The Formative Years of a Crusader:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton

  

William Loveday, Jr. is our Fulton County Historian and kindly shared this article with us.  Amidst his other priorities, he enjoys writing and publishing articles like this one, which was published in The Leader Herald, on Monday, April 14, 2002 on page 8A.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, shown with one of her seven children

  

Cady Stanton's lifelong fight for women's rights 
traces back to upbringing in colonial Johnstown


  Fulton County has spawned many an influential or inventive person in it's time, but probably none with a greater impact on this country or the world than our own Elizabeth Smith Cady Stanton.  Most people know that she was a leader of the Women's Rights Movement and that she was born and raised in Johnstown, N. Y., but to understand what gave her the drive and determination to fight the uphill battle of equal rights, we should look at the childhood that molded her for this purpose.

  Elizabeth was born during an era of male supremacy, when women were considered capable only of handling domestic responsibilities and were therefore subjugated to an inferior status in all other matters.  The laws were all made by men for men, and as a result women as a whole were not allowed to vote, speak in public, hold an office, attend college, or earn a living other than as a teacher, seamstress, domestic or mill worker.  A married woman faced all of these limitations, plus legally she could not make contracts, sue in court, divorce an abusive or drunken husband, gain control of her own children, or own property which she earned or brought into marriage.  Both conventions of the times and the law kept women in a subservient position and thereby reduced their incentive for education and betterment of their social and family positions.  Elizabeth Smith Cady was to become the rebellious spark that would change all of this over time.

  Elizabeth was born in Johnstown on November 12, 1815 of affluent parents who adhered to the conventions and laws just mentioned.  Her father, Judge Daniel Cady, was recognized as a leading legislator and legal mind throughout New York State and practiced his legal profession in the old Fulton County Courthouse and at the Cady residence located where the Fleet Bank is today on Main Street.  His portrait still hangs in the courtroom of the courthouse today.  Her mother was Margaret Livingston of the Hudson River Livingstons whose father was Col. James Livingston of Revolutionary War fame.  Elizabeth was the seventh child of ten born to her parents.

  She and her sisters were raised knowing their place in both family and society.  In her own words, "Fear, rather than love of God and parents alike, predominated."  As children, and especially female children, they were to be seen and not heard at home.  In spite of this atmosphere, Elizabeth and her sisters managed to have a playful and relatively happy childhood, constantly trying to circumvent the restrictive conventions of their time.

  Her first recollection of gender inequality was when, at the age of 4, her sister Harriet was born and she overheard many family friends commenting, "What a pity it is she is a girl." As Elizabeth stated in her diary, "I did not realize at that time girls were considered an inferior order of beings."  Still, the comments were remembered.  As she grew in years, she began to recognize more and more references to inequality, until finally at age 11, an event occurred  that would set the direction for the rest of her life.  She had had four brothers born, but only one lived for any length of time.  At age 20, this brother, Eleazer Livingston Cady, died while a student at Union College and her father, in his grief, remarked to her, "Oh, my daughter, would that you were a boy!"  He recognized her growing abilities, but had just lost his last son and convention of the times stressed that only men would become leaders.  Elizabeth pondered the rest of the day and night what she could do to replace her brother in her father's eyes.

  She finally concluded that to be treated as an equal to a boy, she must become "learned and courageous".  The very next day she approached Rev. Simon Hosack, a neighbor and pastor of the Johnstown Presbyterian Church, explaining her need for excelling in higher languages and mathematics.  He understood her need and started tutoring her in Greek, Latin and higher maths (at age 11!).  Eventually, she excelled in these courses at the Johnstown Academy where she was the only girl in the upper classes of math and languages and eventually won top prize in Greek competition.  When she received her prize of a new Greek Testament, she ran all the way home, joyfully plunked her prize down on her father's desk and shouted, "There, I got it!"  Expecting some kind of remark that would show he recognized her equality with her brother, she was again devastated when he kissed her on her forehead and said, "Ah, you should have been a boy."

  Throughout her childhood she often listened in on the problems of her father's female clients and was confused and greatly agitated by the lack of legal recourse that these mostly married women had.  Her father always had compassion for them, but the law was the law.  She often had her father show her the odious laws that were so unsympathetic to the problems of "these poor Scotch women", as her father referred to them.

  As an example, under the Scotch and Dutch feudal conventions of that time, the oldest boy of a family inherited almost everything when the father passed away, and often this son was a drunkard or a fool with money and squandered it away, leaving the wife/mother penniless and without a roof over her head.  The law provided no recourse for the woman.  Elizabeth marked these laws with a pencil in his legal books and planned to cut them out when the opportunity arose.  This word reached her father, and he explained to her developing mind that these laws were universal and not just in his law books.  Instead of cutting out the laws, he advised her to go Albany when she was older and talk to the legislators about changing the laws that brought so much suffering to women.  Little did he realize that she would always remember this advice, and eventually carry it out with great success.

