Friday, January 27, 2017
I have been blogging about my new book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton & the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYU Press 2016). See Introduction; Chp 1, "What do you Women Want?"; Chp 2 "The Pivot of the Marriage Relation"; Chp 3 "Divorce is not the Foe of Marriage"; and Chp 4 "The Incidental Relation of Mother."
Today's blog is on Chapter 5, "Our Girls" on Stanton's theories of feminist parenting and raising up a new generation free from gendered norms.
After decades of activism and proposed legal reform, Stanton grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of tangible progress. One continual sticking point was women themselves. Stanton repeatedly heard from women “I have all the rights I want.”
Women’s resistance, Stanton believed, was based on their own social and religious acculturation of female difference and inferiority. As she entered her sixties and then seventies, Stanton became convinced that these foundational norms needed to be changed if there was any hope of meaningful and sustainable change for women’s equality.
Her first strategy was to teach the next generation differently. Her goal was to raise children the same: tell girls to climb trees, play sports, and like science and teach boys to be kind, have manners, and like music. In the 1860s, Stanton toured the country 10 months of the year for 11 years, speaking to large crowds as part of the Lyceum tour. Here she featured two key speeches, “Our Girls” and “Our Boys.” These popular speeches appealed to mothers, as they gave philosophical and practical ways to raise children. She also advocated coeducation of the sexes from primary school through college, eschewing concerns that young men were too immoral to study alongside young women.
As part of this redirection of the next generation, Stanton advocate for legal reform of child custody laws. At common law, fathers were solely given custody rights, in the case of separation, but also to make decisions about apprenticeships or guardianships at his death. In this one area, the courts kept pace with Stanton’s demands. The courts had begun to evolve away from the paternal right of custody to stronger assumptions of the right of maternal custody especially for young children of “tender years.” This law matched the social norms of the reverence for mothers, although still rendering judgments about “unfit” mothers based on political views or personal relationships. The custody issue was an issue that triggered large grassroots support among the women Stanton spoke to, as many had experienced the legal loss of their own children.
Stanton’s second grand strategy was to extirpate the origins of the norms of gender inferiority which she located in religious doctrine. The problem, she said, was that women heard everything Sunday from the pulpits of how women was morally inferior, having succumbed to the temptation of evil in the Garden of Eden, and created second to man for the sole purpose of being his help mate. Women believed that their inferiority of law and society was God ordained, and thus fundamentally resisted other ideas.
Her work was to reinterpret the biblical texts that had been used to subordinate women. Having been trained in Greek, the eighty-year old Stanton set out to offer alternative interpretations of key portions of the Bible in her book The Woman's Bible. In what we might now call feminist theological interpretation, Stanton questioned the bias of the text, went to the original meaning of the Greek words, and read women’s experience and stories back into the biblical lessons. This work, however, was too radical even for the women suffrage reformers. They censored her and the book and cast her out from the organization she had founded and lead for fifty years. Stanton didn’t care: her goal was for meaningful and permanent change for women’s equality.