Irish writer Frank O'Connor tells how as a boy he and some friends would "make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the imposing wall. Then they had no choice but to follow them." This service celebrates two women who also acted in faith and hope - Susan B. Anthony, on the 178th anniversary of her birth, and her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
On our historical plaque in the Lobby we read: "In reverent gratitude to the sisters, Susan B. and Mary S. Anthony, for many years members of this religious society, devoted pioneers in the woman's suffrage movement, and in remembrance of the brave little band of women, several of them connected to our Society, who, on August 2, 1848, ratified the proceedings of the First Woman's Suffrage Convention, called a fortnight earlier in the Village of Seneca Falls and adjourned to the City of Rochester."
Susan B. Anthony did not attend the Convention although her parents and sister Mary did when it reconvened in the Rochester Unitarian Church. She was teaching school in Canajoharie and honing her skills in the temperance movement. She was even a bit bemused at her family's participation and even teased them about it. We must consider her an honorary member of the fabled "ladies of Seneca Falls."
(SBA enters) Susan B. Anthony was raised an orthodox Quaker, though her maternal grandfather was Universalist, his wife Baptist. When the family moved to Rochester in 1845, they joined the Hicksite Quakers who believed in the inner light rather than the orthodox group whose authority was the Bible. Finding the local meeting not in sympathy with the anti-slavery movement, the family and a number of other Quakers gradually began to identify with the Unitarian Church. She signed the membership book on January 1, 1893, though she had attended the church for overy forty years.
She was religiously unorthodox, to say the least. In her famous interview with Nelly Bly she was asked: "Do you pray?"
SBA: "I pray every single second of my life; not on my knees, but with my work. My prayer is to lift woman to equality with man. Work and worship are one with me. I cannot imagine a God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling him 'great.'"
SBA: "The religious persecution of the ages had been carried on under what was claimed to be the command of God. I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."
She combined the sense of duty and ethical responsibility of her Quaker upbringing with the spirit of liberal inquiry and tolerance that mark the Unitarian faith. From both she derived and cultivated her passion for social justice.
(ECS enters) Her longtime dearest friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born in 1815 in Johnstown, New York, wrote:
ECS: "In ancient Greece she would have been a Stoic; in the era of the Reformation a Calvinist; in King Charles's time a Puritan; but in the 19th century, by the very laws of her being, she is a reformer."
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by contrast, had a Scotch Presbyterian upbringing in which the Devil was very real.
ECS: "Everything we like to do is a sin .... I am so tired of that everlasting no! no! no! At school, at home, everywhere it is no! Even at church all the commandments begin 'thou shalt not.' I suppose God will say 'no' to all we like in the next world, just as you do here."
Her father, Judge Cady, distraught when his only son Eleazer died, once said to her, in words she never forgot, "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" Though she was a brilliant student, she never won his unqualified approval. He was so angry that she would lecture to mixed audiences that he threatened to cut her out of his will and warned her, "Your first lecture will be a very expensive one." He eventually restored her inheritance.
In the mid-19th century, Charles Finney conducted a religious revival, promoting temperance and abolition, causes for which she had sympathy, but she was disturbed at his emphasis on sin while she became increasingly liberal.
ECS: The church (is) "a terrible engine of oppression ... as concerns woman...." Religion, instead of making a woman "noble and free ... has made her bondage but more certain and lasting, her degradation more helpless and complete...."
ECS: "The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with the superstitions of the Christian religion."9 "My religious superstitions gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts, and ... as I looked at everything from a new standpoint, I grew more and more happy.
When she married Henry Stanton, a lawyer and staunch abolitionist, her family was appalled, and even shocked when they removed the word "obey" from their wedding ceremony. On their honeymoon they attended the World Anti-Slavery convention in Londor. There she met Lucretia Mott, a Quaker preacher, who with other American women had been banished from the convention largely on biblical grounds that women were to be subservient to their husbands.
ECS: "We resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women."
Meanwhile the Stantons moved from Boston to Seneca Falls for Henry's health, and there she raised their seven children, a responsibility that often conflicted with her political passions. On July 13, 1848, over tea at the home of Jane Hunt in Waterloo, Stanton, Lucretia Mott , her sister Martha Wright and Mary Ann McClintock called a "public meeting for protest and discussion," for July 19 and 20, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls. Though they had no idea how such a meeting would turn out, it became "the gavel heard round the world."
