Object of the Month

The Biblical View of the Great Question of Woman’s Suffrage

Letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Edward M. Davis, 10 April [1869]

Letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Edward M. Davis, 10 April [1869]


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    In a letter to Edward M. Davis, written from New York on 10 April [1869], Elizabeth Cady Stanton requested that Davis speak at the annual meeting of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) on "the Biblical view of the great question of Woman's suffrage."

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton

    A life-long advocate of women's political and legal rights, in 1869 Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) already had been active in the movement for more than 20 years. She had made the call for the first women's rights convention that took place at Seneca Falls, New York (then her hometown), on 19-20 July 1848. Her marriage to Henry B. Stanton, an agent and speaker for the antislavery cause who was away from home much of the time, had made her chiefly responsible for raising their seven children, but her writings and close friendship and working relationship with Susan B. Anthony (they met at an antislavery meeting in 1851) extended her influence beyond her home even before she became a noted public speaker and after the Stantons moved first to Boston and then on to Brooklyn and New York City.

    After the Civil War, divisions began to appear in the wartime alliance between abolitionists and women's rights advocates. The AERA, founded by Stanton and others in 1866, originally promoted universal suffrage—the extension of suffrage not only to former (male) slaves, but to all men and women, but during the campaigns to ratify first the Fourteenth and then the Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, many abolitionists, Republican Party leaders, and women active in the woman suffrage movement gave priority to ensuring the voting rights of African American men.

    Stanton, who referred to the priority given to universal male suffrage as the "aristocracy of sex," had called attention to this growing division at the end of 1865, when she wrote a farewell letter to the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery newspaper, which also had been an organ for the woman suffrage movement. As the political landscape began to shift, she had written to Garrison, "I feel it is unsafe to sleep now." (see "Political Rights of Women," The Liberator, 29 December 1865, page 3, column 5).

    In April 1869, when Stanton wrote to Edward Davis, she, along with Susan B. Anthony, had recently campaigned unsuccessfully for voting rights for women in New York and in Kansas, where they had allied themselves with George Francis Train, a racist and charlatan—and a Democrat—who had made it possible for them to continue their Kansas campaign after they ran out of funds, and then to found the Revolution, the short-lived radical newspaper that gave Stanton a "mouthpiece" for her views on woman suffrage and much else.

    The split between the advocates of universal suffrage and "manhood suffrage" had grown too large for advocates of both causes to remain members of a unified AERA. Stanton had begun to speak and write openly against passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and for a Sixteenth (Woman Suffrage) Amendment that had been proposed to Congress on 15 March 1869. Nevertheless, the substance of Stanton's 10 April letter to Edward M. Davis deals with her attempt to open up a new front in the campaign for woman suffrage through Biblical interpretation.

    Edward Morris Davis

    Edward M. Davis (1811-1887), Stanton's colleague and friend, was a Philadelphia silk merchant and railroad director who used his considerable wealth to support a range of social reforms including the abolition of slavery and woman suffrage. He also had a family connection to the women's rights movement through his wife Maria, the daughter of Lucretia Mott. Although a Quaker, Davis had served as an aide to John C. Frémont in the Civil War and while he gave priority to securing voting rights for African American men after the war, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, he turned his focus to the cause of woman suffrage and became a leader of the Philadelphia-based Citizen's Suffrage Association.

    After Edward Davis's death in 1887, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the International Council of Women in Washington (where she conjured up visions of an uprising on the scale of the French Revolution "if the wrongs of our sex are not righted") she added his name to her pantheon of early opponents of slavery who also had devoted themselves to the cause of women's rights. Susan B. Anthony, who fondly recollected the 1867 woman suffrage campaign in Kansas as the happiest period of her life when Stanton "forged the thunderbolts and I fired them," remembered Davis as the person who had described them as "indivisible."

    Educated Suffrage

    Stanton closed her letter to Davis with a jarring reference to herself as a friend "who desires to be enfranchised before Hans[,] Young, Tung, Patrick and Sambo"—racial and ethnic stereotypes of uneducated male immigrants and members of minority groups that she considered not qualified to vote in the United States, at least in a country that denied the vote to women, especially well-educated women. This was not the only time Stanton used this language or variations of it in speeches, writings in the Revolution, and personal correspondence. Frederick Douglass, who believed that voting rights for former (male) slaves in the South was a matter of "life or death," rebuked Stanton for her racist, demeaning language, but noted that during the antislavery struggle she had been almost alone among white abolitionists in welcoming him into her home.

    The Woman's Bible

    "The Biblical view of the great question of woman suffrage" was lost in the internal divisions and open conflict that erupted at the 1869 AERA meeting—the last annual meeting of the association before it divided into two woman suffrage organizations, the National Woman's Suffrage Association (led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (founded by Lucy Stone and other supporters of universal male suffrage). The bitter division within the woman suffrage movement did not end the interest of Stanton or Davis in the problematic presentation of women in orthodox readings of the Bible, beginning with differing descriptions of the origin and role of Eve in the book of Genesis.

    Stanton continued to lecture on topics related to "The Bible and Women's Rights" and in her reminiscences, Eighty Years and More, recollected that from 1878, with the support of Davis and others, she "had sedulously labored to rouse women to a realization of their degraded position in the Church." This led to a project that she began in 1886, only shortly before Davis's death, to recruit a team of Biblical scholars and women's rights advocates to dissect all references to women in the Bible. Over time this became largely a personal crusade and in 1895, shortly after her 80th birthday, she published The Woman's Bible, sending the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA—the divided woman suffrage associations had finally united in 1890) into turmoil. Although Susan B. Anthony then was the NAWSA president, the association passed a resolution denying any official connection to the "so-called 'Woman's Bible' or any theological publication"—and implicitly censuring the first president of the unified association--Stanton. The controversy strained her relationship with Anthony, but in a revised edition of The Woman's Bible (quoting from the New Testament), Stanton had the last word: "The Truth shall make you free."

    Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony lived on into the 20th century. The day before her death on 25 October 1902, Stanton dictated a letter to Edith Carew Roosevelt, with which to enclose a letter to her husband, President Theodore Roosevelt. Stanton reminded the president of his support for woman suffrage when he was governor of New York and that "No just government can be founded without the consent of the governed."

    Further reading

    Dudden, Faye E. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    "Elizabeth Cady Stanton Dies at Her Home." New York Times obituary, 27 October 1902.

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist as Thinker. Ed. by Ellen Carol DuBois and Richard Cándida Smith. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

    Griffith, Elizabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    The History of Woman Suffrage. Ed. by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, et. al. Rochester, N. Y.: Susan B. Anthony, 1887-. 6 vols.

    Lutz, Alma. Created Equal: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902. New York: John Day Co., 1940. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1974.

    McMillen, Sally G. Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Ed. by Ann D. Gordon. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001-2013. 6 vols.

    Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898. Reprint. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.

    ---. The Woman's Bible. New York: European Publishing Company, 1895. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1972.