Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Stanton, Feminism & the Family: “The whole question of women’s rights turns on the pivot of the marriage relation.”
I have been blogging, chapter by chapter, about my new book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton & the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYU Press 2016). Chapter 1 was "What Do You Women Want?" on marital property reform.
Today, is chapter 2.
Chapter 2, “The Pivot of the Marriage Relation” addresses Stanton’s key philosophical premise that equality in marriage was as important as equality in public, church, and state.
I do not know that the world is quite willing or ready to discuss the question of marriage. . . . It is in vain to look for the elevation of woman, so long as she is degraded in marriage. . . . The right idea of marriage is at the foundation of all reforms. . . . I feel this whole question of woman’s rights turns on the pivot of the marriage relation, and sooner or later it will be the question for discussion.
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, Mar. 1, 
Marriage needed “pivot,” to do an about-face from the slave-like subordinated status of married women under coverture to an autonomous, individual partner of a marital partnership. For this first feminist, family was not opposed to women’s rights, but was a key site of needed change. The public and private spheres were not segregated as feminist theory first developed.
Stanton’s critiques and theories of marriage were colored by her own disappointing personal experience in marriage. She had dreamed, and often espoused, the idea of a close companion, a soulmate, with whom a woman shared family, work, and intimacy. Instead, she was married to abolitionist and some-time lawyer Henry Stanton who was fully absorbed in his own (unrealized) political ambition. Henry spent most of their married life living elsewhere, working on a political campaign or issue in another city or state, while Elizabeth raised their seven children. The two finally set up separately households in their fifties, visiting and remaining cordial for family events.
Philosophically, Stanton’s first objective was to establish that marriage was a problem. She made her point sometimes symbolically, using metaphors like slavery which her audience understood, and lamenting the wife’s duty to obey and take her husband’s name, “Mrs. Henry Stanton.”
Stanton’s radical “Man Marriage” critique presented in speeches and newspaper editorials conveyed this idea of the oppressive nature of marriage on a more sophisticated level. Like modern feminist legal theorists, she deconstructed the seeming objectivity of the law to show how the laws of marriage were made “by and for the benefit of men.” She applied this critique to the controversy over Mormon polygamy, subversively suggesting that polygamy was no worse than monogamy for women.
Stanton’s second objective was to offer a corrective solution to the problem of marriage. Her reconstructive ideal conceptualized marriage as a contract. Marriage as a contract, rather than a status, changed everything legally for Stanton. It supported the notion of a legal partnership of equals, free modification of termination of that contract by divorce, as well as state laws of higher age for marriage and abolition of common law marriage.