ELLEN DUBOIS wrote of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1981: "After their deaths, they were remembered quite differently. Many devoted followers carefully preserved Anthony's memory, literally making her a suffrage saint. Her home was made into a museum, her papers were collected. . . Stanton was nowhere near as glorified."
No effort was made to collect Stanton's papers and no biography of her was written until 1940. Elisabeth Griffith has set out to change this: to restore the life of an extraordinary woman, by bringing the devotion to fact of the historian to the recreation of a profoundly enigmatic and radical woman. Like most heroes ahead of her time, Stanton was a startling combination of courage, self-confidence, and political derring-do. A questioner of the ideologies of female bondage, she frightened everyone, not least her more timid suffragist companions. They were all afraid, as women have notoriously been, of "going too far."
Stanton went very far indeed: not content to work only for women's suffrage, she campaigned also for married women's property rights, equal education for women, reform of the divorce law, and a woman's right to control her own body. To dramatize her opposition to the oppressive power of religion in women's lives, she even wrote a "Women's Bible."
Recent feminism has enabled us to view with more sympathy and less demand for consistency the neglected and often difficult women of the past. As Griffith writes of Stanton, "Many of the issues she addressed and the opinions she expressed have contemporary vitality." Simply to set Stanton against contemporary fundamentalist women is to understand this. Stanton believed religion argely responsible for women's degrading position and refused to adhere with Anthony to the single issue of the vote. Concerning those religious women who would defend strictures against their own sex on the authority of the Bible, she wrote; "Much as I desire the suffrage I would rather never vote than to see the policy of our government at the mercy of the religious bigotry of such women."
IF ANTHONY is remembered, among other reasons, because as a single woman she could be easily identified, and mocked, Stanton, as the mother of seven, was the more threatening figure. She could proclaim women's sexuality, while urging legislation to prevent women's enforced intercourse in marriage. She herself omitted the word "obey" from her marriage ceremony: to obey really meant sexually to submit at the husband's sole desire.
Stanton born in 1815 to a prominent family, early adopted male role models. Like so many courageous women, she sought to please her father by behaving like a son. From an early age she resented women's disabilities, and struggled all her life, through domestic crises, childbirths, and the unsuccessful career of a politically inept husband, toward a definition of autonomy to which women might aspire. Well beyond a century later, we still lack an Equal Rights Amendment, but not the opposition of fearful women who have internalized patriarchal definitions of their destiny. Griffith's work illuminates both women's forgotten history, and their magnificent ability to stand in their own light.
Biographies of women are, in many ways, a new art, a new challenge. So recently have women begun to be viewed as subjects of their own destinies, makers of their own stories, that the techniques of women's biography are still experimental. Griffith has not written a "creative" biography, of the sort to which we are more accustomed: imagination and the inevitable fictive mind usually evident behind such works is not the way of the historian. Griffith's methodology, explained in an endnote, is social learning theory, "a sophisticated form of behaviorism." Its strengths for biographical purposes are that it does not imprison the subject in childhood dramas, but allows for growth and change in adulthood and even, as with Stanton, in old age. As Griffith candidly admits, social learning theory cannot explain everything: "why Stanton treated Anthony so shabbily in the 1870s"; why she took such amazing risks; why she got so fat.
If Griffith and her theory do not answer these questions, they neverthless provide the materials for us to ponder them. As a literary type. I have some answers that do not occur to the more disciplined mind of a historian. Stanton got so fat because she was tired of thinness and its strident dictates to female life. Stanton lived to be 87, intellectually aware to the end. I suspect that Anthony's sharp profile and rigid, middleparted hair-do better fit the popular notion of a feminist visage to adorn stamp and coin. Stanton's chubby face and curls contradicted, as did her life, one's view of a neat feminist: she was radical in everything.
Stanton, like Anthony, knew that cautious, careful people "never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation." As Griffith points out, Stanton went far enough "to lose every battle and most of her allies. She lost married women's property rights, divorce reform, and limited suffrage." She alienated most of her former allies. She had guts and autonomy, and, occasionally, self-righteousness. Griffith has given her to us with magnificent objectivity and coolness, but knows, nonetheless, that we have waited far too long to follow in Stanton's footsteps. Stanton believed that the vote is not enough if women do not know what to vote for. And we are just beginning to learn Stanton's secret: to survive without the approval or encouragement so necessary to most of us as women. With the courage to be, in her words, "a solitary soul," Stanton has waited over a century for us to catch up. With Griffith's guidance, we yet may.