ELIZABETH CADY STANTON,
WOMAN'S RIGHTS" (September 1848)
Belinda A. Stillion Southard
University of Maryland
Elizabeth Cady Stanton is
considered the "greatest speaker" of the early woman's rights movement. She helped organize the first woman's
rights convention, she drafted and presented the first woman's rights charter,
and she founded multiple woman's rights organizations,
remaining in the public eye as a leader of the movement for more than fifty
years. Thus, her first formal
public address, "Address on Woman's Rights," delivered in 1848, is a key text
not only for understanding early woman's rights ideology, but also for
understanding what drove one of our nation's most prominent social movement
This study takes a historical
approach to illuminate the transformative power of Stanton's first major
public speech, her "Address on Woman's Rights, 1848." To that end, I situate the address
within the gendered context of 1848, detailing the social, political, and
ideological forces at play in the historical moment. Additionally, I discuss how these
forces, along with Stanton's privileged upbringing and entrance
into reform activism, shaped her ideological approach toward woman's
rights. Next, I treat Stanton's address as a site of discursive action where the
interplay between text and context illuminates three key rhetorical strategies
address. First, while Stanton's arguments were grounded in natural
rights, she incorporated appeals to women's moral authority, developing a
complicated and entangled ideology of gender differences. Second, Stanton's embellished
speaking style facilitated her thorough and weighty refutation of arguments
against woman's rights. Third, the narrative form of Stanton's conclusion invited her audience to participate in
a vision of massive transformation, in which Stanton's prophetic call for sacrifice was both
an enactment of women's equality and a forecast of her role in the early woman's
rights movement. In conclusion, I consider the significance of Stanton's address for how
it created a tension between natural rights and moral arguments that persisted
throughout the history of the woman's rights movement.
in a Culture of Resistance
Stanton's 1848 "Address on Woman's Rights" should be
understood as both a historical artifact of gender ideology and an example of
personal tenacity. At age 32,
Stanton's privileged upbringing and superior intellect helped her enter what was
considered the public sphere—a space reserved for men—and share her
revolutionary ideas on woman's rights. Other woman's rights successes, made
particularly through advances in education and women’s participation in the
abolitionist movement, expanded the boundaries for women throughout the late
eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries. These two forces—Stanton's untapped
leadership and the momentum of other social movements—created the opportunity to
deliver this address. The following
traces key elements of this fortuitous intersection, showing how Stanton's upbringing and
young adult life intersected with greater societal moves toward woman's
In the post-Revolutionary
War era, the demand for women's education became politicized. Prior to the war, white women were
relegated to domestic life, but according to Linda K. Kerber, the Revolution "created a public ideology of
individual responsibility and virtue" which compelled some to elevate the status
of women as cultivators of civic virtue. Of course women were still confined to
the private sphere, but they were considered morally superior and natural
teachers, thus redefining their domesticity into what was termed "republican
motherhood." As Kerber
suggests, "theorists created a mother who had a political purpose and argued
that her domestic behavior had a direct political function in the Republic." As such, a woman's domestic life,
particularly white women of means, were not only required to run a home and
raise a family, but to cultivate good citizens for the betterment of the
republic. At this time, a woman's
domestic responsibilities had political ramifications, yet women were still
constrained from directly entering the public sphere.
The white republican
mother was further enabled by increased access to education. As teachers of civic virtue, women
needed an education to train their families to participate in society. According to Glenna Matthews, white
women began receiving informal educations by the late eighteenth century. She
explains: "Married women still could not control property in their own names,
women still could not vote, but some at least were beginning to receive an
education to equip them for intelligent participation in their society." Despite these small gains, education was
limited to wealthy, white women and focused on enriching their moral
understanding, not their intellect.
Thus, women's domesticity secured the nation's civic virtue, while
pushing beyond the private sphere posed a threat to the young nation. Pursuing a
formal education was certainly beyond the realm of the womanly sphere.
Access to equal education, then,
was the first movement toward woman's rights in America. One of the first advocates
for women's education was an Englishwoman, Mary Wollstonecraft, who, in the Vindication of the Rights of Women,
argued that women and men were naturally equals and that boundaries between the
public and private spheres should be eliminated. She advocated for coeducation
as a means of enriching women's moral and intellectual development. Ultimately,
though, American women resisted embracing Wollstonecraft's radical ideas because
of her eccentric personal character.
Following in line with other
voices advocating woman's rights (e.g., Mercy Warren, 1776, Judith Sargent Murray, 1782, and Hannah Mather Crocker, 1818), Emma Willard
forged the opening of the first endowed educational institution for young women.
After she was denied a formal education, Willard believed her self-taught
mathematical and physiological training should be put to use. For two years she
privately lobbied New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and many legislators. In
1821, she opened the Troy Female Seminary, which Stanton later attended. Willard paved the way for many others to
open seminaries or colleges exclusively for young women.
Stanton's upbringing prepared her to excel as a
student of Willard's. Although born
into a wealthy family on November 12, 1815, Stanton was forced to overcome family hardship.
