Old Friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Made History Together

In their last days, the suffragist pioneers look back

HUMANITIES, July/August 2014, Volume 35, Number 4

“It is fifty-one years since we first met, and we have been busy through every one of them, stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women,” Susan B. Anthony wrote her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902.

The letter, in honor of Stanton’s eighty-seventh birthday, was printed in Pearson’s Magazine. It continued: “We little dreamed when we began this contest, optimistic with the hope and buoyancy of youth, that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. But our hearts are filled with joy to know that they enter upon this task equipped with a college education, with business experience, with the fully admitted right to speak in public—all of which were denied to women fifty years ago. They have practically one point to gain—the suffrage; we had all.”

Anthony’s reflections reveal a friendship that was public and political but also private and genuine. From their activist beginnings in the antislavery and temperance movements to their leadership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the two women—Anthony as an on-the-ground organizer and strategist and Stanton as a writer, thinker, and commentator—were an inseparable force.

The women had first met in 1851 when Anthony traveled to an antislavery meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, where Stanton had organized the first national woman’s rights convention there in 1848. In remembering the day Amelia Bloomer introduced them on a street corner, Stanton said, “There she stood with her good, earnest face and genial smile, dressed in gray delaine, hat and all the same color, relieved with pale blue ribbons, the perfection of neatness and sobriety. I liked her thoroughly, and why I did not at once invite her home with me to dinner, I do not know.”

Both women were in their thirties: Anthony had been teaching, and Stanton was married to abolitionist Henry B. Stanton. Their involvement in the antislavery movement had cultivated a shared interest in broader equality issues, and each was passionate about the right of women to participate in the governing process and have control over their own lives. Anthony was inspired by Stanton’s vision for advancing women, and Anthony’s organizing skills were soon apparent to Stanton, who had young children and could not travel regularly. Together, they launched a national woman’s suffrage movement, published the newspaper The Revolution, and lectured, lobbied, and protested for equal rights.

Remembering their earlier struggles, Anthony closed her letter: “And we, dear old friend, shall move on the next sphere of existence—higher and larger, we cannot fail to believe, and one where women will not be placed in an inferior position, but will be welcomed on a plane of perfect intellectual and spiritual equality.” The sentiment was timelier than anyone expected. Stanton, who had been homebound and in ill health but still publishing commentaries, died before the letter was published on October 26, 1902, two-and-a-half weeks before her birthday.

In her letter, Anthony sounds optimistic, despite her lament that only in death will they experience equality. She seems confident in the suffrage movement’s new leaders. There is a sense that things can only move forward for women.

In fact, the previous five years had tested the two women’s faith in progress. As they were handing over the reins to a new generation of suffragists, America went to war with Spain, gained control of new island territories, and set up governments that limited women’s rights. On the mainland, a post-Reconstruction backlash against African-American civil rights was growing stronger in the South. By the turn of the century, Anthony and Stanton worried the fight for equality was moving backward. Overall, voting rights for anyone other than white men were becoming more restricted, not less. Women’s gains in the workplace—as public school teachers, for instance—were also under fire. And the elder suffragists weren’t sure their young coworkers understood the threat.

The sixth and final volume of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Papers Project, An Awful Hush, 1895–1906, offers an intimate look at how Stanton and Anthony confronted these issues at the end of their lives. Through a selection of personal letters, articles, and other papers, the book documents their last political project together and their concerns about the future of the suffrage movement. The book also shows the tenacity with which the two worked until their deaths and how each still depended on the other to debate new ideas and spearhead action. Their letters to each other reveal what made the partnership work: unfailing respect for each other, scathing honesty when one thought the other was wrong, and a commitment to take on challenges as a team.

One such challenge came in early 1896, when delegates at the NAWSA convention passed a resolution to denounce Stanton’s two-volume work The Woman’s Bible, a collection of commentaries by Stanton and others on religion and women’s subjugation. In the controversial best-seller, Stanton analyzed scripture and rebutted those who used the Bible to justify denying women rights. Some more conservative members of the suffrage association disapproved of the book, and others thought it detracted from their suffrage goal.