  When Elizabeth graduated from the Academy with top honors, she was mortified watching many of the boys in her class go off to college while she was shut out from this opportunity.  Eventually, she did go to Emma Willard Seminary for Women in Troy to obtain her higher learning.

  After that, she enjoyed her new-found freedom and leisure and traveled, meeting many of the abolitionists of her day and women with ideas paralleling hers on attaining gender equality.  She met Lucretia Mott, a Philadelphia Quaker with revolutionary ideas similar to hers, and together they traveled to London to attend an international abolitionist meeting.  There, she met the young abolitionist lawyer Henry Brewster Stanton and soon they were married.

  Elizabeth started to speak out on women's rights, and eventually at age 33 organized a group of staunch allies, both men and women, and scheduled the Women's Rights Convention in her new family hometown of Seneca Falls, N. Y..  The world would never be the same again for women.  At that convention, she was recognized as the founder and first president of of the Woman's Suffrage Organization in America.  At the convention, the leaders planned to speak on a list of grievances based on the Declaration of Independence denouncing inequalities in property rights, education, employment, marriage and family, etc.. Elizabeth was selected to speak on the most radical and controversial reform of all which stated, "Resolved:  That it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the electoral franchise (the right to vote)".  She insisted on presenting this agenda item because she realized, from her fathers early advice, that "the power to make or change laws (the vote) was the right through which all other rights could be secured."  Without the right to vote, no changes could be made.  This agenda item was so radical that even women were split on it, with Lucretia Mott protesting that to bring this idea up "Would make women look ridiculous."  But do you remember the childhood goals of Elizabeth, to become "learned and courageous"?  Enter now the courageous part of her life.  From here on throughout her 50 year (and more) career as a suffragette, her courage came to the fore in the face of constant ridicule and setbacks.

  Eventually, Elizabeth and Susan B. Anthony, working as a team, started winning victories such as the 1848  Married Women's Property Act of New York and its amendment of 1860 which allowed wives to finally hold property, keep their own earnings and inheritance, make contracts, sue in court, and share child custody of their own children.  As Anthony, who was a teacher in Seneca Falls before joining the movement in 1851, often said, "Elizabeth wrote the speeches and devised the strategy while I lectured and circulated petitions."

  In 1854, Elizabeth gave her first of many women's rights speeches to the New York Legislature.  She was the first woman granted the right to speak to this body.  When Judge Cady heard of this plan, he asked her to stop by Johnstown on her way to Albany so he could hear her speech.  She was well aware her father condemned the whole movement that she had started and was deeply grieved by her active part in it, but she did as requested and presented her speech in his office.  He was moved to tears and asked, "Where did you learn this lesson?"  She said that she had learned it all in his office, as a child, listening to  the pitiful stories told to him by the women of Johnstown.  He complimented her on her preparation, made a few minor suggestions, and sent her on her way to fulfill the suggestion he had made to her at age 11.

  Amazingly, during all the strategy, speech making and travel involved with the suffrage movement, Elizabeth and Henry had seven children.  Unlike many of her spinster friends in the movement, she bore the brunt of responsibility for their raising and spent much of her time as a stay-at-home mom, writing and directing the movement from her home.  When she could get away, however, she crisscrossed the country relentlessly agitating for the reforms she dreamed of.

  In 1884, both she and Susan B. Anthony were living in Johnstown.  Elizabeth at the family home and Susan at Mrs. Henry's home at 9 S. William St., together writing the "History of Woman's Suffrage", a 4 volume study and history of the early movement.

  In her autobiography "Eighty Years and More", Elizabeth gives the reader an excellent background of her life as a pioneer and leader of the Women's Rights Movement and the victories won by her "through fearlessness, tempered by graciousness" as Susan often said.  She gave as the philosophy of her life:  "To live one day at a time; neither waste my forces in apprehension of evils to come, nor regrets for the blunders of the past."  She had many victories but also some setbacks.  She had always lived for the day when her father would say, "Well, a girl is as good as a boy, after all", but that day never came.  Also, her lifetime goal of obtaining the vote for women was never realized during her lifetime.  She passed away in 1902, happy with the achievements and firm belief that the battle of women's voting rights would be won.  It was not until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 that this victory was achieved by those who followed in the footsteps of her and Susan, and with this victory, over half of the adult population previously deprived of voting rights was able to make its needs and demands heard at the voting booth.  Together, these two women had broken the conventional barriers and established a momentum for the vote that could never be stopped.

  Women today should look back with eternal gratefulness at the courage, tenacity, and self-sacrifice of the young girl from Johnstown, N.Y. who awakened a sleeping giant and won for them the deserved rights and self-respect that they enjoy today.

  


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Copyright , 2002 William Loveday, Jr.
Copyright , 2002 Jeanette Shiel
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Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:15:20 PDT