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“Grim old London welcomed me back”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Second Foray into Europe

Leslie PETTY


This essay explores how Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s extended travel in Europe in the late 1880s and early 90s was a catalyst for an evolution in her intellectual and activist development. In the final years of her life, Stanton wrote feminist masterpieces such as the speech, “The Solitude of Self” and The Woman’s Bible, but she also wrote xenophobic diatribes, such as her defense of Educated Suffrage, all of which enraged or at least irritated many of her closest personal political allies. In addition to her written work, she waded into new activist territory, helping launch the International Council of Women in 1888, championing Irish Home Rule and the American Populist Party, and increasingly distancing herself from the organized suffrage movement. Considering Stanton’s experiences in Europe from 1882-1892—recorded in her letters, diary entries and autobiography—deepens our understanding of her late intellectual and activist work at its most radical and its most bigoted, and by extension, allows us to situate her more clearly as a transatlantic thinker and activist.

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  • 1 Stanton and her contemporaries used the singular when naming their movement. I follow suit by calli (...)
  • 2 This “genesis story” is widely disputed by scholars. See, for example, Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of (...)

1There were two periods in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life when she traveled extensively in Europe: as an aspiring reformer and newlywed in 1840-41, and much later, throughout the 1880s and into the early 1890s as an international leader of the woman’s movement and mother of adult children, Harriot Stanton (later Blatch) and Theodore Stanton, living in England and France1. It is a truism—initially stated by Stanton herself—that the first trip inspired her lifelong passion for gender reform, when she and her new-found friend Lucretia Mott were denied seats on the floor of the World Anti-Slavery Convention2. Scholars such as Bonnie Anderson make even more nuanced observations about the influence of this first transatlantic foray; Anderson contends that Stanton’s opening speech of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention linked woman’s rights quite clearly to the European revolutions happening that same year (Anderson 6-7). However, when scholars discuss Stanton’s second period of transatlantic travel, they most often discuss her influence on Europe. Margaret McFadden, for example, rightly identifies Stanton as a “transatlantic mother” who forged important international connections among reformers in the 1880s (McFadden 142).

2In this essay, I return to the question of how Europe shaped Stanton’s career, and specifically, how this second wave of international travel was a catalyst for yet another evolution in her intellectual and activist development. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life, Lori D. Ginzberg asserts that in the years 1880-1902, Stanton wrote “her most self-reflective and controversial works,” including the “Solitude of Self” and The Woman’s Bible, as well as her defense of Educated Suffrage, all of which enraged or at least irritated many of her closest personal political allies (Ginzberg 152). From this historical distance, most of us agree that the first two are feminist masterpieces, while the latter is an articulation of the most egregious xenophobia and elitism. In addition to her written work, she also waded into new activist territory, helping launch the International Council of Women in 1888, championing Irish Home Rule and the American Populist Party, and increasingly distancing herself from the organized suffrage movement. In what follows, I propose that considering Stanton’s experiences in Europe from 1882-1892—recorded in her letters, diary entries and autobiography—deepens our understanding of her late intellectual and activist work at its most radical and its most bigoted, and by extension, allows us to situate her more clearly as a transatlantic thinker and activist. There are three different kinds of transatlantic encounters Stanton had that seem manifest in her late work: her immersion in female community, her increasing awareness of the working class, and her engagement with radical, even militant, philosophical and political movements.

  • 3 Barbara Welter’s Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1976) is one of (...)

