Elizabeth Cady Stanton would have applauded the quilt that two Feminists for Life members made in honor of her 175th birthday, Nov. 17, 1995, and gave to the Seneca Falls Historical Society. The quilt depicts Stanton, a founder of the woman’s rights movement, raising a flag in front of her Seneca Falls home in honor of the birth of her seventh child, Henry.
When Henry was born in 1859 Stanton scandalized the Seneca Falls community by such a public action. It was a time when pregnancy and birth were still surrounded with silence and secrecy. It was an era during which women frequently remained out of public view throughout their “confinement” of pregnancy. They emerged after a few months with (surprise!) a new family member who was received with little fanfare. Even in their diaries women rarely mentioned their pregnancies, but only briefly announced the arrival of children as if they were good harvests. Women like Stanton were the exception. Her public flag-waving aptly symbolized the importance she placed on motherhood and gave her critics reason to distrust her for more than her woman’s rights advocacy.
Stanton had been raising eyebrows in Seneca Falls since her arrival in 1848, when she moved to this rural upstate village from Boston. Isolated from the social reform activities of the larger city where she spent the first years of her marriage, Stanton adored motherhood but was frustrated. The move plunged her into domesticity often marked by the difficulties of being a single mother whose minister husband traveled. She found herself left with the sole responsibility for home and three young sons more frequently than she wished.
Before long Stanton and her new friends called upstate New York together for the first Women’s Rights Convention. She never stopped working for women until her death in 1902.
Throughout her life Stanton had to make choices between her work on behalf of women and her family obligations. Probably because she passionately endorsed woman’s role as mother, she did not compromise her own position as mother. During her children’s youth, from about 1843 to 1870, Stanton was dedicated to them. She rarely left home for public talks on her beloved issues, but helped write speeches with Susan B. Anthony and sent her off to deliver them. Occasionally Stanton called Anthony over from nearby Rochester to care for the children while she formulated new ideas. She enjoyed motherhood and had radical ideas about child-rearing and health, as evidenced by the flag-raising.
Among her advocacy issues Stanton particularly supported the right of married women to hold property (only single women had this privilege at the time). Because she knew well how difficult it was to depend on her husband and father for support, she understood how important it was for women to have security against poverty. The role of wife and mother were vital and deserved the same financial and legal advantage as the role of husband and father.
Stanton also argued that woman’s voice in the public arena be equal to man’s. The vote best represented this voice and it was something she championed most of her life. Suffrage should be granted because women were equal. It also would be a tool to bring women’s superior sense of morality to issues that concerned their families. The vote would give women a way to houseclean a society pervaded by the violence of war, poverty, crime, child labor, corrupt politics, and enormous injustice. As historian Carl Degler argues, opposition by feminists to these problems as well as abortion and infanticide was “in line with a number of movements to reduce cruelty and to expand the concept of sanctity of life…the elimination of the death penalty, the peace movement, the abolition of torture and whipping in connection with crimes.”
Like the other woman’s rights advocates of the nineteenth century, Stanton opposed abortion and infanticide, opinions she voiced in The Revolution, a newspaper she published with Susan B. Anthony. It is not surprising that a woman who was brassy enough to celebrate her motherhood in a scandalous fashion upheld motherhood as the ultimate right of women. In an 1873, often-quoted letter to Julia Ward Howe, the originator of Mother’s Day, Stanton wrote these words, which are printed on the quilt in her memory:
“When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”
Reprinted from The American Feminist, Spring 1996