Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was one of the three foremost leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the radical wing of the nineteenth century woman's suffrage (nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman's; later practice was to use the plural, women's) movement. The others were Susan B. Anthony of Rochester and Matilda Joslyn Gage of Fayetteville.
Stanton was related to the prominent abolitionist and woman’s rights activist, the millionaire philanthropist Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. Smith was her cousin. Among other things, the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton met her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, at a social event at Smith’s estate.
Elizabeth Cady was born to two strict Calvinists: the U.S. Congressman and New York jurist Daniel Cady and his patrician wife, Margaret Livingston. No Cady son survived; the eldest, Eleazar, died during his final year of college. As a result Elizabeth Cady became the vehicle for Daniel Cady's dreams of carrying on family traditions. She promised her father "to be all my brother was." The Cady father educated his five girls, Elizabeth especially, as if they were boys. Unable to attend college, she attended Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary. She acquired further informal education on long visits to the Peterboro estate of her cousin, Gerrit Smith. (In many ways, Elizabeth Cady's unusual upbringing paralleled those of Matilda Joslyn, later Matilda Joslyn Gage, and of Mary Edwards Walker.) Whatever Elizabeth's attainments, they were never enough for Daniel Cady, who repeatedly told her "You should have been a boy."
An avid Christian, in adolescence Elizabeth Cady was influenced by the teaching of evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. In her later autobiography, she would describe her religious upbringing as more painful than anything she experienced as an adult. Yet if her father was devout, he was also educated and a rationalist in matters such as legal discourse, and he educated his daughters accordingly. Cady would later credit Gerrit Smith with encouraging her to overcome dogmatism, advancing, as Smith had, "from the uncertain ground of superstition and speculation to the solid foundation of science and reason."
When Cady married Henry Stanton, it was using a nontraditional ceremony from which the word "obey" had been removed.
By age 40, Stanton was becoming a freethinker in matters of religion. In 1855, Stanton wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Smith Miller, daughter of Gerrit Smith, that since The New York Observer had labeled her an infidel, “I ought to look up my associates,” Thomas Paine and Fanny Wright—which she did.
In 1869 a split occurred between more- and less-socially radical suffrage activists. Stanton, Anthony, and Gage jointly led the more radical faction, forming the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The NWSA sought a Constitutional amendment establishing woman's right to vote. Lucy Stone and others led the more moderate American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which sought to win woman's suffrage state by state.
Stanton, Anthony, and Gage began work on The History of Woman Suffrage in 1876. The third volume in the series, the last they would co-edit, was published in 1886.
In 1890, Susan B. Anthony reached out to Lucy Stone to heal the rift between NWSA and AWSA. In 1890, though not without controversy, the two groups merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Radicals such as Stanton and Gage were sidelined from real leadership. However, Stanton was prevailed upon to accept a figurehead presidency of NAWSA from 1890 to 1892. This precipitated a break with Gage, who had counseled Stanton to stand firm in resisting SBA's veer toward moderatism.
Yet the old ties would not be denied. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 included the World's Parliament of Religions. Stanton could not attend, so Anthony delivered her speech "The Worship of God in Man," which denounced church and state for oppressing the vulnerable and called for a "religion of humanity" centered on "Justice, Liberty, Equality for all the children of the earth."
Only late in her career did Stanton go fully public with her freethought, excoriating Christianity for its oppression of women in The Woman’s Bible (1895–1898), which she wrote at the head of a committee including twenty-six other notable women. It became a best-seller, much to the displeasure of suffragists including Anthony, who wished to distance the suffrage movement from any antireligious stance.
The Woman’s Bible has been recognized as an American Treasure by the U.S. Library of Congress.
At the 1896 convention of NAWSA (following publication of the first volume of The Woman's Bible), Stanton's book was formally repudiated. The action was engineered by Rachel Foster Avery and Carrie Chapman Catt, over the objections of Clara Colby and Lillie Dereaux Blake—and much to the quiet dismay of Anthony. Stanton wrote critically of this action in the second volume of The Woman's Bible (1898).
So controversial did Stanton become that from 1898 until her death in 1902, Stanton could seldom get her writings published in suffrage publications. Instead she became a regular columnist for Freethought Magazine, an atheist periodical edited by H. L. Green to which she had been an occasional contributor throughout the 1890s.
The agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll was a close friend, and she took his death in 1899 very hard. "No other loss, outside my own family, could have filled me with more sorrow," she wrote in her diary.
Stanton was a radical of many causes, among which freethought may have meant even more to her than suffrage. Her last published letter was an October 26, 1902, letter to the editor of The New York Evening Post, calling for the removal of Bibles from public schools. She would die but sixteen days later.
Among principal leaders in the suffrage movement, only Matilda Joslyn Gage had a longer record as a critic of religion. History’s treatment of Anthony, Stanton, and Gage is most revealing. Early twentieth-century suffragists tended to look back on Anthony, a closet freethinker who sought to keep Christian groups in the suffrage movement, as its sole founding leader. Stanton, who revealed her infidel views late in life after having already established a towering reputation as a suffragist, was almost forgotten until her rediscovery by second-wave feminists of the 1960s. Gage, who had been critical of religion throughout her suffrage career, was largely forgotten by history until the mid-1990s, when her memory was rehabilitated largely through the efforts of feminist scholar Sally Roesch Wagner.