3On one level, it seems obvious that Stanton would encounter radically different places and ideas this go around, because the world had changed a great deal in the intervening forty years between her first trip to Europe and these. Antebellum America was slower and smaller in many ways than the current environment. It was predominantly rural, with the Industrial Revolution only beginning to take hold, and towns and regions were more isolated; in 1840 the transcontinental railroad was still over twenty years away. The gendered and racial divides were strictly, sometimes violently, codified and policed – separate spheres ideology and the attendant True Woman ideal held sway in middle-class white households, and of course, most Americans of African descent were still enslaved in the South3. And the nation had yet to endure the regional fracturing, the violence and the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War. For the northern white elite, it was an optimistic, even idealistic, time. As a newly married woman in Boston, Stanton attended one of Margaret Fuller’s famous “Conversations,” and she became deeply embedded in the Abolitionist community that her husband inhabited when they married. However, given the infrequency and difficulty of transatlantic travel at this moment, America was also rather isolated. As Ginzberg notes, “European travel was no small undertaking [in 1840]” (34). She goes on to explain that, “Accounts of foreign travel were popular in the United States, but it was vicarious exploration […] [E]xposure to foreign lands was still far away from a requirement for public office or intellectual stature” (Ginzberg 34). Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s first voyage to Europe took three weeks, and she was the first member of her affluent family to go abroad.

  • 4 Standard time was debated internationally throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Greenwich Standard or Mea (...)

4By contrast, Stanton’s voyages in the 1880s and 90s took about ten days according to her diaries, and by and large were enjoyable affairs. Writing about her return to Europe in 1886, she says, “The voyage has been delightful, and with whist and letter writing the days have passed pleasantly and quickly” (Revealed 1: 233). While this is a small detail, it points to the beginning of a profound transformation of American and European life. In the Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, Stephen Kern argues that around this time, distance began “shrinking” because of technological advances, ushering in the Modern world of the 1910s: “With improvements in travel, scheduling facilitated by the introduction of World Standard Time, and the invention of the telephone and wireless, the time required to circumnavigate the globe was progressively reduced” (Kern 212)4. If Stanton’s early voyage was a product of its antebellum time, then the truncated time and ease of travel that mark her late European forays remind us that she was also shaped by—and a shaper of—the accelerated modernization of the late nineteenth century. Stanton’s worldview—like other Americans – had been transformed in the intervening years by the bloodshed of the Civil War and its bitter, violent aftershocks. Her youthful optimism had matured into worldliness and, at times, world-weariness.

5Antebellum Stanton was the voice of hope and defiance, but also perhaps naiveté about the readiness of Americans to undo decades of gendered ideology. The Stanton of the 1880s was a different person. She had witnessed the undulations of progress for forty years, and her perspective—more cosmopolitan on one hand, more fearful of changes at home on the other—is as much a product of the modern moment as her youthful enthusiasm was part of the antebellum zeitgeist.

  • 5 The “New Woman” was a catchphrase that attempted to capture the changing gender roles of the late n (...)
  • 6 This amendment, written by Susan B. Anthony, was the one that was eventually approved by Congress i (...)

6Certainly, America was a very different place in the 1880s. Cities were growing rapidly and diversely, with African Americans migrating from the South to Northern cities, Europeans and Asians coming to the U.S. to find jobs in the booming industrial economy, and rural white Americans frequently trading in an agrarian life for an urban one. The institution of slavery had ended almost two decades ago, and women’s roles had changed dramatically. Higher education was available to elite white women at rates almost on par with their male counterparts, and professional jobs were starting to open up for them. The “True Woman” was being challenged by an ideal that would be known as the “The New Woman” by 18915. These increased opportunities had in large part been brought about by the movement that Stanton helped launch. While there had been pockets of feminist activism for a long time, most historians mark the beginning of the organized woman’s rights movement to July 19-20, 1848, when Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened a group of 300 participants. This tiny group was labeled “heretics, radicals and old maids” by the press afterwards, and many of them disassociated themselves from the convention afterwards by asking to have their names removed from the Declaration of Sentiments (Weiss 118). By 1882, when Stanton sailed for France with Harriot, the American Woman Suffrage Organization (AWSA) and Stanton’s organization and the National Woman Suffrage Organization were large national organizations. Furthermore, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which supported woman suffrage, was rapidly becoming a behemoth force in America. Many of the original goals of the Declaration of Sentiments had been met or were being met. Married women had property rights, divorce laws were becoming more equal, and as stated above, education and professions were beginning to open to women. In 1878, the women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced to Congress6. A testament to the longevity and influence of the movement by 1882—and to Stanton’s own international status as its founder and leader—is the first three massive volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, a compilation of speeches, essays, letters and eyewitness accounts, co-edited by Stanton, Anthony, and Matilda Jocelyn Gage. With Harriot’s assistance, they completed the three volumes just before she and her mother left for Europe for the first time.