Her mother Margaret, strong-willed and formidable, gave birth to eleven
children, six of whom died before reaching adulthood. Stanton's father, Daniel, a prominent but reserved judge,
was stricken with grief upon losing his second son Eleazar, when Stanton was only ten years old. Memories of
Eleazar's funeral haunted Stanton, as she recalls her
father saying to her, "Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy."
Throughout adolescence, Stanton excelled
athletically and academically, voraciously reading in her father's law library,
attending court sessions, and riding horses. Judge Cady even allowed his
daughter to participate in dinner table debates with his law clerks. At fifteen years old, Stanton began to attend
Troy Seminary where she embraced Willard's vision of women's education and
considered Willard a role model.
During her time at Troy Seminary, Stanton began to develop her confidence in a
woman's ability to effect social change.
Abolition and a Woman's Right to Speak
The anti-slavery movement provided
opportunities for women to participate in public action and for Stanton to develop her
reformist sensibilities. Women who
raised money and awareness for female education typically did so behind closed
doors to avoid violating codes of proper, womanly behavior. But abolitionism
challenged these codes by encouraging women to speak publicly. Boldly emerging
into the public sphere was Frances Wright, a Scottish freethinker who, between
1828 and 1829, delivered anti-slavery speeches and advocated equal education for
women. Her radical vision for gender and racial equality not only stirred the
debate over human rights, but attracted "promiscuous audiences"—audiences
comprised of both men and women. Wright had such a profound effect on the
role of women in social reform that woman's rights advocates throughout the
nineteenth century were often pejoratively labeled, "Fanny Wrightists."
Many women abolitionists believed
it was their moral duty to speak publicly against slavery. Maria W. Miller
Stewart, an African American woman, made forthright calls toward Christian
righteousness in favor of abolition and a woman's right to speak against
slavery. Sarah and Angelina Grimké also made arguments rooted in Christian beliefs. The
sisters were compelled by their upbringing on a slave-owning plantation and
their Quaker faith. Between 1835 and 1838, Sarah and Angelina waged a public
abolitionist campaign, working for the American Anti-Slavery Society in
editorials, and delivering lectures. Ultimately, the Grimkés advocated a woman's right to speak publicly in order
to further the abolitionist cause.
Between her late teenage years and
early thirties, Stanton met many abolitionists, men and women,
and began formulating radical views on slavery and equal rights for women. She
remained inspired by Willard's views on social and political issues as she
developed a close relationship with her cousin and abolitionist, Gerrit Smith.
His life was dedicated to acts of benevolence, inspired by a humanitarian
brand of Christianity. Ultimately, she met and fell in love with Henry Stanton,
a "tall, handsome, dynamic" abolitionist. Stanton and Henry announced their
engagement in October 1839 after knowing each other for less than a month. Stanton's
father disapproved of the hasty engagement and threatened to disinherit
marrying such a controversial public figure. After months of tumultuous debate,
Stanton and Henry eloped on May 1, 1840, shortly before whisking away to London, England.
London was the site of the first World
Anti-Slavery Convention, which spurred the inception of the American woman's
rights movement. Many notable abolitionists were in attendance, including
Angelina Grimké Weld, Wendell Phillips, and William
Lloyd Garrison. Most exciting to Stanton, though, was meeting Lucretia and James Mott. Lucretia
Coffin Mott was an ordained Quaker minister, who at 47 years of age became an
immediate mentor and confidante to Stanton. The two women bonded through
adversity—on the first day of the convention, a vote was held as to whether the
American women would be welcome to sit with the men. Out of protest, Garrison
joined the women who had been relegated to the periphery of the convention
floor. Stanton and Mott boycotted
the rest of convention and decided that they needed to hold a convention of
During the eight years following
the convention, Stanton was preoccupied with becoming a mother
and "a domestic monarch."
entertained many prominent activists, she did not consider herself an activist,
but rather a supporter of her husband's activities. In 1847, after Henry's
political career and health flailed, the Stanton
family moved to Seneca
Falls, New York.
The Woman's Rights Movement
Despite this steady but slow
trajectory toward acquiring woman's rights, American women in 1848 still lived
with severe economic, legal, and social restrictions—all woven into a seemingly
impenetrable web of laws and social customs. Marriage laws in America
were fashioned after English common law, which declared women femme covert—legally dead—upon marriage.
A woman's legal rights were all but wholly absolved into her husband's
identity. For example, "A working
woman could be compelled to hand over every penny of her wages to a drunkard
husband, even if she was left with nothing for her own subsistence or the
maintenance of her children."
Additionally, a woman had no right to her family's possessions upon being
widowed, and if she did seek divorce, she forfeited custody of her children.
Religion also imposed social
inequity upon women. While many women activists were Quakers and were therefore
allowed to speak in church meetings, most American women were taught more
conservative Christian values, such as piety, purity, domesticity, and
submissiveness. These four virtues constituted true
womanhood, which established strict rules for white middle- and upper-class
women in particular. They were to remain sexually pure, but they were to lose
their virginity upon marriage; they were to forgive the immoral fiber of their
husbands, but were not to disobey them; and they were to find joy in their
domestic lives while ensuring their husband's happiness before their own. Sexual
impurity and domestic imperfection were not tolerated. Even the schools
established for women in the first half of the nineteenth century focused on a
moral education, emphasizing skills only so far as they enhanced a woman's
Most women could not challenge
these forces; they could not earn their own money, keep their own children, let
alone forge their own identities. The ideological mindset of the republican
motherhood had not faded, as many felt a woman's most important political act
should be to instill the values of civic virtue within her family. But some
women believed they should try to expand woman's political participation. In
fact, by April 1848, with the help of Stanton,
the New York state legislature adopted the
Married Woman's Property Law, the first law in the United
States to give any land-owning rights to
women. Still, many women believed this was just
a beginning. Stanton, Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt, and Mary Ann
McClintock were among these women.