At the time, Anthony was president of the association, having succeeded Stanton four years earlier. She had no desire to champion Stanton’s Bible and saw no reason for the convention to take up the issue. “Anthony did not like the book, but she certainly agreed with Stanton on religion,” says Ann D. Gordon, editor of the Papers project and research professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University. Anthony opposed the book on strategic grounds—she felt it was a damaging digression from their suffrage work. But in a letter to Stanton, she disparaged those “who voted for this interference with personal rights” of their “co-worker.” She wrote: “No, my dear, instead of my resigning and leaving those half-fledged chickens without any mother, I think it my duty and the duty of yourself and all the liberals to be at the next convention and try to reverse this miserable, narrow action.”

Reaction to The Woman’s Bible, along with poor health, isolated Stanton from the suffrage movement toward the end of her life, but Anthony remained her eyes and ears on the ground. Stanton continued to write, and her unrelenting critiques of religion—and other topics that Anthony felt were tangential to suffrage—fueled an ongoing disagreement between them. “How many topics can you associate with suffrage and still win? Susan B. Anthony almost always wanted a clean ticket,” Gordon says.

Take a letter Anthony sent Stanton from the 1896 California campaign for suffrage, which was ultimately unsuccessful: “You say ‘women must be emancipated from their superstitions before enfranchisement will be of any benefit,’ and I say just the reverse, that women must be enfranchised before they can be emancipated from their superstitions.” Superstition, in this case, referred to women’s irrational belief in oppressive religion. Anthony believed that when women could vote and be participants in civic society, other types of “emancipation” would follow. “Women would be no more superstitious today than men, if they had been men’s political and business equals and gone outside the four walls of home and the other four of the church into the great world, and come in contact with and discussed men and measures on the plane of this mundane sphere, instead of living in the air with Jesus and the angels,” she argued.

Determined to preserve that “clean ticket,” Anthony refused to introduce any other issues into the California campaign. She had finally succeeded in convincing the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to stay out, she reported. “Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t you propose a ‘Bible invasion,’” she wrote Stanton. “I shall not circulate your ‘Bible’ literature a particle more than Frances Willard’s prohibition literature.”

“People see a fight and assume they’re not getting along,” Gordon says. “I don’t think these two ever gave up on each other.” Anthony wrote in another letter from California, “Oh how I have longed for you at my side to put into your matchless sentences the words that wait the saying—none of the young women are good—clear, crisp writers. . . . the two of us together being an invincible team—I feel every day—like Sampson shorn of his locks—without you.”

Anthony relied on Stanton’s “matchless sentences,” and Stanton knew Anthony would keep things moving and focused. While preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights, Anthony wrote Stanton: “I hope you are concentrating your every thought on the addresses which you wish to make to go down to history as your final and most complete utterances on the question of the enfranchisement of women. I wish it were possible for me to be in two places and do two things at once. If it were, I should certainly be with you and keep you stirred up,” she wrote. “If possible, you should overtop and surpass anything and everything you have written or spoken before. Now my dear, this is positively the last time I am ever going to put you on the rack and torture you to make the speech or the speeches of your life.”

In the end, Stanton’s poor health—including near blindness—kept her from attending the February 1898 celebration in Washington, D.C., but she wrote an address that suffrage leader Clara Colby read. Toward the end of the speech, Stanton asserted: “The suffrage question is practically conceded. With full suffrage in four States, municipal suffrage in another, and school suffrage in half the States of the Union . . . the opposition with their flimsy protests and platitudes are wandering in fields where long ago the harvests were gathered and garnered.”

Later that year, however, a confluence of events seemed to call Stanton’s assertion into question. At its 1898 convention, the American Federation of Labor—historically a backer of woman’s suffrage—heard a resolution that called on Congress to remove all women from government jobs and set a precedent for keeping women in the home. Delegates shot it down, but its mere introduction was disconcerting. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad adopted a new policy of “promoting from within,” and, to avoid having women in management, fired many female employees. A commission led by University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper to study Chicago’s public schools claimed that pay raises won by the teachers’ union for the majority female workforce were unearned. Harper said men should be paid more because they showed “superior physical endurance,” and he advocated promoting men to better paid positions over women.

