Stanton, Elizabeth Cady

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was one of the three foremost leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the radical wing of the nineteenth century woman suffrage movement. The others were Susan B. Anthony of Rochester and Matilda Joslyn Gage of Fayetteville.

Stanton was a principal organizer of the first Woman’s Rights Conference held at Seneca Falls, where she resided, in 1848. Some of her most significant accomplishments include forming the National Women’s Suffrage Association, with Anthony, in 1869; and being elected president of its successor organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in 1890.

Stanton was related to the prominent abolitionist and woman’s rights activist, the millionaire philanthropist Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. Smith was her cousin. Among other things, the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton met her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, at a social event at Smith’s estate.

By age 40, Stanton was becoming a freethinker in matters of religion. In 1855, Stanton wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Smith Miller, daughter of Gerrit Smith, that since the New York Observer had labeled her an infidel, “I ought to look up my associates,” Thomas Paine and Fanny Wright – which she did. Late in her career she went public with her freethought, criticizing Christianity for its oppression of women in The Woman’s Bible (1895-1898), which she wrote at the head of a committee including 26 other notable women. It became a best-seller, much to the displeasure of suffragists including Anthony who wished to distance the suffrage movement from any antireligious stance. So controversial did Stanton become that from 1898 until her death in 1902, Stanton could seldom get her writings published in suffrage publications. Instead she became a regular columnist for Freethought Magazine, an atheist publication edited by H. L. Green to which she had been an occasional contributor throughout the 1890s.

The Woman’s Bible has been recognized as an American Treasure by the U. S. Library of Congress.

Among principal leaders in the suffrage movement, only Matilda Joslyn Gage had a longer record as a critic of religion. History’s treatment of Anthony, Stanton, and Gage is most revealing. Early twentieth-century suffragists tended to look back on Anthony, a closet freethinker who sought to keep Christian groups in the suffrage movement, as its sole founding leader. Stanton, who revealed her infidel views late in life after having already established her reputation as a suffragist, was almost forgotten until her rediscovery by second-wave feminists of the 1960s. Gage, who had been critical of religion throughout her suffrage career, was largely forgotten by history until the mid-1990s, when her memory was rehabilitated largely through the efforts of feminist scholar Sally Roesch Wagner.