Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life
By Lori D. Ginzberg
Hardcover, 272 pages
Hill and Wang
List Price: $25
Chapter 1: The Two Worlds of Elizabeth Cady
To hear Elizabeth Cady Stanton tell it, Johnstown, New York, where she was born in 1815, was a place of comfort and convention, privilege and patriarchy. Her parents, Daniel and Margaret Livingston Cady, were devoted to family, tradition, and the Federalist Party. They were strict and stodgy, and their children were raised according to old-fashioned norms of childhood, religion, class — and, especially, gender. Church, school, and family taught only "that everlasting no! no! no!" and conspired to enforce "the constant cribbing and crippling of a child's life." It struck the young Elizabeth Cady that "everything we like to do is a sin, and . . . everything we dislike is commanded by God or someone on earth." Only with her sister Margaret's complicity was she able to get over her "infantile fear of punishment" in order to have fun. It was a perfect setting against which to rebel, and, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton recalled fondly, she rebelled with gusto.
Provincial it was, but the world of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's birth, while it seemed only to reinforce the traditional, pastoral life her father enjoyed, was far from static. The inhabitants of the town, an 1824 gazetteer reported, "seem to be very industrious and intent on keeping pace, in every improvement, with the progress of things around them" and, indeed, Johnstown was a local center for the industrial changes that had skirted other small towns. The nation's first glove and mitten factory had been founded there, in about 1808, and manufacturing was at the heart of Johnstown's economy; the very air of Stanton's childhood must have smelled of progress. Nor was the local elite of long standing. The family and Episcopal church congregation of Johnstown's founder, Sir William Johnson, all Loyalists, had left for Canada after the Revolution, leaving an open door for the likes of Daniel Cady.
For all their sense of established respectability and community leadership, the Cadys were, like most white residents of Upstate New York, new blood. Daniel Cady had been born in Columbia County in 1773, studied law in Albany, and moved the forty miles to Johnstown in 1798. Margaret Livingston, a dozen years his junior, had been born in the Hudson Valley to Revolutionary War hero James Livingston and his wife, Elizabeth Simpson Livingston. Although their own Elizabeth believed that the laws, norms, and values that structured men's and women's lives in her childhood were unchanging and unchallenged, Daniel and Margeret Cady had already seen changes of various kinds. Not all of these were progressive in nature. Churches that had shown some openness to women's speech in the mid-eighteenth century were, by the early nineteenth, reasserting traditional forms of male authority. Near Margaret Cady's birthplace, Dutch traditions that had given married women greater property rights had been largely superseded by more stringent English common law that declared the whole of a woman's inherited property her husband's. Even in politics, the barriers of sex had been less rigid, less seemingly absolute, in 1800 than they would be during Elizabeth Cady's youth. In New Jersey, women who owned property could vote until 1807, when the legislature restricted suffrage to white men, reflecting a growing consensus that women had no role in political life. Indeed, the Revolution itself, while underscoring the political equality of greater numbers of white men, saw a narrowing of elite women's conventional access to public authority. Daniel Cady, stubbornly conservative, wished to hold on to what authority he had gained (cultural, familial, political, and economic) as long as possible.3
Historians tend to mark 1815, the end of the War of 1812, and the year of Elizabeth Cady's birth, as the start of a new era in American history. It was a time that would, before too long, seethe with changes in law, religion, trade, politics, transportation, class structures, and, of course, ideas about women. Vast changes would take place that the Cadys could not possibly imagine or predict. Indeed, among Elizabeth Cady Stanton's generation of Americans would be the first women to attend college, once Oberlin formally admitted them in 1837; the first female doctors, once sisters Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell earned their medical degrees; and an astonishing array of female speakers, antislavery reformers, writers, editors, labor activists, educators, and, of course, advocates of woman suffrage.
But before imagining the change that would occur, consider the world, and the rules, into which these women, citizens of the United States, were born. In 1830, when Elizabeth Cady was fifteen, the common-law notion of coverture — that is, the idea that wives were "covered" by their husbands' protection — virtually defined the laws of marriage. Once they married, women could not own or inherit property, sign a contract, or pursue their business interests in court. Although women tended to bear somewhat fewer children than they had a century earlier, childbearing was still frequent and deadly. Legal divorce, as opposed to less formal desertion, was rare, and custody of minor children went to the husband, who essentially "owned" their labor. The opportunities for middle- and upper-class women to live independently of men — whether husbands, fathers, or brothers — were few indeed, and it would not be until the very late nineteenth century that significant numbers of them could do so. Unmarried women paid taxes just as men did, but they could not vote for the representatives who set their tax rates or give advice about how those taxes were spent. Women could not serve on a jury, though they were tried often enough for crimes; nor could they speak out about such crimes in most religious assemblies. They were barred both from men's colleges and from a wide array of occupations — and not surprisingly, those they dominated, such as domestic service and prostitution, were among the lowest paid. In cities, new commercial markets presented both opportunities and pitfalls for women; they ran shops and small manufactories, operated millinery businesses, opened schools, and did the grueling work that the growing upper classes expected of seamstresses, servants, and nursemaids. But if these enterprising women married, their wages were no longer their own, but their husbands'. Over the next century, much of this — first and mostly among the upper and middle classes — would change. In the meantime, for all the rhetoric about the common man, Elizabeth Cady's world was in many respects characterized by greater restriction, reinforced hierarchies, and frequent declarations that what America needed was more stability and tradition, not less.