These five women managed to meet
on July 13, 1848,
in Waterloo, New
York, near Seneca Falls, where the Stantons had moved
the year before. Since their first meeting in 1840 at the London World
Anti-Slavery Convention, Stanton and Mott struggled to revisit their idea of a
woman's rights convention. Upon
this reunion, Stanton passionately unleashed her
dissatisfaction with her domestic life and rearing children without the help of
her husband, who was always out of town. The five women drafted an announcement
of a two-day "Woman's Rights Convention" that appeared in the Seneca County Courier the next day.
On July 19, 1848, over one hundred men and women
filled a small Wesleyan Chapel "to discuss the social, civil, and religious
rights of woman" as the announcement promised. While the first day of the
convention was reserved for women only, over forty men were admitted. As such, the five conference leaders
felt uncomfortable chairing the event and asked James Mott to do the honors
after deciding that "this was an occasion when men might make themselves
pre-eminently useful." Mary Ann McClintock addressed the
promiscuous audience on the purpose of the convention, which was followed by a
lively debate over the resolutions drafted in the foundational "Declaration of
Sentiments." The second day, even more men attended,
including abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
For the first order of business, Stanton presented the "Declaration of
Sentiments," which to her surprise, was embraced and not ridiculed. After debate and discussion, all
resolutions of the Sentiments passed unanimously with one exception—the
resolution for enfranchisement. Sixty-eight women signed the document as well as
32 men. Stanton
spoke many times throughout the convention; she delivered a "well-written
speech" the first day, she presented the Sentiments twice, she passionately
defended the suffrage resolution, and at the conclusion of the second day, she
rose to speak "buoyed up by the success of the meeting."
According to recent archival
research by the Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers project at Rutgers University, Stanton may not have actually delivered the
"Address on Woman's Rights" at the Seneca Falls Convention, although according
to the History of Woman Suffrage, her
speech defending the suffrage resolution of the Sentiments contains parallel
language to her "Address."
The fully-developed address was most likely delivered in September at Waterloo and on October 6 to the Congregational Friends at
few months following the convention. Nonetheless, the speech reflected
developing feminist consciousness and provides the first instantiation of the
early woman's rights ideology.
Additionally, the address reflects greater societal moves toward women's
participation in the public sphere and the rhetorical resources available for
women to do so. A rhetorical interrogation of Stanton's address gives us a look at these social forces
masterful rhetorical leadership.
Stanton's address was the first to give shape
and character to early woman's rights ideology. Although Stanton was crippled by
stage fright months earlier at the Seneca Falls Convention, she delivered the
first speech whose content could be considered "feminist in modern terms"
because "its tone was defiant, and its claims were strongly asserted." Stanton's address allowed her to
constitute herself as a leader, asserting her voice through three rhetorical
strategies: first, Stanton strengthened her natural rights arguments by
elaborating on the ideology embedded in the Declaration of Sentiments and by
invoking arguments of moral authority; second, she fully developed her natural
rights arguments through the sentimental style; and third, she adopted a
Christ-like persona in a narrative of redemption and transformed herself and her
audience into woman's rights leaders.
Natural Rights, the "Declaration of Sentiments," and Moral
Stanton's address incorporated predominant
beliefs regarding natural rights, which date back to eighteenth-century
political thought and directly inform the Declaration of Independence. Stanton's strategy, as Ellen Carol DuBois notes, "involved the extension of natural rights
egalitarianism from men to women—especially the principles of individualism, the
universal capacity for reason, and political democracy." During the nation's
founding, few were yet ready to extend these natural rights principles to
women. Late eighteenth- and early
nineteenth-century gender ideology still compelled women to secure their homes
and families for the good of the republic. Thus, the first woman's rights activists
both drew upon and challenged prevailing views by "reaching deeper into the
structures of women's subordination, claiming more territory as women's
province, [and] going farther in envisioning a totally different sexual
order." By demanding access to spaces beyond the
borrowed from the founders' most basic natural rights principles, and used those
principles to challenge the social and political order of the new nation.
Stanton's address extended the natural rights
arguments made in the Declaration of Sentiments, which strategically co-opted
the natural rights ideology embedded in the Declaration of Independence. The
Sentiments included a systematic listing of grievances and resolutions modeled
after America's revolutionary founding
document. Understanding how the Sentiments functioned in comparison to the
Declaration of Independence shows that the purpose of Stanton's speech was to
both elaborate and enact the Sentiments' promises. In doing so, Stanton did not make simple
natural rights arguments, but rather she rhetorically transformed revolutionary
thought into public moral action for the betterment of women's lives.