  • 7 Aileen Kraditor first defined Arguments of Expediency and Arguments of Justice in The Ideas of the (...)

7The growth and popularity of the woman’s movement (by now known as the woman’s suffrage movement) came about, in part, by blunting the radical nature of its vision. Much to Stanton’s frustration, the wide-ranging agenda that she established at Seneca Falls, and more importantly, her insistence that women had a right to political and social equality because they were individuals and citizens just like men, were being replaced by a laser-like focus on the goal of suffrage, as well as the attendant predominance of arguments of expediency, which stressed the uniquely “feminine” qualities women could bring to the public sphere, thereby reframing the argument in terms of traditional gender roles7. According to Ginzberg, by the 1870s:

[F]aced with evidence that the once-dangerous demand for woman suffrage could become watered down as it entered the mainstream, Stanton struggled to keep an expansive woman’s rights agenda before as many women as possible, even as many of her demands began to look alarmingly safe. (Ginzberg 148)

8Stanton was thus at a crossroads when she began her second foray into Europe. The radical movement which she had launched, led and memorialized in the History of Woman Suffrage, was entering a new, more national and popular phase, but she was personally becoming disaffected from its tactics and tenets. In many ways, her time in Europe helped her forge an intellectual way forward, not only in fostering alliances and cooperation among a broader group of women, but also by increasing her attunement to class and labor inequities as well as her appreciation for socialism and militant activism. These experiences, however, did not necessarily make Stanton more open-minded about difference or ready to embrace all oppressed groups as equally worthy of opportunity. In fact, her increasing preoccupation with immigration and xenophobic attitudes towards Europeans who immigrated to the U.S.—and in her mind threatened the woman suffrage agenda—may also be attributed to her transatlantic travel.

Dream of future co-operation

9When Stanton finally returned to Europe after a forty-year lapse at the age of 67, her ship landed in Bordeaux, and soon thereafter she took a train to, in her words, “curious, interesting old Toulouse,” where she and her daughter Harriot spent three months at a convent while the latter pursued a degree in mathematics at a nearby university. Stanton, already famous for being a heretic, muses in her autobiography, Eighty Years & More, about what people must have thought when they heard she was there: “Weary of the trials and tribulations of this world, had I gone there to prepare in solitude for the next? Had I taken the veil in my old age?” Stanton quickly assures her readers that the reality is that it was a “delightful spot” near her son that attracted “some of the most radical and liberal-minded residents of the South” (Eighty Years 341). Because the convent was close to a university, Stanton met many intellectuals there, and she delighted that she could “sit in perfect security, in the most unorthodox fashion, in these holy precincts” and discuss “all the reforms, social, political, and religious, which the United States and France need in order to be in harmony with the spirit of the age” (342). Beyond the learned conversation, however, Stanton appreciates even more the harmonious intimacy of the nuns who reside there:

The sisters […] seemed happy in the midst of their severe and multifarious duties […] They evidently took great pleasure in the society of each other. Their existence is not, by many degrees, as monotonous as that of most women in isolated households—especially of the farmer’s wife in her solitary home, miles away from the village and the post office. (Eighty Years 347)

10A bit later, Stanton notes that her grandchild and her daughter’s relationship with Mr. Blatch excited much interest among the nuns, “as babies and courtships were unusual tableaux in a convent” (348).

