Thursday, December 7, 2017
Thanks to Prof. Mary Block for this review of my book:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a woman far ahead of her time with regard to her advocacy for women’s rights within the family. Tracy A. Thomas, Professor of family law and a feminist legal historian, argues that Stanton believed a radical challenge to family law was vital to the woman’s rights agenda. Stanton asserted that four institutions: government, church, family, and industry acted symbiotically to keep women in a subordinate status. The public and private spheres were not separate, but intertwined and they operated in myriad ways to discriminate and hinder women and stifle equality. Thomas states that Stanton and many other nineteenth-century women’s rights advocates had a fluid notion of feminism, one that embraced both the sameness and differences between men and women. Women were equal not inferior to men, but women were different because they could procreate while men could not so in addition to the vote, Stanton also promoted rights that extended to women as mothers. The greatest hurdle to achieving equal rights for women was that too many people confounded differences with inferiority. The rest of the populace was apathetic. The solution to the problem of women’s inequality was complete formal legal equality. The question was how best to achieve it.
Stanton’s feminist attack on the oppressive structures of marriage was radical in that she framed women’s inequality as systemic victimization. Marriage laws sexualized women and created a sanctuary for male lust through protection of the husband’s marital right, a vestige of coverture that shielded men who raped their wives. At the Tenth Annual Convention, Stanton said marriage was legalized prostitution, a claim intended to shock her audience. Women give up everything when they wed while men gave up nothing. Marriage was analogous to slavery in many ways. Man was the master and woman had to obey him. Upon marriage woman’s identity became submerged into that of her husband and she literally no longer existed in the eyes of the law. Stanton lauded Lucy Stone who kept her maiden name after she wed Henry Blackwell. Stanton herself demanded she be called Elizabeth Cady Stanton rather than Mrs. Henry Stanton to express her independent identity. This was less radical than Stone, but still radical for her time.
By the end of Stanton’s life, family law had changed, but not as radically as Stanton had desired. It would not be until the last quarter of the twentieth century and the second women’s rights movement that nearly all of her recommendations came to fruition. She truly was a woman far ahead of her time. Tracy Thomas has thoroughly documented Stanton’s radicalism on matters of marriage and the family and has shown just how significantly one woman’s feminism affected family law for the betterment of women.