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The Other Revolution

Not For Ourselves Alone:The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

by Ken Burns, by Paul Barnes
PBS Home Video, 210 minutes pp., $29.95


Writers have long attached the word “revolution” to technological innovations such as the now current e-commerce, biotech, and information “revolutions.” But when we think of “real revolutions” we are still inclined to envision guillotines, barricades, Bolsheviks, and the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family. Yet when one looks carefully at the Taliban rule in Afghanistan as an example, even if somewhat extreme, of the kind of patriarchy that governed orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, and ancient Mesopotamians reaching back for millennia and that shaped even much later secular and socialist forms of male domination, it becomes clear that the revolution of all revolutions has been the relatively recent, peaceful, and still-continuing equalization of men and women.

Whereas the Taliban prohibit women from being educated, there are now more women than men who are students in America’s four-year colleges and universities, and the proportion of women continues to rise in American law schools, medical schools, graduate schools, and the armed forces.1 The Western world is still in the midst of a profound change in gender relationships, and as more women are employed or pursuing professional careers, there has also been a new sensitivity to sexual harassment and the “gender-friendliness” of the workplace.

Of course it is partly to protect Afghan women from sexual harassment that the Taliban (like the Middle Assyrian Laws from the fifteenth to the eleventh century BCE) require women to wear head-to-toe veils or burkas and forbid them from speaking to non-family males or walking outdoors except in the company of a close male relative.2 Protection from rape and predatory males has often been one side of monopolizing the sexual life and reproductive capacity of particular women, the favored women who did not become prostitutes (who could not wear veils). As Gerda Lerner and other feminist historians have shown, similar restrictions pervaded patriarchal cultures until relatively recent times. Women were not only subordinated to males but were deprived of their own history and of any part in the creation of law, symbolic values, and the structures of meaning.3

Though a few isolated voices challenged Aristotle’s equation of women with slaves and domesticated animals,4 even the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was surprisingly silent or cautious on the question of women’s status. Rousseau, for example, did all he could to reinforce the traditional image of women.5 The true pioneers in discarding patriarchal restrictions, as in challenging all slave trading and slaveholding, were the Quakers, who recognized that hundreds of traveling women ministers could be witness to the “inner light.” But the American Revolution temporarily severed the strong Quaker transatlantic alliance and weakened the Society of Friends in the United States. Still, Quaker women took a prominent part, as Rebecca Larson puts it, in “abolition, temperance, prison reform, and women’s rights.”6

The ideals and the turbulence of the American Revolution certainly raised the expectations of some women. Thus in 1777 Lucy Knox wrote a letter expressing her love for her husband, General Henry Knox (“My dearest friend”), who had long been absent while fighting the British. After telling him of her fear that “being long accustomed to command” might make him “too haughty for mercantile matters,” Lucy concluded with the hope that “you will not consider yourself as commander in chief of your own house, but be convinced that there is such a thing as equal command.”7

The French Revolution inspired more explicit demands for gender equality, such as Olympe de Gouges’s 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman. But Gouges was guillotined as a royalist and in October 1793 the French government outlawed all female participation. The one towering feminist achievement of that revolutionary era was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a work of 1792 that would inspire later generations. The great Quaker feminist leader Lucretia Coffin Mott, who surely equaled her friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in historical importance, always kept a copy of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the central table of her house. But the fact that Wollstonecraft had had an illegitimate daughter and known affairs with various men defiled the book in the eyes of most Victorian Anglo-Americans.

From the mid-1790s to the 1820s few writings questioned the status of women. As American states widened suffrage to include virtually all white males, they began denying the vote to free blacks and, in New Jersey, to women, who had briefly won this privilege following the Revolution. In the 1820s and for decades to come married women could not own property, make contracts, bring suits, or sit on juries. They could be legally beaten by their husbands and were required to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands. Even the aristocratic Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America in 1831, was shocked by the immobility and restrictions placed on an American married woman, whose independence was “irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony,” who “lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister,” and who was forbidden to step beyond “the narrow circle of domestic interests.”8 For later feminists these invisible chains would confirm Mary Wollstonecraft’s remark in her last novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798): “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?”