The year 1848 was a year of revolution all over Europe. It was the year of the Communist Manifesto. In the United States it was the Age of Reform as anti-slavery, temperance and Utopian movements flourished.
One woman participant recorded her journey to the Convention, "At first we traveled quite alone ... but before we had gone many miles we came on other wagonloads of women, bound in the same direction. As we reached the different cross-roads we saw wagons coming from every part of the county, and long before we reached Seneca Falls we were a procession." Amazingly, there were 300 in attendance, with forty men, including 21-year-old Frederick Douglas, a recently freed slave who had moved to Rochester to publish his Northern Star newspaper. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had not intended male participation, but they seemed so interested they were admitted.
"At first, however, it looked as though no one would be admitted. The chapel, which was supposed to be opened for the convention, was locked. But (Cady) Stanton's nephew climbed through a window and opened the door from the inside."
A meeting called of, by and for women was unprecedented. The Convention was presided over by James Mott, Lucretia Mott's husband, as women simply did not do that sort of thing. Lucretia Mott spoke first. Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke next, and read the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which she patterned after the Declaration of Independence. However, the familiar words had an important amendment:
ECS: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...."
The next day every resolution was unanimously voted except the call for woman's suffrage. That was so radical a step that the participants were afraid it would undermine other reform efforts. Henry Stanton opposed it, and said he would leave town if they kept it - they did and he did. Even Lucretia Mott said of it, "Oh, Lizzie, thou will make us ridiculous! We must go slowly."
That was not Lizzie's way and she made an impassioned speech - supported by Frederick Douglas. After acrimonious debate, it passed narrowly. Only one of the original signers was alive in 1920 when 19th Amendment finally passed. The Convention then adjourned to Rochester, this time conducted by a woman, the Quaker Abigail Bush, "a most hazardous experiment." The suffrage resolution passed by a wide margin. The revolution had begun.
Unitarian Horace Greeley's Herald Tribune was one few papers supporting the Convention, though he had some doubts himself. "However unwise and mistaken the demand, it is but the assertion of a natural right and as such must be conceded.... "The best women I know do not want to vote," he said, despite the fact his own wife's name was at the head of one of the woman's suffrage petitions.
Other newspapers were not as kind. This small event had struck a raw nerve. It was "the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity..... Unwomanly behavior.... no doubt at the expense of their more appropriate duties.... Equal rights would "demoralize and degrade" women and "prove a monstrous injury to all mankind."
The Convention was a "mass of corruption, heresies, ridiculous nonsense, and reeking vulgarities which these bad women have vomited forth for the past three days."
The problem for the "ladies of Seneca Falls" and their supporters was two-fold. Not only was the law against them, but also many women agreed with these negative self-images. Some women were so shocked at the reaction they withdrew their names. The wife of Senator William Seward confessed, "There is nothing I dread more than Mr. Seward's ridicule. I would rather walk up to the cannon's mouth than encounter it."
It was in the context of the fallout from that Convention that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became friends, introduced on the streets of Seneca Falls by Amelia Bloomer. They shared their feelings about their struggle in conversation and correspondence over the next fifty-plus years:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in one letter to Susan B. Anthony:
ECS: "I passed through a terrible scourging when last at my father's. I cannot tell you how deep the iron entered my soul. I never felt more keenly the degradation of my sex. To think that all in me of which my father would have felt a proper pride had I been a man, is deeply mortifying to him because I am a woman....But I will both write and speak .... Sometimes, Susan, I struggle in deep waters."
The controversy over Cady Stanton's book The Woman's Bible tested their friendship and revealed their deepest religious convictions. She shows how the Bible is used to oppress women - a biblical bill of particulars. She enlisted three people to help her: Phebe Hanaford, Augusta Chapin and Olympia Brown - all Universalist ministers.
ECS: "The Bible and Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women's emancipation ...." "Our religion, laws, customs, are all founded on the belief that woman was made for man ...." "Resolved, that woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt custom and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her."
