…I think this is the crisis of women growing up—a turning point from an immaturity that has been called femininity to full human identity. I think women had to suffer this crisis of identity, which began a hundred years ago, and have to suffer it still today, simply to become fully human.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography expresses dissatisfaction with her role as a wife and mother and admits that it led in part to her calling the Seneca Falls convention. (It was Betty Friedan’s unhappiness as a wife and mother that in part led her to write The Feminine Mystique). She too, like most later feminists, looks to collective childcare practices to solve the problem of women with children who want to work outside of the home.
Immediately preceding the planning of the convention, Stanton wrote that she found her domestic life “irksome” after the novelty of keeping house wore off.
I now fully understood the practical difficulties most women had to contend with in the isolated household, and the impossibility of woman’s best development if in contact, the chief part of her life, with servants and children. Fourier’s phalansterie community life and co-operative households had a new significance for me. Emerson says, “A healthy discontent is the first step to progress.” The general discontent I felt with woman’s portion as wife, mother, housekeeper, physician, and spiritual guide, the chaotic conditions into which everything fell without her constant supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women impressed me with a strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular. My experience at the World’s Anti-slavery Convention, all I had read of the legal status of women, and the oppression I saw everywhere, together swept across my soul, intensified now by many personal experiences. It seemed as if all the elements had conspired to impel me to some onward step. I could not see what to do or where to begin–my only thought was a public meeting for protest and discussion.
Second wave feminism has been branded as anti-male by those who critique it. This anti-male element can be found in Stanton’s viewpoint as well. Stanton gave a speech at a suffrage convention in 1868 titled, “The Destructive Male,” in which she stated: “The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease, and death.”
Stanton went as far as to rewrite sections of the Bible to create The Woman’s Bible in 1895—a feminist re-writing of parts of the Old Testament. Aileen Kraditor writes in The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement that “During the 1880s she [Stanton] gradually came to believe that not disfranchisement but the Bible and the churches were the main obstacles to the equality of the sexes.”
It should be pointed out that many suffragists did not agree with Stanton’s radical views. As Kraditor points out in Ideas, for Stanton, “woman suffrage had never been more than one means to her goal, the full development of women’s potentialities…Her views, never orthodox, became positively shocking to most suffragists, as she publicly denounced the Bible and most clergymen for their alleged contempt for women, and as she began advocating a reorganization of American society along cooperative lines.”
While the majority of suffragists may not have agreed with Stanton’s more radical views, here is evidence of the ideological bloodlines running from the early woman suffrage movement to the feminism of the 1960s and 70s.
There clearly were those—Stanton was not alone—that from early on in the women’s rights movement did want to change everything—those that saw woman suffrage as one piece of a social revolution.
Another important suffragist document is the voluminous History of Woman Suffrage, published over the course of many years (1881 – 1922). The first three volumes were written and edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage. The final three volumes were mainly written by Ida Husted Harper. The History has been criticized for being one-sided in its emphasis on the work of the Stanton/Anthony wing of the suffrage campaign. However, it hasn’t been criticized for being a grossly flawed piece of historical writing.
The History, like the Declaration of Sentiments, is full of anti-male sentiment, pitting women against men, and views men in their worst possible light. Ridiculous statements abound.
The Introduction begins with the false statement that, “The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history.” Women are referred to as slaves at other times in the document. Asserting that women are slaves—ironically, the women of the woman suffrage movement had freedom of their person and material affluence that would be the envy of many peoples of different cultures and times—is both preposterous and an insult to true slaves. If the authors meant it simply as a rhetorical device rather than a factual statement, they should not have pretended to be writing a factual history of the woman suffrage movement.
These suffragists make their thoughts clear on the home in the History. (Betty Friedan’s own writings are but echoes):
The isolated household is responsible for a large share of woman’s ignorance and degradation. A mind always in contact with children and servants, whose aspirations and ambitions rise no higher than the roof that shelters it, is necessarily dwarfed in its proportions.
Her rights are as completely ignored in what is adjudged to be woman’s sphere as out of it; the woman is uniformly sacrificed to the wife and mother. Neither law, gospel, public sentiment, nor domestic affection shield her from excessive and enforced maternity, depleting alike to mother and child;—all opportunity for mental improvement, health, happiness—yea, life itself, being ruthlessly sacrificed. The weazen, weary, withered, narrow-minded wife-mother of half a dozen children—her interests all centering at her fireside, forms a painful contrast in many a household to the liberal, genial, brilliant, cultured husband in the zenith of his power, who has never given one thought to the higher life, liberty, and happiness of the woman by his side; believing her self-abnegation to be Nature’s law.
In the section titled, Preceding Causes, this rant is included in a supposed scholarly work on the history of suffragism:
Taught that father and husband stood to her in the place of God, she has been denied liberty of conscience, and held in obedience to masculine will. Taught that the fruits of her industry belonged to others, she has seen man enter into every avocation most suitable to her, while she, the uncomplaining drudge of the household, condemned to the severest labor, has been systematically robbed of her earnings, which have gone to build up her master’s power, and she has found herself in the condition of the slave, deprived of the results of her own labor. Taught that education for her was indelicate and irreligious, she has been kept in such gross ignorance as to fall a prey to superstition, and to glory in her own degradation. Taught that a low voice is an excellent thing in woman, she has been trained to a subjugation of the vocal organs, and thus lost the benefit of loud tones and their well-known invigoration of the system. Forbidden to run, climb, or jump, her muscles have been weakened, and her strength deteriorated. Confined most of the time to the house, she has neither as strong lungs nor as vigorous a digestion as her brother. Forbidden to enter the pulpit, she has been trained to an unquestioning reverence for theological authority and false belief upon the most vital interests of religion. Forbidden the medical profession, she has at the most sacred times of her life been left to the ignorant supervision of male physicians, and seen her young children die by thousands. Forbidden to enter the courts, she has seen her sex unjustly tried and condemned for crimes men were incapable of judging.
The thoughts and ideas of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement have much in common with the ideology of second wave feminism: the idea that women are oppressed by men and that women cannot be free if they remain in the home are central to the feminism of the suffragists and to the feminists that rose up in the 1960s and 70s. The answer to the question “was the woman suffrage movement bad?” is yes, it was bad. The movement that won for women the right to vote was founded on misguided ideas about religion and history as are found in the movement’s foundational documents. Perhaps the most wrong-headed as well as harmful of the suffragist’s views was the idea that it is typical of men to oppress and enslave women, thereby pitting men and women against each other in a fabricated battle of the sexes.
By delving into what suffragists, and the historians who have studied them, have written about women—their “rights” and their role—the ideological bloodlines between the first and second waves of feminism become clear. Thus, it is disingenuous for one’s anti-feminism to include only the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and 70s. An intellectually coherent approach calls for viewing the feminist movement in both its earlier and later stages as one long, continuous march for women’s emancipation from men, the traditional family, religion, and even from their own nature as women. Woman suffrage was a key step in the social revolution known as feminism.
While I have concluded in this post that the woman suffrage movement was bad based on the views of its leaders and by its ideological links to later feminism, I haven’t discussed why the vote itself could be or is bad for women. During the woman suffrage movement a great many people did discuss this. They were known as the “antis.” I will discuss the antis in my next essay post to further investigate the woman suffrage movement.