That said, Bonnie S. Anderson, Linda Kerber, Nancy Cott, and numerous other historians of nineteenth-century American women have shown that the constraints on the virtuous mother and housewife were cushioned by a republican “cult of domesticity” that encouraged education and the highest female literacy rate in the world—to say nothing of parlor literature and friendly groups like Cincinnati’s “Semi-Colon Club,” where young Harriet Beecher mingled socially with New England professors, ministers, doctors, their wives, and single women who listened to and discussed one another’s “papers,” before dancing and consuming sandwiches, coffee, and a fine brand of madeira.9

If such mixed-couple social groups were rare, there was a broad consensus that the virtue and stability of a republic would depend on the kind of mothers who could raise presidents like Washington. Many women came to feel they had a supreme republican mission. Several historical changes made this possible, among them progressive mother-centered theories of child-rearing; the disappearance of the home as a household of industry; and the emergence of the middle-class home as a “haven in a heartless world” that would provide refuge and serenity for exhausted husbands while also training sons for competition and upward mobility.

As it happened, this “cult of domesticity” proved to be an invincible barrier to nineteenth-century feminists even if they borrowed the notion that women were morally superior to men, less dominated by sexual and violent impulses, and thus better prepared to use politics as a way of purifying and reforming society. By emphasizing motherhood, the ideal of domesticity widened the gender differences symbolized by pregnancy, birthing, breast feeding, child care, and menstruation, pointing to women’s relative incapacities outside the home. And in the long era before effective birth control, some of the boldest feminists, such as Angelina Grimké Weld and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were incapacitated for long periods by motherhood, a fact that deeply troubled the younger Susan B. Anthony, who was single and often hostile to “baby-making.”

Ironically, even Stanton expressed anguish after her second daughter and sixth child, Harriot, was born in 1856; at age forty-one she longed to burst free from mothering chores and join Anthony in traveling and canvassing on the open road.10 The two women established a famously close friendship and working relationship that lasted until 1902 when Stanton died. But as the Civil War approached there was little that feminists could accomplish in the short run, and as Harriot grew up and became Harriot Stanton Blatch, she would be the one who would actually achieve American woman suffrage in 1920, long after her mother and Anthony had passed away. As we have seen in our own era, full gender equality is a revolution that requires many generations.11

Bonnie S. Anderson’s Joyous Greetings is the only work I know of that puts the first crucial stage of the woman’s movement—1824 to 1860—within the complex transatlantic context required for any full or even adequate understanding.12 From Eleanor Flexner’s classic Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States13 to Ken Burns and Paul Barnes’s 1999 documentary film Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, historians have emphasized the isolation of the US, seemingly cut off from Europe and even from the Revolutions of 1848 (not mentioned by Flexner). The book and film versions of Not for Ourselves Alone refer to revolutionary events in nine European cities in 1848 but far from seeing any influential connections, stress that the Seneca Falls Convention “signaled the start of a revolution that would have more lasting consequences than any of the others.”14

Yet, as Anderson shows, it was the news that revolutionary France had outlawed colonial slavery that heartened American abolitionists and that “energized Mott, who had been silent on women’s rights for much of the 1840s,” to make the European revolutions a theme of her lecture of May 9, 1848, to the American Anti-Slavery Association in New York (“When we look abroad and see what is now being done in other lands, when we see human freedom engaging the attention of the nations of the earth, we may take courage”). And it was this optimism generated by revolutionary Europe that inspired Mott on July 13 to renew contact after eight years with the depressed Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York, and immediately plan with her, with Mott’s sister, and with two other Quaker women the famous women’s rights convention of the following week. Nor does that convention seem quite so highly exceptional when we learn that in the previous month Joseph Hume had moved in Parliament that all women householders be given the vote, a motion supported by Benjamin Disraeli but nevertheless defeated. In 1848 American attention was so glued to Europe’s “springtime of nations” that New York City held a festival on March 25, featuring fourteen addresses in four languages as well as a day-long parade down Broadway. The New York Herald arranged in April for special shipments by steamship of copies of La Presse from Paris. Only slowly did the news of the bloody “June Days” and later repression begin to set in.

