ELIZABETH CADY STANTON (1999)
by John Patrick Michael Murphy
Even before abolition was achieved, she turned her attention to the miserable niches her own sex occupied in society. Again she asserted the Bible and Christianity as the cause. Mainstream religion had an agenda for women - no divorce, no vote, no birth control, no right to own property, and no equality. "To me, there was no question so important as the emancipation of women from the dogmas of the past, political, religious, and social. It struck me as very remarkable that abolitionists, who felt so keenly the wrongs of the slave, should be so oblivious to the equal wrongs of their own mothers, wives, and sisters, when, according to the common law, both classes occupied a similar legal status."
Soon Susan B. Anthony and hundreds of other women and men who had their fill of bigotry joined her. Ms. Anthony was a great organizer while Ms. Stanton was a fine writer. Together they were a team until they had a falling out of sorts. The two argued about the threshold question - should women get the vote first and then change the mores of the day, or should they change the mores of the day, and then suffrage would naturally follow? Ms. Stanton held that suffrage for women would be wasted if the Church still controlled their sex in the home and in society. She wrote, "When women understand that governments and religions are human inventions; that bibles, prayer-books, catechisms, and encyclical letters are all emanations from the brains of man, they will no longer be oppressed by the injunctions that come to them with the divine authority of 'Thus sayeth the Lord.'"
She fought for 50 years, which was too short to overcome the ponderous inertia of chauvinism. For half a century she attacked the pulpits and the irrational dogma that came from them. She found the Bible revolting and largely uncivilized. Preachers tried to comfort her by claiming the New Testament was better than the Old, only to hear her say, "All the men of the Old Testament were polygamists, and Christ and Paul, the central figures of the New Testament, were celibates, and condemned marriage by both precept and example." For years she and a score of women combed the Bible to highlight its perverse vilification of their sex. When the project was completed it took two volumes to contain it all. It was called The Woman's Bible and it started an uproar, which caused it to be published time and time again. It remains in print today.
In 1896, the 81-year-old Ms. Stanton suffered the sting of having the organization she founded, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, condemn The Woman's Bible. Before the vote Susan B. Anthony left the chair she held as President, in order to speak against the resolution. She pleaded with the delegates, "What you should do is to say to outsiders that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our Association than an atheist. When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself shall not stand upon it ... " In spite of the plea the resolution passed 53 to 41.
It is fitting that the words, that finally granted woman suffrage, found in the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, were written by Ms. Stanton. When it passed, in 1920, she had been dead for 18 years. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a woman without superstition. Her epitaph could be the poem she quoted on the title page of her diary -
I live ...
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton" is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.
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