The Cadys, who married in 1801, when Margaret was sixteen, flourished in Johnstown and in this larger world, living in a large house on a corner of Main Street. Aided by his ties to Margaret's brother-in-law, the fabulously wealthy Peter Smith, Daniel Cady established himself as a lawyer, landowner, state legislator, and judge. In the year of Elizabeth's birth, his neighbors elected him to Congress, where he served one term. The couple had eleven children, of whom only six would survive childhood; the only son among those, Eleazar, would die at twenty.
The Cady family's economic privilege and social authority are nearly invisible threads running through Stanton's recollections, unquestioned and, to Stanton, unproblematic. It was, rather, her father's intransigence about gender that formed the core of the story Elizabeth Cady Stanton told about her childhood. Her most vivid, and oft-repeated, story was that of a brilliant, boisterous, rebellious little girl, eleven years old, whose only living brother, Eleazar, had just died. How dark the household must have seemed. Distraught, she crawled into her father's lap, seeking to give and receive comfort. But her grieving, distracted father put his arm around her and sighed, "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" The sting of the father's remark, whether spiteful or unfeeling or simply careless, lingers. Every girl who has yearned to impress an accomplished or demanding father, every woman who has felt the slight of being thought less promising than her brothers, can relate to the insult. Elizabeth Cady, as it turned out, had more than enough reserves of self-esteem to survive the slap, though she never forgot it; not only was she as brilliant as the boys and men around her, but she knew it. She was, as one historian puts it, "singularly unaffected with psychological insecurity," and she quickly put her extraordinary self-confidence to work. The child, as the woman later recalled, vowed to make her father happy by being all a son could have been, thus providing a rationale for her grand ambitions. But the political moral that she took from this childhood affront was the germ of something even larger: her recognition that society's preference for and pride in boys dwarfed girls' lives, limited their opportunities, and were used to justify the denial of woman's rights. She took this insult very personally indeed.
Is it possible to sympathize, however grudgingly, with Judge Cady? There is every evidence that he loved his daughters, and even in sighing over the limitations of Elizabeth's sex, he surely knew that this one was especially bright. But the man had just lost his only living son, at an age when the young man's promise was evident but his path not clearly marked, and at a time when a man such as the judge could reasonably rest his ambitions for succession only on boys. Surely he envisioned Eleazar, who had just graduated from Union College, following in his footsteps, perhaps joining him in the law office or at court. It is possible to read Daniel Cady's comment to his daughter not simply as a putdown, though it surely was that, but also as an acknowledgment that her intellect and her wit would in fact have found more expansive arenas if she had been a boy. Elizabeth's father was neither so wrong nor uniquely old-fashioned in feeling a twinge of regret that this gifted child was a girl, for in the judge's world, and pretty much everyplace else, the barriers that limited her sex were real indeed.
To hear Stanton tell it, she spent her girlhood days trying to impress her learned father, live up to the standards set by her brother, and learn from the law students who wandered through the house. That the household was not composed exclusively of men seems largely to have escaped her notice. There is little of Margaret Livingston Cady in her daughter's account, and her appearances are generally fairly passive. To her daughter, Mrs. Cady was simply "a tall, queenly looking woman," a female enforcer of the "Puritan ideas," and the reason that "fear, rather than love, of God and parents alike, predominated" in the household. It was she, presumably, who often placed the young Elizabeth "under punishment for what, in those days, were called 'tantrums'" but that Stanton insisted were "justifiable acts of rebellion against the tyranny of those in authority." But Margaret Cady demonstrated both a strong will and the capacity to change; years later, in 1867, she signed a woman suffrage petition and was, according to her granddaughter Harriot, "a dyed-in-the-wool Abolitionist," even a "Garrisonian extremist." However distant and disciplined she may have been, it was not Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "queenly" mother alone who upheld the family's conservative attitudes. Unfortunately, neither Stanton's account nor other historical documents offer clues about what ambivalence Margaret Cady might have felt about her rebellious daughter.
