ELIZABETH CADY STANTON, “ADDRESS ON WOMAN’S RIGHTS” (September 1848) Belinda A. Stillion Southard University of Maryland Abstract: This essay attends to the transformative power of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s first major public speech, in which she grounds her arguments in natural rights, adopts an embellished speaking style, and employs a narrative form in her conclusion to invite her audience to participate in her prophetic vision of massive transformation.
The ideological tensions promoted in Stanton’s Address on Woman’s Rights speech persisted throughout the woman’s rights movement into the twentieth century. Key Words: natural rights, morality, sentimental style, prophetic persona Elizabeth Cady Stanton is considered the “greatest speaker” of the early woman’s rights movement. 1 She helped organize the first woman’s rights convention, she drafted and presented the first woman’s rights charter, and she founded multiple woman’s rights organizations, remaining in the public eye as a leader of the movement for more than fifty years.
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Thus, her first formal public address, “Address on Woman’s Rights,” delivered in 1848, is a key text not only for understanding early woman’s rights ideology, but also for understanding what drove one of our nation’s most prominent social movement leaders. This study takes a historical approach to illuminate the transformative power of Stanton’s first major public speech, her “Address on Woman’s Rights, 1848. ” To that end, I situate the address within the gendered context of 1848, detailing the social, political, and ideological forces at play in the historical moment.
Additionally, I discuss how these forces, along with Stanton’s privileged upbringing and entrance into reform activism, shaped her ideological approach toward woman’s rights. Next, I treat Stanton’s address as a site of discursive action where the interplay between text and context illuminates three key rhetorical strategies in Stanton’s address. First, while Stanton’s arguments were grounded in natural rights, she incorporated appeals to women’s moral authority, developing a complicated and entangled ideology of gender differences.
Second, Stanton’s embellished speaking style facilitated her thorough and weighty refutation of arguments against woman’s rights. Third, the narrative form of Stanton’s conclusion invited her audience to participate in a vision of massive transformation, in which Stanton’s prophetic call for sacrifice was both an enactment of women’s equality and a forecast of her role in the early woman’s rights movement. In conclusion, I consider the significance of Stanton’s address for how it created a tension Belinda A. Stillion Southard Last Updated: August 2006 Copyright © 2009 (Belinda A.
Stillion Southard). Voices of Democracy, ISSN #1932? 9539. Available at http://www. voicesofdemocracy. umd. edu/. Voices of Democracy 2 (2007): 152? 169 Stillion Southard 153 between natural rights and moral arguments that persisted throughout the history of the woman’s rights movement. Woman Leaders in a Culture of Resistance Stanton’s 1848 “Address on Woman’s Rights” should be understood as both a historical artifact of gender ideology and an example of Stanton’s own personal tenacity.
At age 32, Stanton’s privileged upbringing and superior intellect helped her enter what was considered the public sphere—a space reserved for men—and share her revolutionary ideas on woman’s rights. Other woman’s rights successes, made particularly through advances in education and women’s participation in the abolitionist movement, expanded the boundaries for women throughout the late eighteenth? and early? nineteenth centuries. These two forces—Stanton’s untapped leadership and the momentum of other social movements—created the opportunity to deliver this address. The following traces key elements of this fortuitous intersection, showing how Stanton’s upbringing and young adult life intersected with greater societal moves toward woman’s rights. Women’s Education In the post? Revolutionary War era, the demand for women’s education became politicized. Prior to the war, white women were relegated to domestic life, but according to Linda K. Kerber, the Revolution “created a public ideology of individual responsibility and virtue” which compelled some to elevate the status of women as cultivators of civic virtue. 2 Of course women were still confined to the private sphere, but they were considered morally superior and natural teachers, thus redefining their domesticity into what was termed “republican motherhood. “3 As Kerber suggests, “theorists created a mother who had a political purpose and argued that her domestic behavior had a direct political function in the Republic.
“4 As such, a woman’s domestic life, particularly white women of means, were not only required to run a home and raise a family, but to cultivate good citizens for the betterment of the republic. At this time, a woman’s domestic responsibilities had political ramifications, yet women were still constrained from directly entering the public sphere. 5 The white republican mother was further enabled by increased access to education.
As teachers of civic virtue, women needed an education to train their families to participate in society. According to Glenna Matthews, white women began receiving informal educations by the late eighteenth century. She explains: “Married women still could not control property in their own names, women still could not vote, but some at least were beginning to receive an education to equip them for intelligent participation in their society. “6 Despite these small