NATIONAL WOMEN’S HISTORY ALLIANCE I 2021
The Shaming Must Stop:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony are American Heroes
By Dr. Myriam Miedzian
THE REPUTATIONS OF Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two illustrious figures in U.S. history, have been sullied extensively and unjustly. This is part of a larger phenomenon whereby historical figures – especially women – are dismissed and shamed as imperfect, regardless of their achievements.
While many historians have foregrounded Stanton and Anthony’s forays into racism, most have also acknowledged their accomplishments. But most media commentators point to Stanton and Anthony’s racist comments and ignore their extraordinary achievements. Millions of Americans have been misinformed and disempowered. Ignoring women’s accomplishments serves to perpetuate a sense of male superiority.
After the Civil War, male abolitionists withdrew support for universal suffrage and withheld funds intended for women’s rights. Outraged, Stanton and Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment giving Black men only the vote. They lamented that illiterate former slaves and “ignorant immigrants” could vote, while educated women could not. Understandably, they have been criticized for these and other objectionable behaviors.
But to critique such behaviors while ignoring their extraordinary achievements distorts the historical record. As Ta Nehisi Coates points out, it sets unrealistic judgmental criteria.
He writes, “I find myself in sympathy for both Stanton and Anthony who after devoting so much of their early lives to abolitionism, hoped for some reciprocity which did not come ... I think of Stanton and Anthony misstepping, but always pushing, always agitating, always expanding.” He concludes “I don’t need my personal pantheon to be clean. But I need it to be filled with warriors.”
As a leading spokeswoman for abolition, Anthony was often subjected to intensely hostile behavior and armed threats.
In 1864 when President Lincoln was reluctant to support a 13th Amendment freeing all the slaves, Stanton and Anthony got the Women’s National Loyal League, which they founded to collect 400,000 signatures in support of it. This played a significant role in getting Lincoln to endorse it.
In 1848, Stanton played a major role in organizing the first women’s rights convention in U.S. history. Stanton and Anthony’s fifty-year fight for women’s rights included married women’s rights to their salaries and their children, and all women’s rights to higher education and suffrage. Their successes in New York inspired women in other states.
In an era of profound racism, Stanton supported Black/White intermarriage, and welcomed Black people to her home – Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass were house guests. Douglass deplored some of Stanton’s political assertions, but as Professor Nell Irvin Painter points out, “recalling her hospitality in the days when respectable white people turned away blacks, he praised her for personal freedom from racism.”
Numerous black suffragists celebrated Anthony. Mary Church Terrell wrote, “...we owe [Anthony] a debt of gratitude which cannot be expressed in words...”
The current portrayal of Stanton and Anthony as unforgivable racists rests in large part on criticisms which are false including the accusation that they left black women suffragists out of The History of Woman Suffrage. In fact, the first three volumes, to which they were major contributors contain 85 references to them. This false accusation has led to attributing Black suffragists’ invisibility to White suffragists’ racism. In fact they are both invisible due to sexism. Middle and high school history textbooks do not even devote one chapter to a seventy-year nonviolent movement which changed the lives of all of us.
We demand nothing more for these two extraordinary women than that they be treated by the same standards as their male contemporaries including Frederick Douglass. In Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Yale professor David Blight describes Douglass’s anti-slavery speeches which portray Native Americans as uncivilized and Irish Americans as drunkards. In the 1878 election Douglass supported a Confederate general over an African American attorney. Blight deplores this behavior, but quickly moves on to celebrate Frederick Douglass the brilliant leader in the struggle against slavery and racist injustice. There is no public sullying of Douglass’s reputation.
This is how it should be for Stanton and Anthony as well.
Dr. Myriam Miedzian is a former Philosophy Professor, and the author of Boys will be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity and Violence. She and her husband Gary Ferdman are the founders of Monumental Women, the non-profit responsible for the first statue to honor real women in Central Park.