The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick

ImageVivian Gornick succeeds in writing a biographical account of Elizabeth Cady Stanton that captures her very essence as a woman and an activist. Gornick argues that Stanton’s radical position “among radicals” makes her the most forward thinking feminist thinker of the nineteenth century, one whose ideas gave birth to the present ideals of feminism. However the ambitiousness of her goals for women did not always lead to admiration by her peers. Indeed her decision to fight for suffrage in the late eighteen forties caused her fellow activist and friend Lucretia Mott to initially exclaim, “O Lizzie, thou wilt make us ridiculous.” (41) In her own time, Elizabeth was seen as erratic and impractical, sometimes even racist and insensitive. Gornick notes, “She hardly ever spoke before she thought, but she always spoke without consultation or strategic consideration.” (46) It is this lack of “strategic consideration” replaced with pure passion that led her to say things like, “for the negro can be raised to the dignity of a voter if he possess himself of $250; the lunatic can vote in his moments of sanity; and the idiot too, if he be a male one…” (51) Though her contemporaries judged her harshly, it was her unbridled enthusiasm for women’s rights and individualist spirit that make her such an essential figure for present-day American feminists. Indeed Gornick goes as far as to say, “We are beginning where she left off.” (16)

In her first chapter, “1840 to Begin With,” Gornick begins with Stanton’s stepping down from her position of president of the National Woman Suffrage Association with her “The Solitude of Self” speech. She explains that Stanton felt distant from her beloved cause because of the “kind of single issue, nuts-and-bolts politics she had come to deplore.” (4) For Stanton, pragmatism was less important than principle, thus she felt isolated in this practical, lifeless environment. The book begins with a perceived failure or surrender, yet then continues to Gornick’s own personal journey in feminism, recounting experiences of sexism, “I remembered my young husband and me talking for hours about what we would do with the future, both clearly taking it for granted that his life was to be our life.” (12) Gornick argues that contemporary American feminists share the ideals of the once perceived radical Stanton. “Reading Elizabeth Stanton,” Gornick remarks, “made me feel on my skin the shock of realizing how slowly (how grudgingly!) politics in the modern world has actually moved…” (16) Though Stanton was born nearly one hundred years before Gornick, their politics are incredibly similar.  The fact that some people today may even see Gornick as a radical in the twenty-first century, demonstrates how much of an extremist Stanton must have seemed to be.

In her chapter “Radical Among Radicals,” Gornick highlights how even in a movement seen as radical, Stanton’s goals were more ambitious than the rest. Ironically in one way Stanton was a “true woman.” She was a diligent mother of seven, and looked like a modest grandmother from a fairly early age. However she was certainly neither submissive nor pious. She detested religion as she felt it was the institution that most prevented women from advancing. She regarded religion as an “old and worn-out theology full of bigotry and prejudice.” (121) This was not true of some of her peers; Susan B. Anthony was a very pious Quaker. Stanton’s speaking out against Christianity in that period of time was to court public hatred. Stanton spoke openly in favor of divorce causing scandal for the National Woman Suffrage Association. The New York Observer wrote about Stanton, “no true woman could listen to what had been said without turning scarlet, yet words that would turn the world into one vast brothel had been read unblushingly by a person in woman’s attire, named in the programme as Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” (67) Though her radicalism may have been a perceived danger to her cause, she never agreed to compromise her own beliefs. Without this strength or stubbornness, it is unclear is modern feminist would be what it is today. Stanton pushed boundaries that no one else was willing to, and therefore remains incredibly pertinent and influential today.

The final chapter “From There to Here” focuses on the far-reaching consequences of Stanton’s politics for modern feminists and an explanation of why feminism is American. She argues the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance is a distinctly American phenomenon, “That famous American loneliness, with its fierce credo of self-reliance, has time and time again become a source of collective dissident strength. It allows us to stay the course of alienation when a protracted action is required to fulfill the (broken) promise of inclusiveness into which the country was born.” (131) Citizens of countries like Israel who are built on the bedrock of family are unable to see themselves as pure individuals the way Americans do.  In Stanton’s “The Solitude of Self Speech” she speaks of the isolation and loneliness that perhaps gave her the bravery to speak as openly as she did. Her ability to fight for her own beliefs without concern for the immediate consequences for the National Woman Suffrage Association make it clear that she perhaps had “the long view” in mind.  Stanton’s individualist tactics allowed her to become the most influential female activist for woman’s rights in the 19th century: a model and an inspiration.

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