Penn State professor's biography of abolitionist frank, revealing

March 09, 2010

University Park, Pa. – Lori Ginzberg isn't a big fan of biographies, and she hardly considered penning one herself, but the Penn State professor of history and women's studies decided the subject of her most recent book "Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life," is just too interesting to pass up.

Ginzberg, whose research focuses on 19th-century U.S. women's history, says anyone studying that specific topic cannot avoid the name Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A social activist, feminist and abolitionist from that era, Stanton changed American history. Yet Ginzberg has found that too few people have heard of one of the biggest proponents of women's rights. Susan B. Anthony, a colleague and good friend of Stanton, and other prominent feminist leaders are better known, but it was Stanton who pushed Americans most strongly to address women's status in politics, law, religion and marriage.

"I never planned on writing a biography, but there is no one like her," Ginzberg said about Stanton. "I don't love her or hate her, but there's much to admire about her, she's so engaging."

The very first sentence of the introduction to Ginzberg's book, summarizes her feelings toward Stanton:

"Brilliant, self-righteous, charismatic, self-indulgent, mischievous, intimidating and charming, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the founding philosopher of the American movement for women's rights."

Ginzberg recognizes how much Stanton expanded the promise of American individualism to women, but often has been at odds with some of Stanton's methods and positions. Like other scholars, she notes that Stanton used shockingly racist language to express her indignation that black men's rights would get priority over women's rights after the Civil War. Ginzberg also argues that the racist and elitist streak in Stanton's thinking helped shape an American feminism that implicitly considers white, middle-class women the very model of womanhood itself.

Stanton never limited her thinking about women's rights to the vote, though it was that demand (which she made at the convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848) for which she has been most remembered. Stanton was highly critical of Biblical texts depicting women as inferior, as she showed in her book "The Women's Bible." She was offended by the fact that women had no rights in a divorce, so she stood up for more liberal laws at a time when marriage was considered a permanent arrangement that helped define women's legal subordination.

In addition to these rights, and the right to vote, Stanton fought for co-education, dress reform and individualism. These were, in Stanton's time, radical and deeply frightening to many Americans, Ginzberg said.

Women today have Stanton to thank for initiating great change in efforts to gain legal and political equality. While Stanton and the other women who fought for their gender's rights in the 19th century achieved so much, Ginzberg believes the United States still has a long way to go before all women are seen as equals.

She explains that most of the benefits women have gained from centuries of feminist struggle have aided women like Stanton: white and middle class. In politics, she says, women's issues often are minimized, and women too frequently act as though their most important "choices" concern fashion, body image and consumer goods.

Ginzberg says Stanton had an enormous impact on "changing public opinion about women's status, abilities and rights," and hopes her students at Penn State will be inspired by the struggles of Stanton and other activists to expand rights to more Americans. She would like them to think critically in their classes, stay informed and always evaluate their news sources.


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Last Updated November 18, 2010