The Declaration of Sentiments was
intentionally modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Three days before the Seneca Falls
Convention, Stanton met with Mary Ann McClintock
and her oldest daughters to revise Stanton's draft of an opening speech. During this meeting, it was agreed upon
that the draft would be "a second Declaration of Independence." According to the History of Woman Suffrage, after "a
faithful perusal of various masculine productions, . .
. one of the circle took up the Declaration of 1776, and read it aloud
with much spirit and emphasis." The Sentiments was so directly modeled
after the Declaration of Independence that it too began, "When in the course of
The most obvious revision lay in the opening of the second paragraph, "We hold
these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." The Sentiments was structured "in the
tradition of declarations as a genre" by listing a host of grievances and then
resolutions. Thus, as both an extension and a
revision of the Declaration of Independence, the Sentiments offered what
to be a true statement of natural rights—that women were also human, and that
they too were born with the innate right and responsibility to revolt when
abused by the government.
Stanton's address embraced and elaborated upon
this natural rights argument to make the case for woman's rights. The address
captured the revolutionary spirit of the natural rights ideology: "But we did
assemble to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of
the governed, to declare our right to be free as man is free—to be represented
in the government which we are taxed to support" (16). Furthermore, Stanton complicated her
notion of equal rights as she addressed the right to vote. Aware that many in her audience opposed
woman suffrage, including the Motts, she distinguished between natural rights
and natural abilities:
"All men in this country have the same rights however they may differ in mind,
body, or estate" (17). She added pointedly,
But to have the rights of
drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rum selling rowdies, ignorant foreigners, and
silly boys fully recognised, whilst we ourselves are
thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens—it is too grossly
insulting to the dignity of woman to be longer quietly submitted to. (17)
As such, Stanton argued that, despite unequal ability,
men and women should have equal access to the vote. Ultimately, she declared,
"The right is ours, have it, we must—use it we will"
(17). By differentiating between
rights and abilities, she highlighted the inconsistencies in the arguments
against woman suffrage, and although she claimed that rights and abilities were
not equal, she demonstrated her own remarkable capability to reason wisely.
Stanton also strengthened her natural rights
arguments by making biblically-based appeals. Using the Bible as an authority was
particularly strategic considering most arguments against woman's rights were
rooted in Christian doctrine. The third resolution of the Sentiments invoked the
Christian ethos: "Resolved, That woman is man's equal—was intended to be so by
Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she be so." Religious beliefs deeply encoded in
American culture held that women were subordinate to men. True womanhood
compelled women to consider piety and submissiveness in tandem. However,
address renegotiated biblical authority to reconfigure gender roles. She
There is a class of men who
believe in their natural inborn, inbred superiority both in body and in mind and
their full complete Heaven descended right to lord it over the fish of the sea,
the fowl of the air, the beast of the field and last, tho’ not least, the immortal being called woman. I would
recommend this class to the attentive perusal of their Bibles. (7)
Through sarcasm, Stanton made obvious the ungodly nature of
men's assumed righteousness and set up her strategic refutation. She refers to Genesis 1:27, which says,
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male
and female he created them." By not reading this Bible passage and
only referring to it, Stanton bolstered her biblical authority and
ethos. Furthermore, Stanton based her natural rights argument in
the same book used to justify women's subordination, turning a tool of
oppression into a tool of empowerment.
Stanton complicated her natural rights
arguments by invoking predominant notions of women. For example, Stanton appealed to
republican motherhood: "The earth has never yet seen a truly
great and virtuous nation, for woman has never yet stood the equal with man.
As with nations so with families. It
is the wise mother that has the wise son" (33). Here, Stanton glorified woman's most essentialized role—motherhood. However, she also considered
a woman's moral authority as the raison
d'ętre for equal access to public structures and power. She argued, "So long as your women are mere slaves, you may throw your
colleges to the wind" (33). As
suggested equal access to colleges would allow a woman's morality to purify
public spaces. Stanton further complicated her moral argument
by re-situating it within a scheme of universal humanity. She said, "God in his
wisdom has so linked the whole human family, that any violence done at one end
of the chain is felt throughout its length" (33). Thus, while Stanton certainly relied on
woman's moral authority, she renegotiated its rhetorical thrust into an argument
for equal rights.
The righteous character of the
morally-superior woman continued to offer Stanton the means to argue for equal rights.
Consider Stanton's discussion of child abuse: "It is a
mother's sacred duty to shield her children from violence from whatever source
it may come, it is her duty to resist oppression wherever she may find it at
home or abroad, by every moral power within her reach" (27). Here, it is both a woman's "sacred duty"
to protect her home and liberate the oppressed. The vision of woman protecting
home and hearth was acceptable to Stanton's 1848 audience, and it worked in
tandem with her larger argument that women were agents of liberation. Just as
women fight to protect their children, they must fight the oppression of one
another. Ultimately, Stanton's appeals to
dominant gender ideology helped temper the revolutionary idea that men and women
were naturally and religiously equal.
