Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

For many Americans, feminism is a movement they associate with the 1960s and 1970s, but the movement for women's rights can be traced at least as far back as the mid-1800s. The decade of the 1840s witnessed a proliferation of reform movements, and women were instrumental in many of them. For civic-minded women involved in the campaign to abolish slavery or to improve treatment of the mentally ill, the fact that they were working to better society but lacked the most basic of rights—the right to vote—was appalling and spurred many of them to work for women's rights.

One of the most influential feminists of the 1800s was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was born in Johnstown, New York, in 1815, to a prominent family. Although women typically were not given much more than a basic education, Elizabeth was educated at Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary. And because she spent time at the law office of her father, she gained a formidable—if informal—education on the law.

Elizabeth married Henry Stanton, a well-known abolitionist. Already a committed feminist, she insisted that the word "obey" be omitted from their vows. She subsequently became active in the abolitionist movement as well. Through her work in the campaign, Stanton developed friendships with some of the most active abolitionists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison and Angelina Grimke.

In 1840, for their honeymoon trip, Stanton and her husband went to London to attend the World's Anti-Slavery Convention. For Stanton, the convention would be significant for two reasons. She met Lucretia Mott, another abolitionist, and feminist, and the two formed an immediate friendship. But both Stanton and Mott were outraged that women were excluded from the convention's proceedings. Stanton and Mott's meeting and their shared outrage would prove to be an important development in mid-nineteenth century culture.

Galvanized by their experience in London, the two women agreed to convene a conference for women's rights. In 1848, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, held in upstate New York. They drafted the "Declaration of Sentiments," which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, and argued that women were entitled to the same rights as men. Because of the legal knowledge she gained through her father, Stanton was acutely aware of discriminatory laws. She had a particular concern with the inability of married women to control their own property. The same year, she organized petitions that resulted in the New York Congress passing the New York Married Women's Property Act.

Though it would remain for a later generation to secure women's suffrage, the influence of Stanton, Mott, and the Seneca Falls Convention is nonetheless significant. Stanton and her friend and collaborator, Susan B. Anthony, were the leading figures of the movement for women's rights for decades. When old age and declining health kept Stanton from maintaining her traveling and speaking schedule, she concentrated her efforts on writing, including the three-volume History of Women Suffrage, which she wrote with Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Despite dedicating her life to the rights of women, Stanton did not live to see women get the right to vote. She died in 1902, eighteen years before the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women's suffrage.