Bonnie Anderson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has done extensive research in French, German, English, and American sources that show that by 1847 there were hundreds of feminists in both Europe and America. By “feminists” she means women who knew they were not innately inferior to men and believed they should not be subordinate to them in any way. Anderson has chosen twenty “core women” and twenty-one others “on the periphery of the core group,” including women born in France, England, the United States, German states, Poland, Hungary, Finland, Ireland, and Scotland. What is truly remarkable is the way these women interacted as editors, public speakers, founders of magazines, letter writers, and immigrants. Anne Knight, for example, the English Quaker founder of the Sheffield Female Political Association, worked closely in Paris with Jeanne Deroin, one of the radical heroines of Anderson’s book, whom we first meet in 1851 with Pauline Roland in the stone cell of a medieval prison for women, writing letters to their “sisters” abroad.

  1. 1

    Andrew Hacker, “The Unmaking of Men,” The New York Review, October 21, 1999, p. 26, Table A.

  2. 2

    William T. Vollmann, “Across the Divide: What Do the Afghan Peo-ple Think of the Taliban?” The New Yorker, May 15, 2000, pp. 58-73.

  3. 3

    Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press, 1986). I won’t try to speculate on the origins of female subordination or women’s apparent complicity in accepting and transmitting such a patriarchal system from generation to generation. “There is not a single society known,” Lerner observes, “where women-as-a-group have decision-making power over men or where they define the rules of sexual conduct or control marriage exchanges” (p. 30). I think Lerner is right in linking prehistoric patriarchal power over women with the enslavement of war captives, but this is necessarily speculative. The modern achievements of women from the Olympics to physics clearly disprove all theories of innate inferiority. What now seems so striking is the lateness of effective feminism and the continuing depth and power of male resistance.

  4. 4

    See my essay “At the Heart of Slavery,” The New York Review, October 17, 1996, pp. 51-54.

  5. 5

    Linda K. Kerber, Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays by Linda K. Kerber (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 48.

  6. 6

    Rebecca Larson, Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775 (Knopf, 1999), pp. 94, 182, 185, 292-295, 302-303; David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Oxford University Press, 1999; originally published 1975), pp. 213-254. Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century Quaker leaders became more conservative and often rebuked Friends who joined with outsiders in radical antislavery activities. The “Hicksite Quakers,” following the schism led by Elias Hicks in the late 1820s, were more active in the struggles for women’s rights and slave emancipation.

  7. 7

    The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery to the Civil War, edited by David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 195-196.

  8. 8

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, edited by Phillips Bradley, translated by Henry Reeve (2 vols., Vintage, 1945, 1948), Vol. 2, p. 212.

  9. 9

    Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 82-85.

  10. 10

    To Susan Anthony’s dismay, Stanton actually had one more son in 1859, at age forty-three.

  11. 11

    See Ellen Carol DuBois’s biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s remarkable daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (Yale University Press, 1997). When editing her mother’s papers, Harriot made no effort to hide her mother’s anguish over Harriot’s apparently unplanned and unwanted birth.

  12. 12

    I generally use “woman’s movement” and “woman’s rights,” the phrases used in the nineteenth century, instead of the plural “women’s.”

  13. 13

    Harvard University Press, 1959.

  14. 14

    The few sentences in Ward’s book on the Revolutions of 1848 (pp. 38-39) are used simply as a buildup to the Seneca Falls Convention. An uninformed reader would think that it was purely coincidental that the Seneca Falls Convention occurred in 1848. Because Ward and Burns present Stanton and Anthony as the initiators of the feminist revolution, they ignore many crucial people and events preceding 1848—in America as well as Europe, though the book does include a short and helpful essay by Martha Saxton that deals with Abigail Adams, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lydia Maria Child, and Frances Wright.

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