If, in Stanton's recollections, Judge Cady embodied the hard-line patriarchal attitudes that shaped his daughter's rebellion, Mrs. Cady was the regal exemplar of discipline, and Elizabeth Cady's younger sister Margaret was her "fearless and self-reliant" companion, the other women in the Cady household appear largely as the enforcers of conventional attitudes about women's place. Sister Harriet Cady, later Eaton, maintained a tight grip over Elizabeth Stanton's decisions even late in life, and often made the Stanton children miserable with restraint. Tryphena, the eldest, was conservative to her very bones. Not only would she oppose her younger sister's radical proclamations and actions, but, as Harriot Stanton Blatch recalled, " 'Aunty By' had a leaning to the southern side in Civil War days." Even Margaret Cady was, as her granddaughter recalled, "much freer and finer . . . without the aunts weaving nets of convention about her."
Gender conventions were not the only vestiges of tradition in the Cady household. Among Stanton's most quoted reminiscences are stories about the "three colored men, Abraham, Peter, and Jacob, who acted as menservants in our youth." Peter in particular evoked the "most pleasant recollections," for Stanton recalled that the little girls followed him to "the negro pew" at their otherwise all-white church, to celebrations of the Fourth of July, and on various river-rafting expeditions. But Peter Teabout was not simply a "manservant"; he was a slave — and he likely remained one until 1827, when the last slaves were finally, grudgingly, emancipated in the state of New York.
Daniel Cady was hardly unique in holding slaves in Montgomery County, New York. Johnstown's founder, Sir William Johnson, had brought slaves to central New York in the mid-eighteenth century, and by the time the Cadys arrived, revolutionary declarations of liberty notwithstanding, the practice of holding people in bondage had expanded. Five hundred and eighty-eight enslaved African Americans lived in the county in 1790, and 712 in 1810; by 1820, when Elizabeth Cady was five, 40 percent of the 152 African Americans in Johnstown still lived as slaves. Only in 1799 had the state legislature passed a law for gradual, and compensated, emancipation; a very few years before Elizabeth's birth, an African American man or woman in her county remained almost twice as likely to be a slave as to be free. Finally, on July 4, 1827, slavery was ended in New York. African Americans, refusing to have their day of emancipation eclipsed by their white neighbors' own independence, pointedly waited until the following day, the fifth of July, to hold celebrations around the state.
Stanton never mentioned that day of emancipation, neither to re.ect on its implications for her father nor to consider its meaning for the supposedly greatly cherished Peter. Is it unfair to have expected an eleven-year-old to notice? By her own account she was an unusually alert child, exceptionally sensitive to injustice and matters of law. Even as a young girl, she claimed, she found in the restrictions on married women's property ownership deeply personal insults, and had plotted to cut them out of her father's legal tomes. Certainly she seethed when one of the judge's law students, Henry Bayard, upon being shown Elizabeth's new Christmas gifts, teased, "if in due time you should be my wife, those ornaments would be mine." Surely a young woman who could be so vexed about some coral trinkets would be affected by the knowledge that a beloved companion and chaperone of her youth was himself her father's property.
Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that the momentous emancipation day passed her by entirely. The young Elizabeth Cady was enthralled with public events, and loved "attending court" with Peter, learning about the law, and participating in the "numerous and protracted" gatherings surrounding each Fourth of July. One wonders how she could have remained untouched by the celebrations and fêtes that took place in honor of emancipation. She felt no qualms, then or later, about criticizing her father's adherence to convention where the status of women was concerned. But her sensitivity to injustice and her outrage at the laws of property seem not to have extended to Peter Teabout and the other enslaved men in the Cady household.
Like many ambitious young girls, Elizabeth Cady chose men as her role models. Feeling slighted by her father, whom she revered, and apparently unimpressed with what her mother could teach her, she turned to her neighbor, Presbyterian pastor Simon Hosack, for guidance. Apparently he enjoyed the little girl's company, and tolerated her frequent visits and unceasing questions. When Eleazar died, and Elizabeth decided "that the chief thing to be done in order to equal boys was to be learned and courageous," Rev. Hosack agreed to tutor her in Greek and Latin. Horseback riding, the child's measure of heroism itself, she would have to learn on her own. In Stanton's recollection, Hosack thought nothing of dropping his other duties to teach a grieving little girl Greek, and she soon outstripped the local boys, winning prizes for her accomplishments. Her father, "evidently pleased," nevertheless repeated, "Ah, you should have been a boy!" and the child ran to Hosack for solace. Only he, she recalled, offered the "unbounded praises and visions of [her] future success" that she so desperately wanted.
