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Feminism’s radical thinker

Special to The Times

The Solitude of Self

Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

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136 pp., $17

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IN 1840, a newly married 25-year-old American woman and her husband, both ardent abolitionists, set out to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Here’s how feminist critic and author Vivian Gornick describes what happened next:

“Upon her arrival at the convention, the most extraordinary thing happened to Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The people in charge refused to seat her. Not only her, but all who looked like her; that is, women.... With all of the thinking she had done about slavery, liberty and the American idea, it had never dawned on her until this moment: When the democracy was conceived, she was not what was had in mind.”

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As Gornick sees it in “The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” this was the experience that transformed Stanton into a radical on behalf of women’s rights: “She never got over that flash of plain sight. It was ... the moment in which she realized that ‘in the eyes of the world I was not as I was in my own eyes, I was only a woman.’ ”

Eight years later, at the first women’s rights convention, which was held near her Seneca Falls home in upstate New York, Stanton was instrumental in drafting the “Declaration of Sentiments,” deliberately echoing the phrases of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal ... [although] the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.... “

From then on, she and Susan B. Anthony devoted their lives to the cause of equal rights for women. The unmarried, indefatigable Anthony was an organizational genius who traveled the length and breadth of the nation, a doughty George Washington to Stanton’s intellectually and rhetorically inspiring Thomas Jefferson. Although Stanton was a busy wife and mother, she became the great theorist and speechwriter of the women’s cause and, in many ways, its most radical thinker.

To the end of her long and active life (she died in 1902 at age 87), Stanton was fearless and uncompromising. She and Anthony broke with many of their former antislavery allies by objecting to the 15th Amendment for including the word “male” when granting voting rights to former slaves. And, although Stanton long believed that those people -- including many women -- who objected to equality on religious grounds were indulging in “perverted application of the Scriptures,” in her later years she became convinced that patriarchy was an intrinsic part of organized religion. In the 1890s, she published “The Women’s Bible,” a two-volume expose of scriptural male chauvinism that shocked pretty much everyone.

Three full-scale biographies have been written about Stanton; she’s also the subject of a chapter in Jean H. Baker’s just-published “Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists.” Although Gornick tells the story of Stanton’s life -- and does so in a manner that is compelling, dramatic and illuminating -- her book is not primarily a biography, but a meditation on the meaning of Stanton’s life. Indeed, the subtitle, “Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” might also have been “Thinking About Parallels Between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Myself,” not because Gornick claims to be a major historical figure like Stanton, but because she looks at Stanton’s life through the prism of her own.

Writing of her own moment of conversion in November 1970, Gornick strongly evokes how it felt to suddenly recognize what had been hidden in plain sight and how the force of this revelation “radicalized” her. She draws apt parallels between her generation of feminists, coming in the wake of the 1960s antiwar movement, and Stanton, arising out of abolitionism, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, who followed her initial defense of the French Revolution (which she later criticized) with her famous “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792). All three had embraced causes that championed equality for all, only to discover that “all” did not include women.

To Gornick, the most significant features of Stanton’s character are “radicalism” and “solitude,” two peculiarly “American” qualities bound in the service of a principle and passion that Gornick also believes to be distinctly American: equality. Gornick’s use of the term “radical” is uncomfortably loose, particularly these days when it tends to suggest those who’ve embraced violence as a means of achieving extremist ends. The word has at least two meanings, which do not always go hand in hand. “Radical” can indeed mean those who are ready to resort to extreme measures (not always violent ones) to achieve a goal. But it also can mean a genuinely new way of seeing things. Gornick seems aware of the distinction but tends to blur it.

Tracing a line in Stanton’s writings and thought about the essential loneliness of the self, the necessary condition of self-reliance and each self’s consequent need for equal rights, Gornick arrives at some conclusions that are interesting, if not always convincing. Solitude, the American credo of self-reliance, she believes, “has time and again become a source of collective dissident strength,” allowing those with a radical vision to endure ostracism and alienation. (Did Poland’s Solidarity movement draw its strength from this source? one would like to ask her.) Gornick’s insight tells us much about the courage it takes not to conform, but perhaps overstates the ability of unbending individualists to achieve collective results. In the end, whether you agree or disagree, thanks to her strong engagement with the subject and her lively writing style, “The Solitude of Self” is not only fascinating but also genuinely enjoyable.

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Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.


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