Whatever our Historical Heroes' Shortcomings, They Still Rocked

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 13 2011 6:22 PM

Elizabeth Cady Stanton:  Abolitionist, Founding Feminist and (yawn) Hypocrite

Reading about scholar Lori Ginzburg’s new biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton is mildly annoying. Can it still be the case that enough effete, overeducated, bleeding heart NPR listeners remain unaware of the rampant class- and racism among both abolitionists and suffragists to warrant primo real estate on Morning Edition? Sigh. OK, then: Kudos to Ginzburg for lighting a candle instead of just cursing the darkness.    

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In the post-Civil War period, abolitionists (like Stanton and her girl Susan B. Anthony) battled over what form the 15th Amendment should take: universal suffrage or the more expedient compromise of enfranchising only black men. Stanton and Anthony insisted on the former, their opponents, the latter. While theirs was clearly the honorable position, Stanton’s own words reveal her to be no less (and no more) a selfish bigot than the Founding Fathers; brilliant and courageous about her own rights, "let them eat cake" about others’. By "universal" she really meant:  me and only those like me because all are created equal but some are more equal than others. High-class white women should certainly get the vote before, or at least with, all those brutish black men. Black women? Slatterns. Who cares? 

In that NPR interview, Ginzburg makes the same point that the more enlightened of Stanton’s fellow abolitionist-feminists did in ultimately denouncing her and splintering their caucus: She was only interested in freedom for well-to-do white Protestant women. Firebrand feminist Stephen Symonds Foster (he and his wife were so hard-core, they refused to EVER pay their property taxes as it was “taxation without representation” for her) condemned her as favoring only “Educated Suffrage” and worked to oust her from movement leadership. Arch-feminist Frederick Douglass kicked her to the curb for her derogatory usage of terms like “Sambo” and her sneering denigration of the poor and uneducated.  Stanton also seemed to have had a Birth of a Nation-type fear of newly enfranchised black men set free to ravage her tender white flesh. Ginzburg quotes her as saying, “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?” and that black women would find “an even worse slavery under black men than they did under their former white slave owners.” Huh?

Still, it’s best not to get all smug over the hypocrisy of the Stantons, the Jeffersons, and the sexist MLKs; hypocrites, every last one of them. But so what? Just try to imagine the courage, the self-possession, it took for a woman to demand the vote in 1848! Lucky for us that our now tarnished heroes got to go about changing the world without the 24 hour news cycle and Perez Hilton hacking their emails. We got to admire them and reap the benefits of their brilliance and sacrifice without all the pesky context that scholars like Ginzburg keep forcing on us.  In spite of themselves and their limitations, they accomplished a hell of a lot more than your average NPR listener; they bequeathed us a world in which, if nothing else, we can criticize our leaders without fear of repercussion. Not a bad epitaph for a bunch of hypocrites.