'Are you sure your men vote as they promise?' 'Yes,' she replied, 'I trust nothing to their discretion. I take them in my carriage within sight of the polls and put them in charge of some Republican who can be trusted. I see that they have the right tickets and then I feel sure that I am faithfully represented, and I know I am right in so doing. I have neither husband, father, nor son; I am responsible for my own taxes; am amenable to all the laws of the State; must pay the penalty of my own crimes if I commit any; hence I have the right, according to the principles of our government, to representation, and so long as I am not permitted to vote in person, I have a right to do so by proxy; hence I hire men to vote my principles.'"
These two sisters, Mrs. Worden and Mrs. Seward, daughters of Judge Miller, an influential man, were women of culture and remarkable natural intelligence, and interested in all progressive ideas. They had rare common sense and independence of character, great simplicity of manner, and were wholly indifferent to the little arts of the toilet.
I was often told by fashionable women that they objected to the woman's rights movement because of the publicity of a convention, the immodesty of speaking from a platform, and the trial of seeing one's name in the papers. Several ladies made such remarks to me one day, as a bevy of us were sitting together in one of the fashionable hotels in Newport. We were holding a convention there at that time, and some of them had been present at one of the sessions. "Really," said I, "ladies, you surprise me; our conventions are not as public as the ballroom where I saw you all dancing last night. As to modesty, it may be a question, in many minds, whether it is less modest to speak words of soberness and truth, plainly dressed on a platform, than gorgeously arrayed, with bare arms and shoulders, to waltz in the arms of strange gentlemen. And as to the press, I notice you all reading, in this morning's papers, with evident satisfaction, the personal compliments and full descriptions of your dresses at the last ball. I presume that any one of you would have felt slighted, if your name had not been mentioned in the general description. When my name is mentioned, it is in connection with some great reform movement. Thus we all suffer or enjoy that same publicity–we are alike ridiculed. Wise men pity and ridicule you, and fools pity and ridicule me–you as the victims of folly and fashion, me as the representative of many of the disagreeable 'isms' of the age, as they choose to style liberal opinions. It is amusing, in analyzing prejudices, to see on what slender foundation they rest." And the ladies around me were so completely cornered that no one attempted an answer.
I remember being at one party at Secretary Seward's home, at Auburn, one evening, when Mr. Burlingame, special ambassador from China to the United States, with a Chinese delegation, were among the guests. As soon as the dancing commenced, and young ladies and gentlemen, locked in each other's arms, began to whirl in the giddy waltz, these Chinese gentlemen were so shocked that they covered their faces with their fans, occasionally peeping out each side and expressing their surprise to each other. They thought us the most immodest women on the face of the earth. Modesty and taste are questions of latitude and education; the more people know,–the more their ideas are expanded by travel, experience, and observation,–the less easily they are shocked. The narrowness and bigotry of women are the result of their circumscribed sphere of thought and action.
A few years after Judge Hurlbert had published his work on "Human Rights," in which he advocated woman's right to the suffrage, and I had addressed the legislature, we met at a dinner party in Albany. Senator and Mrs. Seward were there. The Senator was very merry on that occasion and made Judge Hurlbert and myself the target for all his ridicule on the woman's rights question, in which the most of the company joined, so that we stood quite alone. Sure that we had the right on our side and the arguments clearly defined in our minds, and being both cool and self-possessed, and in wit and sarcasm quite equal to any of them, we fought the Senator, inch by inch, until he had a very narrow platform to stand on. Mrs. Seward maintained an unbroken silence, while those ladies who did open their lips were with the opposition, supposing, no doubt, that Senator Seward represented his wife's opinions.
When we ladies withdrew from the table my embarrassment may be easily imagined. Separated from the Judge, I would now be an hour with a bevy of ladies who evidently felt repugnance to all my most cherished opinions. It was the first time I had met Mrs. Seward, and I did not then know the broad, liberal tendencies of her mind. What a tide of disagreeable thoughts rushed through me in that short passage from the dining room to the parlor. How gladly I would have glided out the front door! But that was impossible, so I made up my mind to stroll round as if self-absorbed, and look at the books and paintings until the Judge appeared; as I took it for granted that, after all I had said at the table on the political, religious, and social equality of women, not a lady would have anything to say to me.
Imagine, then, my surprise when, the moment the parlor door was closed upon us, Mrs. Seward, approaching me most affectionately, said:
"Let me thank you for the brave words you uttered at the dinner table, and for your speech before the legislature, that thrilled my soul as I read it over and over."
I was filled with joy and astonishment. Recovering myself, I said, "Is it possible, Mrs. Seward, that you agree with me? Then why, when I was so hard pressed by foes on every side, did you not come to the defense? I supposed that all you ladies were hostile to every one of my ideas on this question."
"No, no!" said she; "I am with you thoroughly, but I am a born coward; there is nothing I dread more than Mr. Seward's ridicule. I would rather walk up to the cannon's mouth than encounter it." "I, too, am with you," "And I," said two or three others, who had been silent at the table.
I never had a more serious, heartfelt conversation than with these ladies. Mrs. Seward's spontaneity and earnestness had moved them all deeply, and when the Senator appeared the first words he said were:
"Before we part I must confess that I was fairly vanquished by you and the Judge, on my own principles" (for we had quoted some of his most radical utterances). "You have the argument, but custom and prejudice are against you, and they are stronger than truth and logic."
This chapter has been put on-line as part of the
BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteers
Joe Johnson and Mary Mark Ockerbloom.