The Sentimental Style of Stanton's Argumentative Voice
Stanton's speech is lengthy, due to the
embellished, sentimental speaking style of the time. Characteristic of this "sentimental"
style are long illustrations, humorous anecdotes, and a point-counterpoint
argumentative structure. Stanton's use of the sentimental style provided
elaborate arguments and narratives, which were used to instruct her audience how
to think and feel. The style accommodated Stanton's goal to illustrate "the height, the
depth, the length, and the breadth of [woman's] own degradation" (3). Stanton used the sentimental style to catalogue
the historical mistreatment of women, the forces that continued to oppress
women, and the contradictory arguments against woman's rights. Ultimately, through the sentimental
asserted her voice as an intelligent, articulate leader.
Most significantly, Stanton's use of the
sentimental style allowed her to thoroughly refute arguments about man's
intellectual, moral, and physical superiority. Stanton pointedly critiqued such claims by
illustrating their social constructedness. In regards
to intellectual superiority, she maintained that it could not be measured "until
[women] have had a fair trial" (8).
advocated for women's higher education by describing the "yearning" of a young
girl's "spirit" for knowledge (8). She also debunked the notion that women were
controlled by emotions by recasting the story of Creation. Noting that Adam
sinned because of his love for Eve, she concluded that man, not woman, was "the
creature of the affections" (9).
In her elaborate style, Stanton also refuted claims
of male moral and physical superiority. She spared no effort in ranting on the
hypocrisy of church leaders, doctors, and politicians. Again Stanton pointed to the
social constructedness of male superiority: "In my
opinion he is infinitely woman's inferior in every moral virtue, not by nature,
but made so by a false education" (11).
maintained her equal rights argument by showing morality was not natural, but
the product of culturalization. Moreover, Stanton argued that woman's physical strength
had not been given equal opportunity to develop. She supported this claim with
long anecdotes about how the size of a person did not equal the strength of
their mind (e.g., John Quincy Adams) and how women of other cultures carried
loads that rivaled the physical strength of American men (14).
Stanton structured much of her speech in this
point-counterpoint fashion, in which she rhetorically transformed arguments
against woman's rights into arguments for equal rights. For example, she made grand statements
calling for the moral uplift of men and women, even as she maintained her
natural rights perspective. With dramatic expression in the sentimental style,
she said, "Oh! for the generous promptings of the days
of chivalry—oh! for the poetry of romantic gallantry"
(24). By romanticizing "chivalry"
and "gallantry," Stanton glorified predominant masculine
behaviors, which included the protection of women. Simultaneously, Stanton recast masculinity
as a means for securing woman's rights. She said, "Then may we hope that these
pious young men who profess to believe in the golden rule, will clothe and
educate themselves and encourage poor weak woman to do the same for herself"
(24). Chivalry and gallantry were
thus invoked toward the larger goal of empowering women as capable, independent
Stanton's embellished style also helped her
demonstrate women's leadership qualities. First, she offered an elaborate
history of women leaders. Throughout her address, Stanton called attention to
women rulers, including Queens Catharine I, Elizabeth I, Isabella I, and Maria
Theresa; women intellectuals, such as Harriet Martineau, Anne De Staël, and
Hannah Moore; and noted scientists, such as Caroline Herschel and Mary
Somerville (7; 29-31). The
extensive length and detail of this history certainly refuted the notion that
woman could not excel in all realms of human endeavor. Moreover, by speaking as a leader
of the woman's rights movement, Stanton associated herself with the authority
and impressive character of these historical leaders. Stanton's style also allowed her to enact
intellectual, moral, and physical equality. Delivering an address of this length
must have demanded great physical endurance, to say nothing of a remarkable
memory and a complex understanding of history, philosophy, and politics. Thus,
in addition to a thorough rebuttal of the arguments against woman's rights,
provided her the means to enact the strong leadership she admired in other
Stanton Transforms and Is Transformed
Another historical figure
up in her address was Joan of Arc. While Stanton wielded power by association with Joan
of Arc's leadership, she also used the story of Joan of Arc to initiate a
transformative process that guided the conclusion of the address. This
transformation began as Stanton invited her audience to recall Joan of
Arc's historical narrative:
What man or woman of you has a
feeling of disapproval or disgust in reading the history of Joan of Arc. The sympathies of every heart are at once enlisted in
the success of that extraordinary girl. Her historian tells us that when all
human power seemed unavailing, the French no longer despised the supernatural
aid of the damsel of Dom Remy. (32)
Stanton summoned Joan of Arc's "extraordinary"
and "supernatural" power before her audience as an indisputable example of
female heroism. She invited her audience to identify with the once-resistant
French who were ultimately saved by Joan of Arc's mystical strength and were
transformed into believers in the strength and leadership of women.
Toward the conclusion of
address, she constructed a parallel narrative that allowed the transformation of
herself into a Christ-like figure and her audience into believers and
activists. Within this narrative,
upon her audience to lead a crusade and convert others into believers in woman's
rights. Scholars have noted that
adopting a prophetic persona is a particularly effective way for speakers to
constitute community identity. Phyllis M. Japp, for
example, argues that Angelina Grimké spoke as Old
Testament Isaiah, "as one chosen of God to present God's messages." With such authority, Grimké could command women to seize their rights, and in
doing so, Grimké moved "women from subjugation into
equality and even dominance." Stephen H. Browne notes that Grimké's prophetic persona functioned as a witness of things
unseen, and thus constituted her audience as witnesses of their own spiritual
transformation. Stanton similarly built a shared identity for
her audience through her prophetic persona. But instead of offering a narrative of
her personal transformation, she began with the story of Joan of Arc.