Anthony, while sympathizing with her views, frowned on this as a tactic, feeling it diverted energies that might be better spent. Responding to one of her friend's speeches on the subject, she said,
SBA: "But of her Bible Commentaries, I am not proud - either of their spirit or letter ...." "Stop hitting poor old St. Paul - and give your heaviest raps on the head of every Nabob - man or woman - who does injustice to a human being - for the crime of color or sex!! I do wish you could center your big brain on the crimes, we, ourselves, as a people are responsible for - to charge our offenses to false books or false interpretations - is but a way of seeking a refuge of lies ...." "There are, as you know, a few religious bigots left in the world who really believe that somehow or other if women are allowed to vote, Saint Paul would feel badly about it."
In a newspaper interview about The Woman's Bible she said,
SBA: "I think women have just as good a right to interpret and twist the Bible to their advantage as men always have twisted and turned it to theirs.... While I do not consider it my duty to tear to tatters the lingering skeletons of the old superstitions and bigotries, yet I rejoice to see them crumbling on every side."
The correspondence between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton has to be a literary and political high water mark in American history. As she was preparing to address a New York State teachers group on "Co-education", Susan B. Anthony wrote to Stanton, imploringly,
SBA: "There is so much to say and I am so without constructive power to put it in symmetrical order. So, for the love of me and for the saving of the reputation of womanhood, I beg you, with one baby on your knee and another at your feet, and four boys whistling, buzzing, hallooing 'Ma, Ma,' set yourself about the work.... Now will you load my gun, leaving me to pull the trigger and let fly the powder and the ball?.... Do get all on fire and be as cross as you please."
ECS: "Your servant is not dead but liveth. Imagine me, day in and day out, watching, bathing, dressing, nursing, and promenading the precious contents of a little crib in the corner of the room. I pace up and down these two chambers of mine, like a caged lioness longing to bring to a close nursing and housekeeping cares.... I will do what I can to help you with your lecture."
They did not always see eye to eye on other matters as well. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's was a lively, creative mind, that tended to move from issue to issue, while Susan B. Anthony steadfastly focused on woman's suffrage. Then, too, Anthony at times resented the domestic responsibilities Cady Stanton and others had which kept them from the fray.
SBA: "Those of you who have the talent to do honor to poor womanhood, have all given yourself over to baby-making; and left poor brainless me to do battle alone. It is a shame. Such a body as I might be spared to rock cradles. But it is a crime for you and Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown to be doing it."
ECS: Let "Lucy and Antoinette rest awhile in peace and quietness," since "we cannot bring about a moral revolution in a day or year."
SBA: "I would not object to marriage, if it were not that women throw away every plan and purpose of their own life, to conform to the plans and purposes of the man's life."
When she learned that Lucy Stone was pregnant, she wrote her,
SBA: "Lucy, neither of us have time - for such personal matters."
They were a remarkable team - Susan B. Anthony a Quaker-become-Unitarian whose faith was in changing the world, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a Scotch Presbyterian-become-freethinker - and, dare we say, Unitarian Universalist, whose impassioned mind and eloquent voice moved millions.
One observer described them as sitting together in their parlor, diligently forging "all manner of projectiles, from fireworks to thunderbolts .... I know of no more pertinacious incendiaries in the whole country.... This noise-making twain are the two sticks of a drum, keeping up what Daniel Webster called 'the rub-a-dub of agitation."32
In 1902, four years before her death, Anthony wrote to Cady Stanton,
SBA: "It is fifty-one years since we first met.... We little dreamed... that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. But ... there is an army of them where we were but a handful."
ECS: "If I had had the slightest premonition of all that was to follow that (first) convention, I fear I should not have had the courage to risk it...." "Our successors ... have a big work before them - much bigger - in fact than they imagine. We are only the stone that started the ripple, but they are the ripple that is spreading and will eventually cover the whole pond."
SBA: "I wonder if when I am under the sod - or cremated and floating up in the air - I shall have to stir you and others up. How can you not be all on fire? ... I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don't wake up - and raise your voice in protest against the impending crime of this nation upon the new islands it has clutched from other folks - Do come into the living present and work to save us from any more barbaric male governments."
Like Frank O'Connor and his friends, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took off their hats and threw them over the high fences so they knew they would have to climb over to get them. So must we.