Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Victimhood Craze in Early Feminism: The Case of Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Janice Fiamengo

The most famous name in American feminist history, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, provides a fascinating case study in the power of victimhood ideology.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) is an iconic figure in the American women’s movement. Convenor in 1848 of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, author of its incendiary manifesto The Declaration of Sentiments,
E. Stanton
and tireless campaigner for over fifty years, Stanton was a beloved though controversial feminist whose assertion that women deserved the right to vote as an expression of equal citizenship is still widely admired. She is referred to by even conservative feminists as an “egalitarian” inspired by Enlightenment ideals (Sommers,
Freedom Feminism, 30). 

But Stanton was also a personality utterly absorbed by the idea of female victimhood. This idea took hold of her consciousness and possessed it to the exclusion of nearly all other allegiances. Stanton’s life exemplifies my contention, which I have developed elsewhere, (see Fiamengo File, Episode 29) that feminism is a victim mentality disorder, in other words that it embodies and exacerbates a delusion of unique persecution that results in a radically lessened empathy for others.

It is testimony to the sickness of the modern feminist movement that feminist historians have never objected to the vengeful anti-male fervor and self-pitying obsessions at the heart of Stanton’s advocacy.

Penny Colman

Most biographers of Stanton make the case that sex discrimination allegedly suffered in her youth was what led Stanton (born Elizabeth Cady) to become a feminist; in other words, biographers assume that the experience of discrimination shaped her ideology rather than the other way around.

Biographers like Penny Colman (author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, 2011) dwell on the claim, promoted by Stanton, that Stanton’s conservative father, a wealthy landowner and judge, once told her that he wished she had been born a boy; also that Stanton chafed under her educational limitations. Such experiences made her aware, we’re told, of the disadvantages and stigma of having been born female.

In reality, Stanton received a far better college education at the elite Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York, than most young men of her time.

Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York

The school was founded in 1821 “with the stated goal of offering young women the same educational opportunities in history, mathematics, and science” as were offered to college-educated men. Stanton most likely became a feminist through her association with the radical women in the Abolition movement who made rousing declarations about female liberation.

Well-known anti-slavery advocate Sarah Grimké (1792-1873), who became a friend after Stanton’s marriage, spoke of women’s subordination in passionate terms, saying that “All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God assigned us to occupy” (qtd in Colman, 23).

Talk of revolution, including women’s liberation, was in the air as Elizabeth Cady was growing up, and it is testimony to her non-oppressive family circumstances that she was able to indulge in it.

Henry Stanton
When she married Henry Stanton in 1840 and they honeymooned in London to attend an Abolition conference, she associated closely with his progressive friends, especially radical Quaker Lucretia Mott, a life-long reformer some 22 years Stanton’s senior who encouraged Stanton to agitate for women. Although only 25 years old at this time, Stanton was already so convinced of the righteousness of her position, and the wrongness of everyone else, that letters from the time indicate that she made her husband uncomfortable by arguing with anyone who expressed an opposing view.

While on honeymoon, she wrote to a friend about a conservative minister who criticized her friend Lucretia, “In all my life I never did desire so to wring a man’s neck as I did his!” (qtd. in Colman, 35). In fact, she became so angry that she left her husband in France, where he was giving a lecture series, and spent ten days of the honeymoon by herself in London. Whatever her father may or may not have said about preferring a boy—he is alleged to have said it in grief over the death of his son —his daughter was hardly raised to be self-denigrating or demure.

Lucretia Mott
Shortly after Stanton and her husband returned home to New York State, Stanton began to speak publicly about women’s rights. In 1841, she gave her first platform lecture on the subject, and experienced the excitement of self-display, boasting in a letter to one of her new friends that “I was so eloquent in my appeals as to affect not only my audience but myself to tears” (qtd in Colman 36).

An activist capable of crying not in response to her life’s sorrows but as part of a public speech is clearly a woman at least partially in love with her own exhibitionism.

Ten years later, when she met Susan B. Anthony, she passed on her feminist convictions to the younger woman, who until she met Stanton was primarily interested in other reform causes.

Stanton and Anthony
Anthony spent the rest of her life assisting Stanton and subordinating herself to the older woman whom she idolized.

In sum, it seems to have been the idea that women were oppressed, rather than any actual experience of oppression, that filled Stanton with an exhilarating anger.

We can only speculate at how uncomfortable Stanton’s victimology made married life for her husband, who was by all accounts a half-hearted feminist.

In a letter to a friend, she confessed that their opposing views caused friction; claiming to have accepted her husband’s more traditional beliefs, she noted that “If he could do the same, we should be nearer and dearer I have no doubt” (qtd in Colman 181). Pity the man who could not come around to his wife’s position that all men are oppressors.

Stanton was out of the country when her husband died in 1887. She expressed little sorrow at the loss, and recorded in her diary that she and her daughter “sat together and talked all day long of the mysteries of life and death, speculating on what lies beyond” (qtd. in Colman 181).

Some feminist scholars have suggested that Stanton’s now-famous document, The Declaration of Sentiments, was influenced by the Communist Manifesto, which was also published in 1848. Given that Marx’s German-language Manifesto was not translated into English until 1850, it is not clear that Stanton had read it. But she

would likely have heard of its revolutionary preoccupation with “conditions of oppression,” which made its way into her Declaration in the assertion that women “feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived.”

