Womens RightsNot ago, in the nineteenth century, the words that our forefathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men were created equal,” held little value. Human equality was far from a reality. If you were not born of white male decent, than that phrase did not apply to you. During this period many great leaders and reformers emerged, fighting both for the rights of African Americans and for the rights of women. One of these great leaders was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton dedicated her entire life to the women’s movement, despite the opposition she received, from both her family and friends. In the course of this paper, I will be taking a critical look at three of Stanton’s most acclaimed speeches “Declaration of Sentiments”, “Solitude of Self”, and “ Home Life”, and develop a claim that the rhetoric in these speeches was an effective tool in advancing the movement as a whole.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born November 12, 1815, in Johnstown, New York. She was born unto a conservative, Presbyterian family of considerable social standing. Her father, Judge Daniel Cady, was considered to be both a wealthy landowner and a prominent citizen with great political status (Banner 3). Stanton was one of seven children, 6 of which were girls, to be born to Daniel and Margaret. Growing up in the period that she did, Elizabeth was very fortunate to receive the outstanding education that she did since it was not as important to educate daughters as it was sons. She overcame that boundary when she began attending Johnstown Academy. She was the only girl in most of her classes, which was unheard of in those days. Even when females did attend schools, they were learning about “womanly” things, like how to run a household, not advanced math and science courses, like she was in. She then went on to further her education at a very prominent educational institution, Emma Willard’s Troy Seminary. After that she studied law with her father, who was a New York Supreme Court Judge. It is through this training that her awareness was raised about the discrimination that women were subjected to.
In 1840, Elizabeth married an abolitionist organizer named Henry Stanton, much to her family’s dismay. After their marriage, Elizabeth and her husband traveled to London for a worldwide antislavery convention. It was here that she met Lucretia Mott, another well-know women’s rights reformist, who was chosen as an American delegate to the convention. They were both outraged that the female delegates that were attending this convention were denied participation because of their sex. It was at this convention that their fire was ignited and they became allies in the war against the discrimination of women’s rights.
The first wave of the women’s movement is said to have begun roughly in the year 1840, and lasted through the year 1925. While the convention in London sparked the fire in 1840, it was not until 1845, that the fire was a full blaze. The signature event that is believed to be the official starting point of the women’s suffrage movement was in 1848 when a group of women met in Seneca Falls, New York (Wood 66). The Senaca Falls Convention was organized by a group of women, including Stanton, that were fed up with the mistreatment of women in the antislavery battle. They were now going to primarily place their focus on the rights of women. Consequently, the movement became almost entirely white, both in interest and membership (Wood 68). It was at this first convention that Stanton delivered the Speech the “Declaration of Sentiments” which addressed the grievances that women had suffered under the “unjust government of men”. I will go into much greater detail concerning the specifics of this speech, later in the paper.
In the beginning, the women’s movement was not just a single-issue movement. Stanton realized that women were being oppressed in every aspect of their lives. Among the causes that she advocated are as follows: coeducation, girls’ sports, job training, equal wages, labor unions, birth control, cooperative nurseries and kitchens, property rights for wives, child custody rights for mothers, and reform of divorce laws (Wood 67). Many women did not find a problem with fighting for these grievances, they were, however, fearful of the suffrage issue. They felt that it was just too radical. Stanton, however, recognized the importance of the politics, due to the influence of her father, during the early years of her life. She knew that without the right to vote, or political recognition, women had little chance of advancement.
Stanton and the other women like Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth, who organized the Seneca Falls convention, had great hopes that this convention would trigger “a series of conventions embracing every part of the country.” And that is exactly what happened. Women’s rights conventions were held on a regular basis from 1850 until the start of the civil war (Gurko 27). It was after the civil war, that the movement suffered a setback. The main focus of political reform that dominated after the civil war was Black suffrage. This very much so influenced the struggle for women suffrage. The abolitionists, whom the women had fought for and felt they were allies with, turned their back on the women. The abolitionist wanted nothing to do with the women’s struggle for freedom until their rights were secure. It was at this time that to women realized that gaining the right to vote had to be their most important focus. It was then that “women’s rights” became almost synonymous with “women’s suffrage”(88 DuBois).
Although the alliance with the abolitionists had been broken, this disaffiliation refueled the women’s fire and made them reevaluate the substance as well as the form of the women suffrage movement. Their base of argument was no longer on “universal suffrage”, rather the suffrage of women, based on the actual grievances of women’s lives.
Stanton brought into attention the sexual exploitation of women, the nature of marriage, and the need for divorce reform (DuBois 94). She made the connection between these exploitations and the need for political equality in a speech that she delivered in 1875, “Home Life”. Again, I will be addressing this speech in greater detail, later in my paper.
