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People & Ideas: Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Source: Library of Congress

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal," wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her 1845 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Revising Thomas Jefferson's famous words, Stanton, a vocal advocate for women's suffrage, abolition and social reform in the 19th century, reinterpreted America's longstanding commitment to equality, believing that both sexes deserved equal rights and privileges under the law.

Born in Johnstown, N.Y., in 1815, Stanton, unlike most women of her generation, received a formal education, first at Johnston Academy, then at Troy Female Seminary. A lively intellect and talented writer, she was influenced by popular evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who terrified her with his talk of sin and damnation. "Fear of the judgment seized my soul. Visions of the lost haunted my dreams," she wrote. But Stanton came to reject Finney's style of preaching -- it "worked incalculable harm to the very souls he sought to save" –- and organized Christianity. She wrote: "My religious superstitions gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts ... I view it as one of the greatest crimes to shadow the minds of the young with these gloomy superstitions; and with fears of the unknown and the unknowable to poison all their joy in life."

Stanton codified her views on religion in her most controversial work, The Woman's Bible. Referring to the Christian Bible, Stanton wrote: "I know no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of woman. ... When our bishops, archbishops and ordained clergymen stand up in their pulpits and read selections from the Pentateuch with reverential voice, they make the women of their congregation believe that there really is some divine authority for their subjection." Convinced that progress on women's rights required a revised Christianity, Stanton assembled an international committee to reinterpret the Bible's message.

Upon its publication in 1895, however, The Woman's Bible fractured the women's rights movement. Stanton's longtime friend and supporter Susan B. Anthony did not think it expedient to push away religious persons from women's rights. She wrote, "I have worked 40 years to make the [women's suffrage] platform broad enough for atheists and agnostics to stand upon, and now if need be I will fight the next 40 years to keep it Catholic enough to permit the straightest Orthodox religionist to speak or pray and count her beads upon." Evangelicals like Frances Willard, head of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, had gained influence in the suffrage movement, and many disavowed Stanton's religious radicalism.

Stanton died in 1902, before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920. Though too radical for many in the 19th century, Stanton's opinions continue to influence discourse on sex and faith in the United States today. Her works inspired the writings of many 20th-century feminists.

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Published October 11, 2010

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