Lori Ginzberg on Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Kudos to Penn State University historian Lori Ginzberg for her 2009 biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and for her interview this morning about the book on NPR’s Morning Edition The angle of the interview, and of the book I gather, is Stanton’s bitterness about voting rights being extended to African American men via the Fifteenth Amendment before white women won the franchise.  Stanton in fact would die almost a generation before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting voting rights to all adults, and the U.S. has never passed an Equal Rights Amendment.  The division among Civil War-era reformers like Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass who had been allies in the struggle both for women’s rights and for abolition, is one that continues to shape the relationships between feminism and anti-racist movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

I look forward to the day when biographers of white, male progressives make the focus of their books the racism and sexism inherent in their activism and writings.  Woodrow Wilson has been raked over with respect to his racial politics, and rightly so, but Teddy Roosevelt?  Eugene V. Debs?  Mark Twain?  Clarence Darrow?  “Fighting Bob” LaFollette?  William Jennings Bryan?  It seems that they, like Stanton, were white people captive to many of the prejudices of their times.  And we never, ever read books that center on the fact that these men benefited from the unpaid or undercompensated labor of their wives, daughters, and servants, do we?

I appreciate the intellectual honesty of feminist scholarship.  I just wish it were a more broadly shared value among other historians.

21 thoughts on “Lori Ginzberg on Elizabeth Cady Stanton

  1. Hey Historiann, just heard that interview driving in from the ranch this morning. I actually think TR, Bryan, and Darrow (not sure about the others) have been raked over (repeatedly, in TR’s case) along similar lines as what Ginzberg was discussing with Stanton — on racism for sure, less so (maybe not at all in some cases) on the unpaid/undercompensated labor of wives/daughters/servants. Anyway, I was glad to hear a historian’s voice who wasn’t one of the usual media suspects. Maybe NPR will interview you soon about your colonial-era Catholic women? I’m awaiting the Ken Burns series based on it.


  2. Heh. Here’s hoping, Paul.

    I will defer to your authority on this era, of course. I know academic historians have written more about race and white progressives in this era, but in terms of trade bios of those men (the equivalent of the Ginzberg bio of Stanton), I’m not so sure. What do you think? At least, I’m unaware of the “usual media suspects,” as you say, talking about the racist angle of those dudes.


  3. Yeah, it took a guy not generally all that known as a “progressive,” Harry Truman, to take on the defense establishment on armed forces integration, and to threaten to punch out a reporter for ridiculing his daughter in print. Not saying that he didn’t also have many of the flaws of the culture that he emerged from.


  4. Civil rights supporters are considered saints, even though many of them had sexist beliefs and treated women horribly. Meanwhile, it’s considered horrible for a woman to be proud of Stanton for example. Don’t you know she was an evil racist! Never mind most people back then were.


  5. Well, most white people, anyway!

    And it’s only the male Civil Rights leaders who are cannonized (except for perhaps Rosa Parks, whose work as an organizer is obscured by the legend of her “spontaneous” provocation of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.)

    Do people still read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi? That was a book that really blew me away when I first read it (in college). Or is the feeling that we already “know” about that now & it’s no longer fashionable?


  6. It may be way above my knowledge grade, but it seems to me that expecting individuals to hold views far removed from their time and social circle is unrealistic. I am sure that TR today would be accepting of anyone and treating every member of society with respect.

    Similar, to rake individuals over not exceed expectations is not very tolerant. Furthermore, we all, without noticing, have prejudices against some people, groups, religions, social classes and what have you. Are we therefore offender worth of raking, spit on, rebuke and made fun of?

    Example: as a teacher I know that we discriminate against bad students. Good student are treated much better than bad ones. A student that was not given the brains of my bright students was already short changed, we still give him the bird. Yet no one in the department was willing to discuss the issue.


  7. This is on my to-read list. I’ve heard different versions of how much animosity there was between Stanton and Douglass (I’ve been given to understand that they remained friends/friendly until they died), but haven’t had the time to do the research myself.

    I will say, though, that Ginzberg writes beautifully. I wasn’t 100% on the same page with some of her interpretations in “Untidy Origins” but she is a truly gifted writer, and definitely worth reading.

