I’ve been in search of strong 19th century female freethinkers, and they don’t get much stronger than this. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was fearless. When it came to women’s rights, she wanted it all. Forget those cautious folk wanting to shuffle carefully towards woman suffrage, and maybe after that, if it wouldn’t upset folks too much, maybe then they could work on another right or two for women. Stanton wasn’t having any of that. Hells to the no.
And schisms? She caused ‘em. Let the cautious folk tiptoe timidly: she’d be over here, marching like thunder. She and her allies wanted their woman suffrage plus.
Religion, she thought, was one of the things holding women back. So she fought it. She published The Woman’s Bible, which took sexism in the Bible head-on, causing no end to consternation amongst those who were terrified to set a foot wrong with religion. And Stanton said,
Others say it is not politic to rouse religious opposition.
This much-lauded policy is but another word for cowardice. How can woman’s position be changed from that of a subordinate to an equal, without opposition, without the broadest discussion of all the questions involved in her present degradation? For so far-reaching and momentous a reform as her complete independence, an entire revolution in all existing institutions is inevitable.
Let us remember that all reforms are interdependent, and that whatever is done to establish one principle on a solid basis, strengthens all. Reformers who are always compromising, have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.
Again there are some who write us that our work is a useless expenditure of force over a book that has lost its hold on the human mind. Most intelligent women, they say, regard it simply as the history of a rude people in a barbarous age, and have no more reverence for the Scriptures than any other work. So long as tens of thousands of Bibles are printed every year, and circulated over the whole habitable globe, and the masses in all English-speaking nations revere it as the word of God, it is vain to belittle its influence.
There’s something about a little white-haired old lady rolling up her sleeves and taking on organized religion, aiming a knockout blow straight at its holy book.
In England, suffragist Helen Bright Clark mentioned that Stanton might just have shocked some of those in that staid British audience, to which Stanton replied, “Well, if we who do see the absurdities of the old superstitions never unveil them to others, how is the world to make any progress in the theologies? I am in the sunset of life, and I feel it to be my special mission to tell people what they are not prepared to hear …”
She always did do that, Elizabeth Cady Stanton did, and it got her written out of history for a while, because people are afraid of women who are too firebrandy. But a less straitlaced and pious age remembered her at last, and her work never had died. She was one of those who was willing to take it so far, and eventually the Western nations mostly caught up to her, even passed her at a few points (she was never a fan of abortion, for instance).
When we look at her, this sweet, white-haired old lady who gave both her moderate occasional allies and her opponents gray hairs, we should remember: she was never afraid to ask for more, and she never stopped telling people what they weren’t prepared to hear. I think she knew that if someone didn’t tell them, they never would be prepared to hear, and they needed to.
She wasn’t trying to win popularity contests. She was trying to force a hostile world to give women their rights. She never forgot that. Every movement needs its peacemakers, but it also needs its warriors: she was that warrior, and fierce, and fantastic.
Let’s never forget her again. And I challenge you, in her memory: go out, stand on the safe ground of truth, and tell someone what they’re not prepared to hear.