Elizabeth Cady Stanton
On the Law
The daughter of a judge, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had a keen interest in the law. In her youth she began reading law books and enjoyed debates with her father's law students. These experiences further developed her analytical mind and her rhetorical skills.
Elizabeth's life was "a lifelong project to define and correct the problems women faced," according to historians Ellen Carol Dubois and Richard Candida. Initially she turned her attention to the legal system, which codified the subjection of women. She understood that women and men could not change their legal status if they lacked the right to vote, and she worked hard and ultimately unsuccessfully for the cause of universal suffrage.
A rift in the abolitionist and suffrage movements developed over that cause. Many reformers took a pragmatic approach to suffrage, believing that male suffrage (especially for black men) should be the first priority. Elizabeth disagreed so violently that she opposed passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which formally codified male suffrage. In her outrage she revealed racist and bigoted aspects of her thinking. She resented deeply that the fact that the law gave black men, male immigrants, and men "of the lower orders" (as she put it) had the right to vote, but women were expected to wait. Her rhetoric incorporated such demeaning terms as "Sambo," and consequently she alienated many of her formerly ardent supporters, including Frederick Douglass.
Elizabeth knew that the law kept black women disenfranchised as well, but she failed to form alliances with black woman suffragists.Influenced by social Darwinism and nativist sentiments, she then advocated "educated suffrage," which in effect would reserve the franchise for literate white men and women of the middle and upper classes.
Elizabeth, Susan B. Anthony and other woman suffragists tried a new legal strategy they called "the New Departure." They argued that by its very nature, citizenship conferred the right to vote on men and women alike. Their strategy was to bring the issue before the courts. Women would violate the law by voting illegally, be arrested and then file suit. Anthony voted in the 1872 election and the following year was brought to trial, found guilty, and fined. A Missouri woman, Virginia Minor, was the plaintiff in a famous 1874 U.S. Supreme Court case, Minor vs. Happersett, which set back woman's suffrage for generations. It also had major negative consequences for newly enfranchised black men and for the civil rights of all citizens.
During the post-Civil War years Elizabeth Cady Stanton increasingly turned her attention to issues that went beyond the cause of woman suffrage. By this time she was convinced that an unjust legal system only reflected deeper and more entrenched problems. She devoted the last twenty years of her life to studying, lecturing, and writing about religion as a root cause of woman's inequality in marriage and before the law.