The Women’s Rights Movement 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.