Claiming the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage

Eighty years after the long struggle for a woman’s right to vote was won, feminists and so-called anti-feminists alike claim as their own the legacy of the two women who launched the American women’s rights movement.

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton first met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 she liked Anthony’s “earnest” face right away. Although their lifestyles and talents could not have been more different, they formed a partnership that would drive the women’s rights movement and the cause for women’s suffrage for 50 years.

Anthony and Stanton advocated “voluntary motherhood” at a time when sex almost always meant a real likelihood of pregnancy for a woman. They fought for a woman’s right to her own wages, her property, her body, and her children. And even more revolutionary for that Victorian era, Stanton advocated more liberal divorce laws for women in abusive marriages.

Although it didn’t happen during their lifetimes, most of Anthony and Stanton’s primary initiatives found some degree of success in the 20th century where women have greater access to government, jobs, birth control, raising their children and even divorce. Today 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce.

An Unlikely Pair

Anthony came from a Quaker family with a long history of social activism. She was a passionate abolitionist and temperance advocate. She never married or had children but was instead wed to the cause of women’s rights, according to Stanton.

Stanton married an abolitionist against her father’s will. She was a wife and mother of seven children who spoke against organized religion because she believed it reduced women to second-class status. She came from a traditional, upper class family and spent much of her young life trying to please a father who clearly favored sons.

“I wish you were a boy,” he once said to her as she showed him a hard-earned academic prize. But her conservative father, a lawyer and judge, did allow his daughter into his law office where she witnessed firsthand how the law treated women as men’s property rather than as citizens equal to men. She vowed to change women’s legal status.

In 1848, at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., which she helped organize, Stanton wrote the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. The document would shape the women’s movement for decades to come. But neither Stanton nor Anthony would live long enough to see the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, become a ratified Amendment of the United States Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920.

Distorting Women’s Rights

Today, conservatives and liberals claim Anthony and Stanton as their own. Conservatives like to point out that Anthony was pro-life — a statement denied by most historians as inaccurate since there was no pro-life movement during Anthony’s time. However, Anthony did write about the horrors of “infanticide” at a time when abortions were illegal and often dangerous.

Conservatives also argue Stanton’s motherhood is too often underplayed and Anthony’s religious nature overlooked by feminists.

Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, has been labeled the quintessential anti-feminist by her critics. She said she sees Stanton and Anthony as “courageous women,” but agrees feminism has distorted the suffrage movement for its own agenda.

“The message my mother gave me was that work would be my priority and everything else would be squeezed in around it,” she said. “We are freer than any generation of women in human history largely because of the women’s right movement. Now the big issue for women, especially young women, is finding happiness.”

“Women today expect to work but the things their grandmothers took for granted, such as meeting a decent guy and having children, seem very elusive to them. This generation is trapped in their office as past generations may have felt trapped in their homes. The challenge is finding that balance. It’s finding a way to enjoy the satisfaction of being a mother and raising children and doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt your kids.”

Hijacking the Suffrage Legacy

Crittenden says feminists have focused on petty issues over the years, often ostracized men, demanded women be “just like men” instead of enjoying being women. A lot of women, she argues, would like to stay home and should be able to without feeling they are letting down the rest of their gender.

One prominent conservative takes Crittendon’s arguments even further and suggests the 19th Amendment should be repealed because women focus too much on local issues and are not well-informed on national issues.

Kate O’Bierne, Washington editor of the National Review, says the greatest tragedy of the 19th Amendment is political feminists, who claim to carry the flag of Stanton and Anthony, hijacking the legacy of the women behind the suffrage movement.

Yet Karen Johnson, vice president of membership at the National Organization for Women, or NOW, in Washington D.C., denies hijacking anything.

Miles to Go

Most of Stanton and Anthony’s goals have been achieved, but “we still have a long way to go,” Johnson said. “They had a vision of a world in which women and men would have equal opportunities in everything. We are not there yet.”

In the 1960s the “second wave” of women’s rights gripped the United States and the new feminists revived the women’s rights movement, taking Stanton, Anthony and the many other women who worked for women’s rights a century ago as their role models.

“I have no doubt in my mind that Anthony and Stanton would still be fighting today. There were divisions in the women’s rights movement back then and some women were involved in the anti-suffrage movement of the time. Women have made a lot of progress but that doesn’t mean we should sit on our laurels,” she said.

NOW is still fighting for equal opportunities for women. Their agenda includes adequate and affordable universal health care, divorce laws that prevent women from being left with children and no support from their estranged husbands, protecting social security, affordable and reliable day care for children, affordable birth control and protecting the right to a legal abortion.

“Feminism is not about telling women what to do. It has always been about creating as many opportunities for women as possible,” Johnson said.