    Thanks for the heads-up to the NPR interview!


  8. I still teach Moody regularly! It is a powerful and complicated book that problematized events like the March on Washington long before historians ever did. I have to agree that feminist historians often have more nuanced takes on the “heroes” of the Left. One example, Marian Mollin, _Radical Pacifism in Modern America_, has a great gendered analysis of the peace movement that Todd Gitlin (whoops) left out.


  9. I too have heard from friends who teach 19th C American women’s history that Untidy Origins is really smart and teachable.

    I’m glad to hear that Moody is still on your reading list, widgeon. I should put that on my list for a re-read. And I’m also glad to hear that Debra Dickerson is even more cheesed than I am about all this!

    A former colleague of mine (now retired) had a license plate that read “HARUMPH.” When he gets bored with it, I might pick up that tag.


  10. I feel this way about the way Quakers do their own history, too. It’s all about self-excoriation. The historical shtick given at the famous Meetinghouses in Philadelphia is this. Did you know that in the 19th c., Frederick Douglass’ wife came to Meeting and HAD TO SIT IN A SEPARATE SECTION!!1!!??? How horribly racist those 19thc. abolitionists were!!!111!!!.

    I don’t understand the point of all this hand-wringing, and question its utility. If we judge 19th c. Quakers by 21st c. standards, yes, they were racist.

    But, also? THEY WERE THE FIRST FUCKING ABOLITIONISTS. So their social skills were retrograde and tacky.

    You know who was a REALLY racist motherfucker? The guy who OWNED Frederick Douglass in the first place.


  11. Heh. Exactly. It never occurs to the apologists for the slaveowners to apologize, flog themselves, or engage in a twenty-minute hate on themselves, for the ownership of humans.

    This reminds me of the conversation we had about Mary Daly shortly after her death, and the ease with which some alleged feminist third-wavers dismissed her because of her transphobia. Only feminists (and Quakers) have to be politically correct across time and space. Because they had the foresight to be right about sexual politics/antislavery, they must also have made the correct statements throughout their lives on everything according to the standards of 2011 in order for us to include them in the Pantheon.


  12. [Looks for the Like button re: last two posts]

    If you read Stanton’s account of organizing the Seneca Falls Convention, it sounds a lot like the last-straw impetus was when she lost her head having to watch her own kids and keep her own house, ‘cuz finding good help was really hard in the backwater-known-as-Waterloo, which was not nearly as cushy as fancy, civilized Boston. Not terribly PC. But if any woman who does something important or useful has to be a perfect, perfect Saint (by *everyone’s* standard), women wouldn’t do anything. Oh. Maybe that’s the point?

    Also… this post finally got me to order the book. Looking forward to reading it!


  13. I thought raking W. J. Bryan over the coals was so old hat that it wasn’t even fun anymore. Didn’t it start with Hofstatder pointing out his anti-Semitism and move on from there? TR has been taking it on the chin for years – Teddy Bear patriarchy comes to mind, along with a ton of diplomatic history that points to TR’s racism as one of the origins of World War II. Darrow got poked at in Kevin Boyle’s book Arc of Justice, but it was more a friendly poke.


  14. I’ve used _Untidy Origins_ once in a grad. research methods seminar and among the many other reasons why it’s a good tool is that it shows that yes, historically important phenomena *do* also happen in impossibly remote places–the farthest northwestern corner of the Adirondack plateau in this case–and that, no, the difficulty of finding a ton of primary sources waiting to jump into your lap isn’t a good excuse to “change topics,” especially ten days before the semester ends!


  15. I was reminded of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s position on who should get voting rights first in the last election primaries (between Obama & Clinton). It was interesting that few people brought up the parallel in the media. Will we wait 50 years to see a woman president in the U.S.? I suspect so.


  16. I use Moody in a Women’s History course I teach to K-12 teachers. Primary and Secondary Civil Rights curricula is so structured (and skimpy outside of King and Parks) that most of them had no idea how many women were involved in the Civil Rights movement – the mere fact of their involvement combined with Moody’s experiences really shakes them up and several of them (even elementary school teachers) have said they will work to widen their discussions to include issues of gender in discussion.
    I do plan to use Moody next time I teach the second half of the US survey course.


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