One of the challenges for women today is sharing with younger generations how far we have come. Girls and young women rarely consider what life was like for the women who lived a couple of generations before them.
Penny Colman's new book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World, tells a compelling story for readers, and Colman also masterfully presents the facts -- that women in the 19th century operated under many societal restrictions:
- They were considered weaker and inferior to boys and men;
- Women were to confine their activities to the home;
- Married women could not own anything. After marriage their possessions were owned by their spouses;
- For a woman to give a speech in public was considered scandalous;
- If women were to go anywhere, they were to do so only with a male escort;
And of course, they could not vote.
Colman's book, a Henry Holt title for Young Adults to be published in May, communicates this by focusing on the friendship of two of the leaders of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Another masterful aspect of the author's choice is that readers are able to better understand the personalities of the women who began advocating for women's rights. So often when one reads of Seneca Falls and the women's rights conventions that followed, the names -- Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimke sisters, and Lucy Stone -- almost become one. Because Colman begins her book by telling of Susan's and Eliabeth's upbringings, we get a strong sense of who these women were and what the motivating forces of their lives were.
Susan, a Quaker, came from a background where girls were valued and educated just as Quaker boys were, but Susan began to see the real world when she became a teacher and was routinely paid about one-quarter of the salary she would have received if she had been a man.
Elizabeth was from a well-to-do family where boys were favored. Elizabeth married and began having children, and while she very much loved her family, she saw how trapped and isolated she was by mothering. At that time, women had little opportunity to control whether or not they became pregnant, and it frequently happened that just as Elizabeth was about to attend a new round of meetings or take on a new push for voting rights, she would find herself pregnant and more or less homebound again. Despite this, Elizabeth attended everything she could and when she was needed at home, she served their team effort by writing speeches that Susan could use at conventions or on the road.
While women's rights and suffrage were the important points these women campaigned for, there were other aspects of women's lives that they recognized as very limiting. Colman tells a story of Elizabeth planning to visit her son at boarding school; she receives a letter from him requesting that she please not wear bloomers when she comes. (Bloomers were just beginning to be worn in the late 19th century.) Elizabeth writes back pointing out that if the two of them were walking in a field and they were to encounter a bull, Neil, her son, would be able to run away but she would be encumbered by her petticoats. "...why do you wish me to wear what is uncomfortable, inconvenient and many times dangerous?"
Later on, however, Elizabeth stops wearing bloomers and urged Susan to do so as well, pointing out that the response to them (derisive comments in the press, men accosting them, young boys throwing rocks at them) was simply distracting everyone from the issues that really mattered.
The heart of the book, of course, is what Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony do for women's rights. From 1848 and Seneca Falls where Elizabeth coauthors a Declaration of Sentiments that spells out the changes that need to come about for women to be equal citizens to the time of their deaths (Elizabeth 1902; Susan 1906), these women fought ceaselessly for the rights of women. They held conventions, published newspapers, testified before Congressional committees, wrote to presidents, gave speeches, and traveled the country for 51 years on behalf of women's rights.
In 1895 Elizabeth's 80th birthday party was celebrated at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City by the National Woman's Council, and her good friend Theodore Tilton, a newspaper editor and abolitionist, who was living in Paris at that time sent poignant remarks: "At the present day, every woman who seeks the legal custody of her children, or the legal control of her property, every woman who finds the doors of a college or a university opening to her; every woman who administers a post-office or a public library; every woman who enters upon career of medicine, law, or theology; every woman who teaches a school, or tills a farm, or keeps a shop' every one who drives a horse, rides a bicycle, skates at a rink, swims at a summer resort, plays golf or tennis in a public park or even snaps a Kodak [camera]; every such woman, I say, owes her liberty largely to yourself and to your earliest and bravest co-workers in the cause of woman's emancipation..." Of course, he included Susan B. Anthony in these laudatory comments.
In 1898, 50 years after Seneca Falls, Elizabeth was not willing to travel because of her health but at the 50th anniversary convention, Susan noted the historic moment. She pointed out that the Declaration of Sentiments, penned at the Seneca Falls convention, had been ridiculed and denounced from one end of the country to the other but that by 1898 all the points had been conceded "but the suffrage, and that in four states." (Four western states had given women limited suffrage rights.)
Today we take for granted that women can vote and that for the most part, women are treated equally in our society. The narrative is a reminder of how long social change takes and how many hands and hearts must work tirelessly to bring about long-term modifications to our society.
Whether your cause is the environment, financial reform, education, or anything else you consider important, this book serves as a reminder that if you have a strong cause, keep going.
Susan B. Anthony's last words uttered in public were "failure is impossible." She was right then, with the 19th Amendment finally going into effect in 1920; and her words can be right again for anyone else with an important cause they are willing to work for.
Penny Colman is the author of many well-regarded books for young readers, often focusing on women who have not always received their due: Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories about Women Who Made a Difference; Rosie the Riveter; and A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins, to name a few. For more information on her visit: www.pennycolman.com
March is Women's History Month, and I am continuing to highlight outstanding women in my "30 Under 30" feature on my website. Check the site daily, or sign up to receive the "woman of the day" by e-mail: www.americacomesalive.com While the two women above are giants among women, there are many others who stand tall, too.