Through the Joan of Arc narrative,
her audience's attention from the admiration of an extraordinary woman to a
realization of their own strength and potential. Stanton continued,
[Joan of Arc] had full faith in
herself and inspired all those who saw her with the same. Let us cultivate like
faith, like enthusiasm and we too shall impress all who see and hear us with the
same confidence which we ourselves feel in our final success. (32)
Stanton infused Joan of Arc's spirit into her
audience, empowering them to visualize themselves as leaders—as saviors
converting skeptics. Furthermore,
this narrative shift invited Stanton's audience to see Stanton herself as a
savior helping them to realize their own faith in the cause. As Karlyn
Kohrs Campbell puts it, "In a superb moment of
enactment, Stanton says to the women she addressed, do as
I have done."
Stanton's Christ-like persona further emerged
as she created a biblical context for her narrative. She said, "There are deep
and tender chords of sympathy and love in the breasts of the down fallen the
crushed that woman can touch more skillfully than man" (33). Stanton invoked the New Testament scene, where
Christ's undiscriminating love and self-sacrifice cleansed the world of its
sins. According to James Darsey, Christ's martyrdom is
key in shaping the prophetic persona. When arguing against war, for example,
her audience to become like Christ and persist in the face of opposition. She argued that "frail man" should act
as Christ—"loving his enemies, blessing those who
curse him and always returning good for evil" (18). Furthermore,
for Christ-like behavior functioned as a performance of this very call.
Stanton's conclusion invited her audience to be
transformed into equals and leaders of equal rights. She cast her audience as martyrs united
for the cause of women's rights:
We do not expect that our path to
be strewn with the flowers of popular favour—that our
banner which we have flung to the wind will be fanned by the breath of popular
applause, no we know that over the nettles of prejudice and bigotry will be our
way, that upon our banner will beat the dark storm cloud of opposition from
those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of might, of
force who have fortified their position by every means holy and unholy, but we
steadfastly abide the result. Unmoved we will bear it aloft. (34)
Stanton calls for her audience to endure
"nettles of prejudice and bigotry" just as Christ wore a thorny crown upon
crucifixion. Further, Stanton depersonalizes woman's rights opponents
by constructing prejudice as the evil—instead of men. In doing so, not only did she invite men
to participate in this movement for equality, but she united her audience in
opposition to social customs. As
vision allowed the audience to place themselves in this narrative of adversity
and triumph. She offered this
Undauntedly we will unfurl it to
the gale—we know the storm cannot rend from it a shred, that the electric flash
will but more clearly show to us the glorious words inscribed upon it, "Equality
of Rights." (34)
Stanton motivated her audience to embrace the
woman's rights movement as the necessary plight toward equal rights. As
predicted a long future of slow social change, she worked to transform herself
from a woman speaker into a prophet and her audience from witnesses into
disciples of woman's rights.
Leader and an Ideological Fraction
1848 "Address on Woman's Rights," bolstered the prominence of the Declaration of
Sentiments, elaborated and enacted the early movement's ideology, and
transformed a small, but integral population of believers into political actors.
Further, the speech previewed the ideological conflict that would threaten the
advances of the movement. Even further, the speech debuted Stanton herself as "the best known and most
persistent advocate of woman's rights in the nineteenth century, with a career
that began at age twenty-five and did not abate until age eighty-seven."
Recent archival research suggests
that Stanton delivered versions of this speech
many times following the Seneca Falls
convention. She also parceled out
its arguments in a number of published articles. Most certainly, the address established
leadership prowess" as a key asset to the early formation of the movement.
years of public speaking began with this address, which provided her the
opportunity to transform herself from an ordinary woman with a moral conscience
into a public figure engaged in political action.
Stanton's leadership eventually expanded beyond
the issue of woman's rights to embrace a host of other issues. She went on to
serve as founder and president of the New York Temperance Society (1851-1853).
She was also the founder and president of the American Equal Rights Association
(1866-1869), founder of the National Woman's Loyal League (1863), president of
the National Woman Suffrage Association (1869), and president of the merged
woman's rights organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association
(1890). She gave numerous speeches at woman's rights conventions and on lyceum
circuit. Her career in journalism
included editing the Revolution
(1868-87), and she wrote two volumes of the Woman's Bible (1895, 1898) and edited
the first three volumes of the History of
Woman Suffrage (1881-1887). Needless to say, Stanton's address not only
launched an epic social movement, but also her own career as a tireless
activist—an activist who would not stop traveling, writing, and speaking until
her death in 1902.
