Elizabeth Cady Stanton
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered her resignation speech, ‘The Solitude of Self’, in 1892, in her late seventies, it was with the weight of an adult life spent in the public eye crusading for women. Nearly a half-century earlier, in 1848, Stanton had submitted the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ at New York’s Seneca Falls convention – often called the birthplace of the organized women’s movement in the United States. The Sentiments called for increased property, marriage and suffrage rights for women. Playing on the language in the ‘Declaration of Independence’, it announced, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal’.
Stanton spent much of the intervening five decades on the road, often with her close collaborator Susan B. Anthony, speaking, writing and organizing groups of women. She fought for temperance and abolition, but her great gift was shaping the early women’s movement. More broad-minded than Anthony, she wanted to see equality across the board, beyond just the vote. In ‘The Solitude of Self’, which she gave on stepping down as President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Stanton offered a moving distillation of a lifetime of thought on women’s place in society. Stanton’s women are adventurers and independent beings, in the care of their own conscience and responsible, in the darkest hour, for their own souls. Although Stanton did not live to see American women gain the vote in 1920, her speech laid the foundation for a modern understanding of the female sex and gestured towards a new era in feminist thought. Expansive, poetic and deeply felt, Stanton’s rhetoric soars.
The Solitude of Self 1892
The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives … is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself. No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency they must know something of the laws of navigation. To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot, engineer; with chart and compass to stand at the wheel; to watch the winds and waves and know when to take in the sail, and to read the signs in the firmament over all. It matters not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman. Nature, having endowed them equally, leaves them to their own skill and judgment in the hour of danger, and, if not equal to the occasion, alike they perish.
To appreciate the importance of fitting every human soul for independent action, think for a moment of the immeasurable solitude of self. We come into the world alone, unlike all who have gone before us; we leave it alone under circumstances peculiar to ourselves. No mortal ever has been, no mortal ever will be like the soul just launched on the sea of life….
Inasmuch, then, as woman shares equally the joys and sorrows of time and eternity, is it not the height of presumption in man to propose to represent her at the ballot box and the throne of grace, to do her voting in the state, her praying in the church, and to assume the position of high priest at the family altar?…
The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer….
Whatever may be said of man’s protecting power in ordinary conditions, mid all the terrible disasters by land and sea, in the supreme moments of danger, alone woman must ever meet the horrors of the situation; the Angel of Death even makes no royal pathway for her. Man’s love and sympathy enter only into the sunshine of our lives. In that solemn solitude of self, that links us with the immeasurable and the eternal, each soul lives alone forever….
Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take, on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?
To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot, engineer; with chart and compass to stand at the wheel…
Elizabeth Cady Stanton