For the rest of her life, Stanton was an uncompromising campaigner who promoted radical feminist causes such the liberalization of divorce laws (she advocated that a woman be able to divorce her husband for drunkenness); legal exemptions for women who committed crimes; and the need to update the Bible to modernize its gender ideology.

Though biographers note her winning manner, her letters reveal that she could be extremely harsh in denouncing anyone who failed to exhibit an acceptable level of feminist passion. After attending a teacher’s convention in which the women present rejected her call for equal pay, she wrote to Susan B. Anthony in a rage that “The sooner the present generation of women die out, the better. We have jackasses enough in the world now without such women propagating any more!” (qtd in Colman 83).

Horace Greeley
She was also unforgiving of those who disappointed her. Upon the death in 1872 of long-time friend and New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who had angered her by turning against woman suffrage, she wasted no time expressing sadness in a letter to Anthony, instead expressing her hope that the death of the man she now called “one of woman’s worst enemies” (qtd. in Colman 150) would speed the suffrage victory; in the same letter, she boasted that “You and I have made enemies of old friends because we stood up first and always for woman’s cause and would not agree to have it take second place.” Even when old friends died, Stanton’s cause mattered more.

Frederick Douglass
But it was during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period that Stanton’s intransigence became most evident. Despite her close friendships with many anti-slavery activists, including the famous escaped slave and abolitionist orator Frederick DouglassStanton found herself increasingly angry and alienated when she learned that voting rights were to be extended, as part of the Republican-led Reconstruction project, to freed male slaves but not to black or white women. Most women’s rights campaigners supported this reform, expressed in the Fifteenth Amendment (eventually ratified in March 1870) on the basis that it was the hour of the black man, who had been denied all rights of citizenship and whose need for political representation was far more dire than that of white women (see Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz). Black men had also, not incidentally, fought and died in the Civil War on the Northern (Union) side to win their franchise.

Frederick Douglass, who had spoken decisively in favor of the suffrage clause in the Declaration of Sentiments back in 1848 (and without whose support the suffrage clause may not have been affirmed) argued after the Civil War that white women were already at least partially represented in the political system by the votes of their white male relatives, which was why it made sense for black men to be enfranchised before white and black women.

George Train
If the elective franchise is not extended to the negro, he dies!” Douglass argued at a New England suffrage convention in 1868, “Woman has a thousand ways by which she can attach herself to the ruling power of the land that we have not” (qtd. in DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, 166-67). He declared that it “[did] not seem generous” for Stanton to insist that black men should not achieve suffrage unless women achieved it at the same time, especially given that the Republican party, which was the party in favor of extending the franchise to black men, was not in favor of woman suffrage.

Stanton not only was not swayed by Douglass’s argument, but had made the decision to join forces with a known supporter of slavery and an avowed racist, Democrat businessman George Francis Train. She toured Kansas with Train speaking in support of woman suffrage and accepted his money for a feminist journal called The Revolution, which she published from 1868-1871.

In the pages of this journal, she often expressed contempt for men. She was especially enraged at the idea of culturally inferior men being able to vote while culturally superior women like herself could not; at times she referred to black male voters as “Sambo” and used derogatory racial epithets for German, Irish, and Chinese male immigrants.

Though Stanton was emphatically not pro-slavery and was in favor of universal suffrage, her willingness to sacrifice the right of freed black men to vote in order to push her own (at the time politically unviable) cause suggests a monomania that is familiar to many who study modern feminism. She was unable to appreciate any other group’s needs but her own, and was quite willing to sacrifice black men’s rights to make a point about the righteousness of her cause.

Recent feminist historians have condemned Stanton for the racism of her harsh characterizations of black men (see Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, “Women’s Rights and Gender Ideology, 1848-1890). Her contempt for German and Irish immigrants hasn’t raised any eyebrows, and neither has her sexist condemnation of all men.

No one considers that it was Stanton’s victimology, rather than a revived racism, that was at the root of her determination not to support black male suffrage. As in the case of all individuals in the grip of a conviction of unique oppression, she lashed out at anyone who threatened her claim to priority. Stanton was so angered by the thought that any group in society could declare a greater moral right to the franchise that she was willing to break permanently with many of her old friends, and was willing to see the movement for women’s voting rights splinter into two rival associations (as occurred in 1869). Though she acknowledged that black men had endured injustice, she would not acknowledge their suffering as deserving of equal or greater compensation than what she believed that she and other women deserved.

It may be that all revolutionary movements require leaders who see nothing but their cause, and who personalize it so intensely that its defeats and victories become their own. But in Stanton’s irrational obsession with the allegedly “degraded” state of women, she stands as a representative type of the thorough ideologue whose desire to believe herself a victim is far greater than her ability to pursue reform responsibly or even to recognize the humanity of those who disagree. The modern women’s movement, while now to some extent disassociating itself from Stanton for her alleged racism, has adopted the same viciously radical, all-consuming, and vengeful victim mindset.

Janice Fiamengo


Penny Colman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World (2011).

Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism & Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (1978).

Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, “Women’s Rights and Gender Ideology, 1848-1890” in The Routledge History of Nineteenth-Century America (2018).

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