Elizabeth Stanton was no stranger to criticism. Later in the movement she introduced many controversial beliefs that many critics would say discredited her accountability as a great leader (Banner 159). Stanton believed that organized religion had a conservative impact on society, which led women to tolerance and submission to authority, which counteracts the movement’s belief in equality. Stanton made her opinions public that she felt the church is was major cause of women’s oppression. This belief was not popular among many of the followers, thus causing them to turn against her. The later part of the nineteenth century was not an easy time for Stanton. She was heralded as being a radicalist in a time were conservatism was dominant. Stanton, realized that her time as a key leader of the movement was running out. In her most famous speech, “Solitude of Self”, which was delivered when she resigned as president of the NAWSA (National American Women Suffrage Association), Stanton presented the philosophical core of her thought about women’s emancipation. She also addressed the differences between her controversial ideas and those with more conservative beliefs, that were coming to dominate the suffrage movement (187 DuBois). Her basic message in this speech was that of the necessity of equal rights for all individuals, a theme that was central to all her writings and speeches. While Stanton never did get to see the rewards of her life long struggle, the nineteenth amendment, which allowed women the right to vote, was passed nearly 20 years after her death. Her struggles and hardships she had endured were not in vein. Victory prevailed.
Now that I have provided an extensive overview of Elizabeth Stanton and the women’s movement during the late nineteenth century, I will now be taking a closer look at the rhetorical components of three of Stanton’s speeches that I have just mentioned. Speeches can be extremely difficult to analyze due to their complexity. The way that I, as a critic, intend to tackle these complexities will be by employing the following four steps: observation, analysis, interpretation and evaluation (Foss 26).
The first speech I will focus on is her address that she delivered at the Senaca Falls convention in 1848. The “Declaration of Sentiments” focuses on women’s right to demand political equality, a stand that gave feminism a clear strategy that set it upon firm ground. Stanton, while she was not the sole composer of this speech, was the main driving force behind it. Upon first observation of the speech you will notice that she carefully drafted it to closely resemble the 1776 Declaration of Independence, thus connecting the women’s campaign for equal rights directly with the American symbol of Liberty. Using this former document as a model, she utilized as much of the original wording as possible. She also created a list of eighteen of the women’s grievances, the same numbers that were in the 1776 document. By using the 1776 declaration as a model, Stanton demonstrated great persuasive technique. Thomas Jefferson, who as the author of this document, was in his own time a great reformer, and since the rhetoric had already been widely accepted once, why not try it again?
Now lets take a closer look at the significant changes and implications that were made in creating the new document. In the very first paragraph, of both documents, although a slight word variation, it is set out that their intentions in this document are to “declare the causes that impel them to such a course”. The causes for Jefferson may differ in the literal sense, but in essence, they were both writing these documents on behalf of their own people, demanding freedom, whether it be from the tyrannical rule of King George, or the tyrannical rule of man. In the first line of the second paragraph, the original copy read, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”, while Stanton’s copy read “that all men and women are created equal. As normal as that sentence may sound now, back in 1884, it was a controversial proclamation. The next significant change that was made was the omission of the words “among men” in the line, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”. Stanton believed that males only should no longer run the government. It was time for women to gain the right to political power as well. The final notable change was in the concluding sentences before the grievances were listed. Stanton changed the original, from labeling the Colonies, as the ones who have suffered in the hands of Great Britain’s King, to read it was “the patient sufferance of the women under this government”. By making this change it is easy to see the irony that this American government, which the people created to escape the tyrannical rule of Great Britain, was the same government that was imposing its’ own tyrannical rule over women.
Like the Declaration of 1776, Stanton’s version of the Declaration included a list of women’s grievances as well. A brief statement, not found on the one 1776 document introduced the list. The statement read as follows, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” She then went into the list of the specifics, which included: Women not being allowed to vote, married women being dead in the eyes of the law and having no property rights, women having to submit to laws they had no choice in, and husbands having legal power and responsibility for their wives to the extent that could imprison or beat them. These were just among the few of the eighteen grievances that were listed. I think that what Stanton was trying to point out was that these practices of mistreatment were considered to be the norm, not but 70 years after the new, idealistic democratic American Government was formed.
That in essence, women were fighting for that same thing
that the forefathers of our country were fighting for when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, freedom and equality.
The next speech I will analyze is “Home Life”, which is a speech Stanton gave on marriage and divorce. In this speech that Stanton delivered during lecture tours in the 1870’s, she speaks of morality, motherhood, and the shaping of children’s character (Dubois 131). She touched on the subject of the role that religion plays in keeping women oppressed. This controversial belief would eventually be the cause of Stanton losing many followers.
