STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Susan B. Anthony became the first woman on a dollar coin. In the 19th century she fought for the right for American women to vote. But her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was at least as significant. Her demands for women's rights were more sweeping. In fact, one of her biographers, Lori Ginzberg, says Stanton raced from one issue to another. She was a radical thinker.
Ms. LORI GINZBERG (Historian): You know, I think reform movements need both radical thinkers and strategists. And if she wanted to have a career where she was on a coin and remembered for accomplishing a particular goal, then, yeah, we can say she sabotaged herself.
INSKEEP: But let's look, this morning, at the influential woman who did not end up on a dollar coin.
We've been hearing new interpretations of the 1800s, a century that shaped our nation. Lori Ginzberg says Elizabeth Cady Stanton deeply influenced women's rights as we talk of them today, even though she didn't really fight for all women.
Ms. GINZBERG: She certainly claimed that she fought for the rights of all women. She fought to end the barriers that denied American citizens their rights purely on the basis of sex, and she demanded rights that not one of us would be willing to give up. I mean, she demanded access to in the true liberal tradition access to the mainstream of American society in terms of professions, education, law, politics, property and so on.
But when she said women, I think, and I argue this in the book, that she primarily had in mind women much like herself: white, middle-class, culturally if not religiously protestant, propertied, well-educated. And my disagreement with Stanton is that she came to phrase women too as women first, and came to see women like herself as more deserving of rights than other people.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute, what do you mean women first? What does that mean as opposed to women too?
Ms. GINZBERG: In the post-Civil War period, when there was a battle among abolitionists of which Stanton counted herself between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans, Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal rights for all, and not being willing historians have argued about this ever since not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men. Except that she didn't just stand on the moral high ground, she also descended to some rather ugly racist rhetoric along the lines of we, educated, virtuous white women, are more worthy of the vote.
INSKEEP: How much let's reconstruct the historic moment here.
Ms. GINZBERG: OK.
INSKEEP: The Civil War was fought of course, and the slaves were ultimately freed at the end of the war. African-Americans were granted full citizenship through changes in the constitution. The question was what was going to happen with women and she wasn't happy taking a backseat to African Americans.
Ms. GINZBERG: Well, I would phrase that somewhat differently if I may. African American men were granted the rights of citizens and African American women, of course, weren't. And there were differences among abolitionists in the North about this. Do we hold out for the, as I say, the fullest possible suffrage for all adult Americans, or just do we end the current emergency with terrible news of racial violence coming north? Do we give the black community in some form the voting rights that we're able to gain for them in the current political climate? And it's the political fight that we can - many of us can relate to. Do we hold out for the biggest possible thing or do we recognize the emergency of the moment and get rights or the tool of political power for whatever groups we can?
But Stanton didn't just stay on the moral high ground. Instead she talked about how much worse black men would be as voters than the white women about who she was concerned. And she was really quite dismissive of black women's claims.
INSKEEP: She even argued that, if I'm not mistaken, that it could be harmful to women to allow themselves to be placed under, in some sense, the rule of black men, were black men to be given the vote.
Ms. GINZBERG: Yeah, there were some comments about what will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers. She has one, I think, inexplicable comment about black women would find an even worse slavery under black men than they did under their former white slave owners, which is not a comment that she got from any black woman.
INSKEEP: You know, it's amazing to think about the different mind fields that Elizabeth Cady Stanton could step in here, and also the different dividing lines in society. It wasn't just men and women, it was also upper class versus lower class. There were questions of race. There were questions of religion, questions of every kind.
Ms. GINZBERG: Well, that's why when people talk about Stanton and women's rights and her devotion to women, my first question is always which women. You know, what are the issues here, which women are we talking about? Whose concerns are going to take priority? And then, along the way - and this is where my disagreement with Stanton, of course, is strongest - along the way, whose rights are you going to put down in the process of demanding your own?
INSKEEP: Do you see any modern parallels in this?
Ms. GINZBERG: Well, I think that there's modern implications to this. I mean, I think that Stanton helped create a rhetoric or a political ideology where when we say women and often when the media says women in terms of feminist goals, we think middle-class, white women. It's never been the case that the contemporary women's movement was all white or middle class. This kind of arrogance in assuming that you can declare which are the women's rights issues of an age has always struck me as an ongoing problem.
Ms. GINZBERG: I mean, the obvious analogy that's been raised to me many times when I've spoken about this book, is the one between, in the 2008 presidential primary, when Clinton and Obama were running against each other and there was a lot of people saying, who should be president first, a woman or an African-American? That's where I say it's a false dichotomy to continue to describe women's rights as represented by this white woman I'm not saying that Clinton did that, but the media often did that and black civil rights as represented by a black man. There's a more complicated way to talk about that.
INSKEEP: Lori Ginzberg is the author of "Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life."