Elizabeth Cady Stanton grew up immersed in the law. Her father was a prominent lawyer and judge in Johnstown, where Stanton was born and raised. She watched him in court and argued with the law clerks that studied under him at their home on Main Street.
From a young age, Stanton listened in as her dad consulted with clients. Oftentimes, women would come to her father desperate for help after losing out on her husband’s inheritance to an eldest son or who had no rights in a divorce.
A law clerk teased Stanton that if he were her husband he would take ownership of a new necklace of hers and could sell it for a pack of cigars. Her father and his clerks even highlighted the statutes she would find most egregious. She grew more and more frustrated with each new indignity toward women she witnessed or learned.
So she marked each “odious law” she discovered in her dad’s law books with a pencil and vowed to take her vengeance.
“Becoming more and more convinced of the necessity of taking some active measure against these unjust provisions, I resolved to seize the first opportunity … to cut everyone of them out of the books,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Eighty Years and More.”
She thought surely that would put an end to bad law — “supposing my father and his library were the beginning and the end of the law.” But after she confided in a woman who had come to meet with her father, Judge Stanton set young Elizabeth straight.
Cutting up the books won’t accomplish anything, he explained to her. The law books can be reprinted and there are other copies all over the state. If she wanted to change the laws, she had to go to Albany and Washington and lobby for new ones.
“She ends up doing that as an adult,” said Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter Coline Jenkins.
Stanton is considered the intellectual matron of the women’s suffrage movement, declaring as a 32-year-old at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 that “all men and women are created equal” and demanding the right to vote for women.
It took another 72 years for the United States to adopt the 19th amendment, granting women the constitutional right to vote. Stanton fought for that right for the rest of her life; she died in 1902.
Jenkins said she once asked a prominent historian what Stanton’s contribution to American democracy was.
“She connected women and law,” Jenkins said, recalling the answer. “If you look at her life in Johnstown, she grew up in the soup of law … I think at a very young age children know what is fair and what is not fair, they have a sense of it, and that’s why she decided she was going to cut up his law books.”
A group of three Johnstown-area women in 2008 formed the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Hometown Association dedicated to preserving the history of Stanton and continuing her legacy through education and service.
The association, now up to around 140 members, established a mile-long walking tour through Johnstown, stopping at influential sites in Stanton’s life. The walk starts at the corner of Main and Market streets, where a Berkshire Bank stands. That’s where Stanton was born on Nov. 12, 1815, 201 years ago yesterday.
Guided by Jenkin’s voice on a call-in phone line, the tour goes past the site of Johnstown Academy, where Stanton excelled as a student; the courthouse, where she watched her father practice law and judge cases; and Mrs. Henry’s Boarding House, where Susan B. Anthony stayed in the summer of 1884 as she and Stanton finished the third volume of “History of Woman Suffrage,” the preeminent account of the fight for female enfranchisement.
“We came together to have the legacy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton known better locally and known better nationally, because she is a national, an international figure,” said Jennifer Gardella, chairwoman of the group’s board. “People graduate from school here and don’t appreciate what we really know: Johnstown, New York, is the birthplace of women’s equality.”
The group also runs a pair of non-profit clothing stores: a prom dress closet for girls looking to borrow or buy an affordable prom dress and the newer Sunflower Shoppe on Main Street, where women entering the workforce can buy business clothes for just a few dollars.
“It’s about women helping women with career clothing needs,” said Nancy Brown, treasurer of the hometown association and one of the three founding members. “We have a store full of designer clothing, many with tags still on them.”
Last year for Stanton’s 200th birthday, the association worked with professional filmmakers and interviewed about a dozen famous women about the impact of Stanton on their lives. The interviews included U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rachel Maddow, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, Billie Jean King — and Hillary Clinton. In the video, Clinton said Stanton had “a sharp mind and a passion for social justice,” quoting from the Declaration of Sentiments that Stanton authored. “She believed in the radical idea that women should be treated equally by the law and by society,” Clinton said of Stanton.
Jenkins carries on the Stanton legacy in her own way too. She serves as an elected official in Greenwich, Connecticut, and regularly visits Johnstown. She went to Chappaqua at 5 a.m. Tuesday to see Clinton come out of the polls; she took a 100-year-old women’s suffrage umbrella with her. Her mother and grandmother also lived in the mold of Stanton, and they passed on Stanton’s values without ever having to put an explicit label on them.
“My grandmother and my mother were byproducts of her, so their values and activities and civic engagement wore off on me,” Jenkins said. “So when I read all of her different works, when I read these things, it’s like putting on a really old shoe that fits perfectly.”
In the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, there sits a monument of three women sculpted from an eight-ton block of marble. The Portrait Monument, given to the Capitol as a gift from the National Woman’s Party in 1921, depicts the trio of women at the heart of the women’s suffrage movement: Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott.
Behind the three detailed busts, an unfinished block of marble juts up off the statue. Capitol tour guides and many loyal suffragists say the unfinished marble represents — and is reserved for — the country’s First female president. Jenkins, Brown, Gardella and many others were hopeful that that the block of marble would be claimed by Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.
But it was not to be, as Clinton lost to Donald Trump.
Many women who felt they were on the verge of finally shattering that “most stubborn of glass ceilings” woke up Wednesday morning wondering how much further there was to go, questioning progress they had taken for granted.
It wasn’t just that Clinton lost to someone with less political experience, but also the way Trump conducted his campaign and the brazen and entitled “locker room talk” he was caught on tape using in 2005, said Dina Refki, director of the University at Albany Center for Women in Government and Civil Society.
Refki said the result of the election is likely to compound the existing challenges in getting women to run for public office — such as getting women to view themselves as viable candidates and overcoming demeaning comments and personal attacks from opponents and potential voters.
But the women found solace in the fact the Clinton won more popular votes than Trump and pointed out that the fight for suffrage was a long battle and that Stanton and others were persistent day after day, month after month and year after year, even in the face of misogyny, sexism and hatred.
Brown and Gardella said the election reinforces their belief in the importance of sharing the history of Stanton’s legacy with young girls and boys.
“We have to remember that Elizabeth and Susan B. Anthony and many others spent their lifetimes fighting for a right they were never able to exercise,” Gardella said.
When Stanton was on her deathbed in 1902 in New York City, she wrote a letter to then-President Theodore Roosevelt. She pointed out that Roosevelt had supported suffrage as governor of New York and had opposed monopolies.
“Surely there is no greater monopoly than that of all men denying to all women a voice in the laws they are compelled to obey,” Stanton wrote to the president.
“It’s an irrefutable argument …” Jenkins said. “Even a 10-year- old can understand that.”
Even a 10-year- old girl in Johnstown in 1825.
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