The 'Radical Conscience' of Nineteenth-Century Feminism
Tracy A. Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law, Chapter One, New York University Press, 2016, Forthcoming
27 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2015 Last revised: 12 Jan 2016
Date Written: October 17, 2015
This book analyzes the feminist and legal thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton on gender equality in family as to marriage, divorce, marital property, domestic violence, reproductive control, and parenting. It reveals Stanton's comprehensive demand for systemic legal reform that challenges conventional depictions of the limitations of early feminism, of the development of family law, and women's alleged acquiescence in domestic subordination.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the principal feminist thinker, leader, and “radical conscience” of the nineteenth-century woman’s rights movement. Stanton initiated the women’s rights movement on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, where she issued her feminist manifesto, the “Declaration of Sentiments,” demanding women’s right to vote. This is generally all that history has remembered of Stanton. Her Declaration, however, demanded seventeen other rights for political, religious, social, and civil rights equality. These included the right to public office, marital property, divorce, education, employment, reproductive control, and religious autonomy. As Stanton explained, the institutions of government, church, family, and industrial work constituted “a fourfold bondage” of women, with “many cords tightly twisted together, strong for one purpose” of woman’s subordination. They were all intertwined, so that “to attempt to undo one is to loosen all.” As Stanton later explained, to break down this complexity required women to have “bravely untwisted all the strands of the fourfold cord that bound us and demanded equality in the whole round of the circle.” Holistic reform was required to break down the complex system of women’s oppression.
The family was one centerpiece of Stanton’s feminist agenda. The family, governed by patriarchal laws and sentimental gender norms, created and perpetuated women’s inferiority. “If the present family life is necessarily based on man’s headship,” Stanton argued, “then we must build a new domestic altar, in which the mother shall have equal dignity, honor and power.” The private sphere of the family was not segregated from the public sphere, as both nineteenth-century suffrage reformers and twentieth-century feminists often argued, but instead was intertwined with the other institutional strands strangling equality. As a result, radical concrete change to the family institution was required in the forms of egalitarian partnerships, economic rights, free divorce, and maternal autonomy. Stanton’s commitment to women’s equality in marriage and the family was longstanding -- from Seneca Falls to her last writings. As Stanton said, she “remained as radical on the marriage question at the age of eighty-six as [she] had been a half a century earlier.”
Stanton’s family reforms seem less shocking today because most of them have become law. Her proposals to reconstruct marriage and the family, detailed in this book, are now mainstream. Women have separate and joint marital property rights. Spouses inherit equal shares of estates when one partner dies without a will. Common law marriage is prohibited in most states, and civil marriage requires procedural safeguards. Divorce is available for irreconcilable differences or for misconduct equally applicable to both spouses. The law supports domestic violence protections, reproductive choice, and maternal custody.
Recovering Stanton’s feminist thinking on the family reveals the longevity and persistence of women’s demands for family equality. Contrary to popular wisdom, these feminist ideas were not invented in the 1970s, but instead reach back more than a century earlier as part of the original conceptualization of women’s rights. This longer perspective bolsters the truth and credibility of such feminist demands, dispelling their characterization as a modern anomaly and demanding legitimization and consideration in the law. As these issues of family, marriage, work/life balance, pregnancy, and parenting continue to challenge the law and confound feminism, Stanton’s work adds historical evidence of important principles that should be part of the legal equation. Her work shows that feminism and the family have not been historically in opposition, as we usually think. To the contrary, feminists have existed not apart from the family, but within it. Thus, understanding Stanton’s views is critical to understanding both feminism and the family today.
Keywords: law, legal history, women's rights, family
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