Stanton's speech may have established her
leadership of the woman's rights community, but its treatment of conflicting
arguments for woman's rights—equality and moral superiority—would ultimately
split the movement in the late 1860s. Stanton argued for equal rights while relying
on notions of innate difference. The issue of the vote embodied this conflict
between natural sameness and difference, breeding conflict even between Stanton
and the Motts. By 1869, following the Civil War and the conflict over black male
suffrage, this ideological tension led to a split in the suffrage movement. Two competing organizations emerged over
a difference in strategy. First, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA),
founded by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in May of 1869, was only open to white
women and addressed a host of equal rights issues, including divorce, religious
hypocrisy, and equal wages. The
second organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded in
November 1869, only invited delegates of other woman suffrage organizations and
focused mostly on securing suffrage for white women on the state level. The AWSA's
weekly organ, the Woman's Journal, is
noted for making less overt appeals to the women's equal rights than the NWSA,
for fear of alienating their readership. Nonetheless, the organizations united in
1890, yet little headway was made for woman's rights until after 1900. Even so, up until 1920, when women were
granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment, appeals to potential
women voters were largely moral and religious, while the notion of equal rights
was still considered radical.
Consider, for example, that the Women's Christian Temperance Union maintained a
membership of over 250,000 women, while the National Woman's Party, with its
emphasis on equal rights, peaked at only 48,000 members.
The legacy of Stanton's arguments,
though, can still be found in more recent debates over woman's rights. For example, Stanton's vision of women's
liberation is visible in the woman's rights movement of the 1960s, which focused
its energies on equal pay, equal treatment in the home, and the Equal Rights
Amendment (ERA). On the contrary,
appeals to woman's moral authority and notions of a woman's "proper place" undergirded the STOP ERA campaign, as Phyllis Shafly and her followers described women's equality as a
threat to the family institution. Arguments of woman's equal rights have
been transformed in the current feminist milieu. The term "postfeminism," for example, describes a post-1980 generation
of women who reject the "feminist" label despite benefiting from feminist
efforts toward equal rights and equal treatment. The postfeminist generation is noted for taking equal rights for
granted and celebrating sexuality as a source of power. Additionally, those who
embrace "third-wave feminism" believe that a woman is empowered by her
sexuality. Stanton's vision of equal rights, then, has
been transformed into the equal right to choose one's political beliefs and
Nonetheless, Stanton managed to
rhetorically negotiate the moral imperatives of a restrictive culture into
arguments for equal rights. Her "Address on Woman's Rights, 1848" allowed her to
call on her audience for leadership and, in doing so, to cast herself as a
prophetic orator. Along with her
co-authorship of the Declaration of Sentiments, the speech allowed her to
espouse a natural rights ideology; her sentimental style allowed her to refute
arguments against woman's rights and usher in overwhelming evidence of women's
leadership; and her conclusion's narrative structure helped her to adopt a
Christ-like persona and worked to transform her audience into savior-activists
of the woman's rights movement.
"Address on Woman's Rights" rhetorically functioned as the command laid forth in
James 1:22: "But be doers of the word, and not merely
hearers who deceive themselves."
Last updated—29 August 2006
Belinda A. Stillion Southard is a
Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. She would like to thank Shawn J.
Parry-Giles, J. Michael Hogan, and Lisa Hogan for their guidance and editing work on the
 Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, ed., "Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Speech at the
Seneca Falls Convention, 1848," in Man
Cannot Speak for Her: Key Texts of the Early Feminists, 2 vols. (Westport,
CT: Praeger, 1989), 2:41.
 Linda K. Kerber, Women of
the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1980), 231.
 Republican motherhood was also an ideological force in
the homes of middle- to upper-class black women,
however, the early woman's rights movement privileged white women and excluded
black women. For a full discussion of the way in which black women adopted
predominant gender ideologies in the nineteenth century, see Shirley Wilson
Logan, "We Are Coming": The Persuasive
Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women (Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1999), 152-78.
 Glenna Matthews, The
Rise of Public Woman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 70.
 Kerber, "Education and
Intellect," Woman of the Republic, 189-231. Also see Ann Firor Scott, Making the Invisible Woman Visible
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 39. In the chapter, "What, Then,
Is the American?" Scott provides a history of women in education, and in fact,
schools for women emerged as early as the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1830s,
she says, women were attending seminaries in large
 Wollstonecraft's association with the secular
radicalism of the French Revolution was considered unfavorable as the ideology
became outdated by 1800. Also, she had given birth to a child before marriage
and was socially outcast. Ibid.,
 Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights
Movement in the United
States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1996), 24-25; and Martha Watson, Lives of Their Own: Rhetorical Dimensions in
Autobiographies of Women Activists (Columbia, S.C.: University of South
Carolina Press, 1999), 65.
 Catharine Beecher, a vocal proponent of women's
education, ran a seminary for girls in Hartford, Connecticut from 1823-1827. Another advance in
women's education was the establishment of Oberlin College in 1833. The college's enrollment was open to all
races and classes of women and fashioned its curriculum after Harvard's.
Additionally, Mount Holyoke was founded in 1837 by Mary Lyon,
who believed women's colleges "must prepare their students for more than
homemaking or teaching." Lyon fulfilled her
vision and raised an unprecedented $27,000 through her own fundraising efforts.
Flexner and Fitzpatrick, Century of
 Elisabeth Griffith, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York: Oxford University Press,
 See Susan Zaeske, "The
'Promiscuous Audience' Controversy and the Emergence of the Early Woman's Rights
Movement," in Quarterly Journal of
Speech, 81 (1995): 191-207.