“Home life” starts off by talking about the problem at hand, “whether a man and woman are equal, joint heirs to all the richness and joy or earth and Heaven, or whether they were eternally ordained, one to be sovereign, the other slave…” (DuBois 132). Ultimately, this is the same problem that she addressed in the “Declaration of Sentiments” speech. She just says it in a much more realistic, almost disturbing, way. She is able to do this because the movement was no longer new. People were used to hearing about women’s oppression, and Stanton had to come up with new ways of people to see it for the cruel injustice that it was. One problem I see in comparing it to that of slavery is that many people of this day and age did not see slavery as wrong, therefore, by comparing to treatment of women to slavery, they may not see the treatment of women as subordinates as wrong either.
The main issue that she addressed in the speech was dealing with the topic of marriage. She offers a very valid reason why, despite all the progress they have made thus far, their still is no equality of women in the church and state, because “men are not ready to recognize it in the home”. What she means is that by men giving into the women’s desire to gain political equality, it will thus cause them to demand more control in home life as well. Men feared this, and women yearned for it. Stanton recognized that women were being oppressed in all aspects of their lives, and that the right to vote would ultimately be the cure to all their problems, because it would lead o political liberation, which would lead to domestic liberation.
Stanton argues in this speech that there needs to be a reform on whether or not marriage need be an indissoluble tie. She says that “from a woman’s standpoint, I see that marriage as an indissoluble tie is slavery for women, because law, religion, and public sentiment all combine under this relation, whatever it may be and there is no other human slavery that knows such depths of dedregation as a wife chained to a man whom she neither loves nor respects”. This to me was the most powerful part of the speech. She is making an appeal to all the women who are in a marriage in which they are unhappy, mistreated, abused, and felt they had no way out. She was putting into words what so many women of that time were feeling, helplessness. Still there was the concern that marriage was a sacred contract of the church. She addresses that concern with that statement that “the bible can be quoted on both sides”. Also she addressed the concern that marriage is a civil contract not to be broken. She raises the point that if marriage truly were a civil contract “it should be subject to the laws of all other contracts, carefully made, the parties of age, and all agreements faithfully observed. She pointed out, that on the contrary to the aforesaid, marriage is often enter into boy boys and girls twelve and fourteen years of age, without legal consent of their parents.
In this speech, Stanton is very effective at addressing any doubts or questions the audience may have, without them ever having to question her. It was this ability to predict possible reasons for opposition that made her such a prominent speaker and leader in the women’s movement. In the end of this speech, she makes a final plea, that when marriage is based more on equality, then a “nobler type of manhood and womanhood will glorify the race!” This here, is great example of her attempt to widen the scope of the women’s movement, by suggesting that the equality of women will have a immense impact on all of mankind, not just women.
The final speech that we will be looking at, which many consider to be one of the most moving statements of feminism, is titled “The Solitude of Self”(DuBois 246).
The message of this speech was a demand for woman’s absolute self-reliance taking into account physical, emotional, financial, political, intellectual, and legal independence. Stanton argued that women must be free to take responsibility for their own lives.
This speech differed greatly from many other of the speeches that she delivered, including the two that I talked about in this paper. Instead of inspiring her audience in an optimistic manner, in spoke less-then-optimistic tones about the essential isolation of each individual. She claimed that women were more vulnerable than men were because women were less prepared to defend themselves, nor were they expected to. However, according to Stanton, both sexes shared the same existential fate. No matter what laws were passes, no matter what reforms were established individuals would still be responsible for their unique and alone self. She begins the speech with the opening line “The point I wish plainly to bring before you…is the individuality of each human soul”. She goes on to talk about the “awful solitude” that all individuals, especially women have had to endure over the course of their life, especially during: childhood, marriage, childbirth, widowhood, old age, poverty, catastrophe, and death.
She also speaks of the importance of education in this speech. She believes that women need to be properly educated, because women need not be dependent on no one but themselves. It is in the course of this discussion that Stanton acknowledges that not all women prefer independence, some prefer “to lean, to be protected and supported”. She says that regardless of what the woman desires, she must know how to and be able to support herself, because truly all people are alone in this world. Stanton also used the political implications of self-sovereignty to counter-act the claim that men, could use their ability to vote and make laws, to act on the behalf of women. According to Stanton beliefs, no one could represent anyone else but themselves.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a pioneer in the modern quest for women’s rights. She is one of the few women whose impact on the shaping of America has been generally acknowledged, and rightfully so. Her social vision was to liberate society from false perceptions, outdated customs, unjust laws and false religious doctrines. Through analysis of three of Stanton’s speeches all these visions became quite clear. Unfortunately, Stanton did not live long enough to see her ultimate goal attained, the end to women’s suffrage, it is cleat to me that it was the rhetoric of Stanton’s speeches that advanced the movement to where it is today.
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