Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist Legal Theorist on the Family


Today is Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday. Stanton was the chief philosopher, organizer and legal advocate for the first women’s rights movement in the nineteenth century.  Most people remember Stanton, if at all, as the founder of the women’s suffrage movement with her Declaration of Sentiments on July 15, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, demanding the vote for women.  Now, the National Women's Rights Museum is located on this site near Stanton’s home.

Stanton,however, had a much broader, holistic agenda for women’s rights.  She envisioned reform of political, civil, social and religious rights all for the full emancipation of women.  Her key points of emphasis were voting, marriage, and later, the church.  I have spent nearly a decade devoted to archival research on Stanton’s legal and feminist thinking about family law.  The culmination of that work is forthcoming in a book for NYU Press, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law.  The book traces her work on marital property reform, marriage equality, no fault divorce, domestic violence, abortion, and maternal rights.  See Tracy Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Federal Marriage Amendment: A Letter to the President, 22 Constl. Comm. 137 (2005); Tracy Thomas Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Notion of a Legal Class of Gender, in Feminist Legal History: Essays on Women and Law (Tracy A. Thomas & TJ
Boisseau, eds., NYU 2011).

It’s cliché to say that those who fail to read history are destined to repeat it.  More like just ignore it.  It has become conventional wisdom to depict Stanton as a narrow libertarian feminist and anti-abortion advocate. For example, she is featured by Feminists for Life in promotional material and US Supreme Court amicus briefs as “strongly opposed to abortion.”  I refute the arguments and trace Stanton’s work in the context of the nineteenth century’s criminalization of abortion in a recent article, Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion, 36 Seattle U. L. Rev. 1 (2012).

Stanton developed and applied a feminist legal theory in challenging the laws of coverture and inequality in the family.  She deconstructed the supposed objectivity of the law, exposed the inherent self-interest of men in power, and integrated women’s experience into the proposed legal solutions. This is perhaps her greatest legacy—demonstrating a long-standing feminist critique and demand for women’s voice in the law.

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