 Flexner and Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle, 25-26.
 See Stephen Howard Browne, Angelina Grimké, Rhetoric,
Identity, and the Radical Imagination (East Lansing: Michigan State
 Griffith, In Her Own Right, 26.
See Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1820," in American
Quarterly, 18 (1966): 151-74.
Welter argues that four key values, piety, purity, domesticity, and
submissiveness, were paramount to a woman's worth in the mid-nineteenth century.
 Flexner and Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle, 60, 68; Judith
Wellman, The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady
Stanton and the First Woman's Rights
Convention (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004),
 Flexner and Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle, 68-69.
 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda
Joslyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage (HWS), 6 Vols.
(New York: Source Book Press, 1889), 1:67; Griffith, In Her Own Right, 55.
 Stanton et al., HWS, 1:69.
 Wellman, The
Road to Seneca Falls, 195.
 According to the HWS, "Elizabeth and Mary McClintock, and
Mrs. Stanton each read a well-written speech" on the first day. Stanton et al.,
1:69. Additionally, Wellman says that Cady Stanton spoke at the close of the
second day of the convention. See The
Road to Seneca Falls, 203. Also, Karlyn
Kohrs Campbell says, "Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented
the Declaration of Sentiments…; she then made a speech, followed by general
discussion." See Man Cannot, 1:52.
Recent archival work conducted at Rutgers University suggests that pieces of Stanton's address were
delivered at the Convention. However, the speech as a whole was most likely
first delivered in September at Waterloo following the Convention and secondly,
on October 6 to the Congregational Friends at Farmington.
 Stanton et al., HWS, 1:70; In defense of the ninth
resolution of the Sentiments, which asked for woman suffrage, Stanton said, "But
to have drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rumselling
rowdies, ignorant foreigners and silly boys fully recognized, while we ourselves
are thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens, it is too grossly
insulting to the dignity of woman to be longer quietly submitted to. The right
is ours. Have it, we must. Use it, we will." This language also appears in the
more fully developed "Address on Woman's Rights."
editorial note under "Authentication" provided by the Stanton and Anthony Papers
Project Online. Rutgers University.
 Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, ed., "Woman's Rights Conventions:
Ideological Crucibles," in Man Cannot
Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist
Rhetoric, 2 vols. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1989),
 Ellen Carol DuBois,
"Introduction: The Invention of Women's Rights," in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony:
Correspondence, Writings, Speeches, ed., Ellen Carol DuBois (New York: Schocken Books,
 This gender ideology has been termed, "Republican
Motherhood." By raising their
children as contributing citizens, women fulfilled a political duty. See Kerber, Women of the Republic.
 Wellman, The
Road to Seneca Falls, 191-192.
 Stanton et al., HWS, 1:68.
 Campbell, Man
 Ibid., emphasis
 Stephen E. Lucas, "The Rhetorical Ancestry of the
Declaration of Independence," in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1(2)
 Here and elsewhere passages in "Address on Woman’s
Rights, 1848" are cited with reference to paragraph numbers in the text of the
speech that accompanies this essay.
 Resolution 9 reads, "Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to
themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." Cited from Campbell, Man Cannot, 2:38.
 The Holy Bible,
New International Version, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1986), Genesis 1:27,
See Kerber, Women of the Republic.
 For a full discussion of the sentimental style, see
Edwin Black, "The Sentimental Style as Escapism, or the Devil with Dan'l Webster," in Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical
Action, Karlyn Kohrs
Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, eds. (Annandale, VA: Speech Communication
Association, 1978), 75-86.
 Phyllis M. Japp, "Esther or
Isaiah?: Abolitionist-Feminist Rhetoric of Angelina
Grimké," in Quarterly Journal of Speech, 71 (1985),
 See Browne, "Violent Inventions: Witnessing Slavery in
the Pennsylvania Hall Address," in Angelina Grimké, 139-65.
 See James Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in
America (New York: New York
University Press, 1997).
 Susan Schultz Huxman,
"Perfecting the Rhetorical Vision of Woman's Rights: Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
Anna Howard Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt" in Women's Studies in Communication, 23 (3)
See editorial note provided by the Stanton and Anthony Papers Project Online.
Rutgers University. <http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/ecswoman1.html>.
 Huxman, "Perfecting the Rhetorical
 Campbell, Man
 Flexner, Century
of Struggle, 145-46.
 For a full history of first-wave feminism, see Flexner
and Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle.
 Flexner, Century
of Struggle, 176.
 For a full discussion of pro-ERA and STOP ERA
arguments, see Sonja K. Foss, "The Equal Rights Controversy: Two Worlds in
Conflict," in Quarterly Journal of
Speech, 65 (3) (1979), 275-89.
 For a full discussion of postfeminist politics, see Mary D. Vavrus, Postfeminist News: Political Women in Media Culture
University of New York), 2002. For a full discussion of third-wave feminism, see
Natalie Fixmer and Julia T. Wood, "The Personal is Still Political: Embodied Politics in
Third Wave Feminism," in Women's Studies
in Communication, 28 (2005), 235-56.
 Holy Bible,
James 1:22, 1064.