All this followed the short Spanish-American War, which resulted in U.S. control of islands in the Caribbean and Pacific. At the same time, the United States annexed the sugar-rich Hawai’ian Islands after helping to take down the monarchy. Congress was deciding what type of governance to foist on the territories. On the mainland, Jim Crow legislation was in full swing in the South. In this same decade, the Supreme Court had affirmed “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson, and Southern states had begun passing laws to limit black men’s suffrage. The country’s political language was thick with references to race and sex, writes Gordon. “War and empire complicated the whole nation’s understanding of what it meant to talk about the consent of the governed.”

To Stanton and Anthony, one thing was clear: The country was in danger of regressing. While women in some states were winning elections for municipal office, the proposed constitution for Hawai’i was more discriminatory than any state’s. Not only were women denied voting rights, they were banned from holding public office. Stanton and Anthony thought this set a dangerous precedent for suffrage. “They look at this [and think,] ‘It’s like my whole adult life has been erased,’” Gordon says.

Younger suffragists didn’t seem to get it. Anthony was appalled that her potential successors had nothing to say. “I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don’t wake up. . . . Do come into the living present & work to save us from any more barbaric male governments,” she wrote one activist. “Our souls ought to be on fire—& yet no one seems awake to the threatening signs of the times,” she wrote to another.

Of course, she could count on Stanton to be on fire. “The old Slave Ocrats are bound to push out every man & woman of color from the enjoyment of civil rights,” Anthony wrote her friend. Every day she saw another instance of “colorphobia & sexphobia” that she thought Stanton should write about. Yet she questioned Stanton’s insistence that religion was the root of discrimination: “On every hand American civilization—which we are introducing into Isles of the Atlantic & Pacific—is putting its heel on the head of the negro race—Now this barbarism does not grow out of ancient Jewish Bibles—but out of our own sordid meanness!! and the like of you ought to stop hitting poor old St Paul . . . Nobody does right or wrong because Saint Paul [tells] them to—but because of their own black “true inwardness”—The trouble is in ourselves to day—not in men or books of thousands of years ago.” She chided Stanton: “I do wish you could centre 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.” Anthony signed off “lovingly yours.”

For all their debate, the two women always agreed on the basics. So they teamed up for a last political project with the proposed Hawai’ian constitution in their crosshairs. In their 1899 open letter to Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who had previously been a supporter of woman’s suffrage, they wrote: “The women of Hawaii should be accorded the highest position occupied by any in the United States. . . . By limiting all official positions to ‘male’ citizens there is a new depth to women’s degradation we of the States have not yet experienced.”

Today, many historians believe Stanton and Anthony’s advocacy amounts to collaboration with the imperial project, writes Gordon, but the two women saw it as good political strategy, she says. They operated on the conviction that “my Congress should not treat women this way.” Their “Petition for the Women of Hawaii,” which ran in The Sun in New York and other national publications, read: “As in four States of the Union women now enjoy civil and political equality, to create a male oligarchy, by restricting the right to vote and hold office to men, would be to ignore all the steps of progress made during the last fifty years and reestablish at the very dawn of the new century a government based upon the invidious distinctions of sex, which have ever blocked the way to a higher civilization.”

They encouraged women to sign and send the petition to Congress, noting, “When the emancipation of black men was under discussion the Women’s Loyal League sent 400,000 petitions to Congress in favor of that measure. Shall we do less for the political freedom of the women of Hawaii?”

In the end, Hawai’i’s new government was instituted as written. But Stanton and Anthony had weathered numerous defeats together—for them, it was all part of a long revolution. The next year, in 1900, Anthony retired as president of NAWSA, though she would continue to crisscross the country, agitating. On the occasion of her eightieth birthday that year, Stanton wrote her a poem that ran in national newspapers. She remembered their first meeting and instant inseparability: “We’ve traveled West, years together, \ Day and night, in stormy weather.” Stanton remembered “sleighs, ox-carts, and coaches, \ Besieged with bugs, and roaches.” She closed the poem looking forward:

United down life’s hill we’ll glide,

Whate’er the coming years betide—

Parted only when first in time

Eternal joys are thine or mine.