As hard as Elizabeth was working to persuade her father that she was "as good as a boy," her student years at the Johnstown Academy actually allowed her to be one of them. Until she graduated at sixteen, she was "the only girl in the higher classes of mathematics and the languages," and relished as well the "running races, sliding downhill, and snowballing" in which there was "no distinction of sex." When upon graduation the boys left for Union College, the young Elizabeth Cady's "vexation and mortification knew no bounds." Later she believed that her thwarted ambition made her more determined to .ght the suppression of women; at the time, she was simply furious at being left behind.
If the young Elizabeth had not later turned that exclusion into a philosophy of woman's rights, we might simply shrug at her teenage self-absorption. After all, the child was indulged in her rebellions, had found an otherwise busy adult to teach her Greek and sing her praises, and enjoyed the attention of young men who were willing to argue with her on all subjects. And although she was barred from Union College, she was hardly deprived of a formal education. In 1830 she entered Emma Willard's school, the Troy Female Seminary, and there received the best education available to girls — not merely a "fashionable" one, as she later sneered.
For all the constraints on women in Elizabeth Cady's youthful world, there had been dramatic change in the area of girls' education.
Throughout the nation, a lively conversation about female education — about women's abilities to reason and to learn, which subjects were most appropriate for their "sphere," and what women should actually "do" with their learning — infused discussion in newspapers, parlors, and pulpits. Philosophers of female education — Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon, most famously — insisted that schools could simultaneously expand girls' intellect and train teachers and missionaries for the larger good, while sustaining women's traditional place in a gendered world. Their students gathered in schools and literary societies to test the proposition that women's intellects were, in fact, equal to men's. Even as she griped about her father's limited expectations, Elizabeth Cady lived at a time when female academies were offering girls of her class much of what was being provided to their brothers.
The Troy Female Seminary had had a rocky start at its founding in 1814, but by 1821, when the city of Troy granted it $4,000 in funding, it was solidly launched as a premier educator of elite and middle-class girls. The school's founder, Emma Willard, one of the pioneering educators of her generation, introduced these young women to a rigorous academic education, balancing intellectual achievement with a conventional approach to women's domestic roles. The school served as a model, and indeed a training ground, for the next generation's founders and professors of women's colleges. Elizabeth Cady's own classmates were, like her, the daughters of the elite and professional classes; her younger sisters, Margaret and Catherine, would follow her there in 1834 and 1835, respectively. The school's catalogue of its early graduates reads like a "Who's Who" of the daughters and, later, wives of lawyers, politicians, and merchants. Frances Miller, who later married politician William Henry Seward, had attended the school a decade earlier, as had her sister Lazette, later lawyer Alvah Worden's wife. Their father, like Elizabeth Cady's, was an Upstate New York judge, and they, too, would move into antislavery and political circles; both Miller sisters, by all accounts, were the intellectual equals of their prominent husbands.
But Elizabeth Cady liked boys, and she thought the prospect of an all-girls school "dreary and profitless." She admired boys' energy, envied their freedoms, and aspired to their achievements; she badly wanted their approval and admiration as well. But she was not, or not only, a flirt; mostly, she wanted to be one of them, to compete with them on their terms. She would always relish any chance to best "the young masculinity," whom she found so often "mistaking bluster for logic." Elizabeth Cady spent her time in Troy only vaguely attentive to academic pursuits; she claimed she had "already studied everything that was taught there except French, music, and dancing." She was far more interested in debating with the local boys and gaining the adoration of girls: "I loved flattery," she admitted. Both she and the more conventionally feminine girls were happy to cast her as a heroic male figure. In one foolish escapade, she swapped her essay for the less excellent composition of one of her young admirers; discovered and disgraced, she found, decades later, that the memory could still evoke that horrible adolescent mixture of mortification and pride: the girl "put her arms around me affectionately and kissed me again and again," said, " 'Oh! . . . you are a hero. You went through that ordeal like a soldier,' " and announced, " 'You are so good and noble I know you will not betray me.'" And Stanton never did.
Argumentative, heroic, and self-confident, Elizabeth Cady was not particularly bold in imagining her own life. At seventeen she was home again, her formal education complete. She had no particular plans for her future — but then, girls of her class were not expected to — and for all her later calls to rebellion, she showed little inclination to forge a new path. There were, after all, only a few appropriate choices for someone like her, at least before marriage: teaching, charitable activity, domestic work, and religious enthusiasm. None appealed.
Excerpted from Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life by Lori D. Ginzberg. Copyright 2009 by Lori D. Ginzberg. Reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.