11In her diary, Stanton records more immediate, more effusive impressions of the convent. On July 20, 1882, she compares the sisters in their “white caps and aprons” to “large beds of Easter lilies” when they “sit round in a circle, some two or three dozen of them together” and later in the entry she observes, “We could not be more delightfully situated” (Revealed I: 191-2). On August 13, she writes, “There is so much to enjoy about this convent life—it is so tranquil” (Revealed I: 192). Perhaps most notably, she writes on September 25: “What a wonderful organization the Catholic Church is! In these convents and sisterhoods, it realizes in a measure the principle of co-operation. My dream of the future is co-operation. But is there any other foundation outside of religion on which it can be based?” (Revealed I: 195). This episode on Stanton’s life stands out from others in her travel and life writing in part because everything pleases her; she criticizes almost no one or anything. It is also noteworthy because, as Ginzberg points out, “while she argued passionately for the rights of all women, Stanton expressed little affection for women as a group; indeed, condescension rather than warmth characterizes much of her attitude toward most women. Generally she preferred the company and competition of men” (Ginzberg 8). This competitive nature might account for the individualism that permeates Stanton’s writing, and also her heteronormative perspective on gender reform. Rather than thinking about women in relation to other women, she thinks about them in relation to men—perhaps necessarily so given the legal and social system – and Stanton most often focused on and wrote about married women’s situation—the oppressions of coverture, and later, the divorce laws and other issues.

12Not so in the convent. Here, Stanton encounters a world of unmarried women who are communal, cooperative and cheerful, and she is newly awakened to the possibilities of this kind of environment. Stanton sees their situation as infinitely preferable to the “life of the farmer’s wife, in her solitary home” and perhaps slyly suggests it’s a welcome respite from babies and courtships as well. A year later, Stanton returns wistfully to the idea of female community, juxtaposing it with the current solitude of most women. In a diary entry written in Harriot’s hometown of Basingstoke, England, on September 18, 1883, Stanton records:

Today we gave a party to the wives of the old cottagers to try and interest them in a co-operative laundry […] [A]s twilight deepened, they returned to their isolated cottage homes. When one reflects on what might be accomplished by co-operation, it is pitiful to observe all our unnecessary miseries arising from competition. (211)

13In this European setting, Stanton is formulating a vision of female cooperation that was a far cry from her own fraught experiences in the United States, where she butted heads over policy and tactics with many of her contemporaries, from Lucretia Mott to Lucy Stone to even her beloved Susan B. Anthony.

14One can see this new attitude about female community and Stanton’s dream for future cooperation in the next stages of her career as a feminist activist. For example, Stanton’s role in convening a large, inclusive body of transatlantic women leaders at the International Council of Women in 1888. The official record of the event begins, “Visiting England and France in the spring of 1882, Mrs. Stanton conceived the idea of an International Council of Women interested in the movement for suffrage, and pressed its consideration on the leading reformers in those countries” (Report 2). This would have been (not coincidentally in my opinion) the same year that Stanton spent three months in the convent in Toulouse. The weeklong conference that was convened on the fortieth anniversary of Seneca Falls was inclusive and multilayered, both in its participants and its themes. According to the historian Ann Gordon the delegates represented “fifty-two associations ranging across a wide spectrum of women’s activism” and included, according to Stanton, women from “nearly every State in the Union, Great Britain, France, Finland, Italy, Sweden, India, Denmark and Norway” (Selected Papers V: 93). And the wide-ranging topics included temperance, social purity, labor and industry, legal considerations, professions, and education. Speech titles ranged from “Women as Farmers” to “Prison Reform Work of St. Lazare, Paris.” In her opening address to this diverse cohort, Stanton foregrounds questions of sympathy, understanding and cooperation among women in a way that is unusual – perhaps unique – in her oeuvre. She begins by claiming an extra-linguistic mode of communication that allows women of all nations to understand each other:

The women of all nationalities, in the artificial distinctions of sex, have a universal sense of injustice that forms a common bond of union between them […] Through suffering we have learned the open sesame to the hearts of each other. There is a language of universal significance, more subtle than that used in the busy marts of trade, that should be called the mother-tongue, by which with a sigh or a tear, a gesture, a glance of the eye, we know the experiences of each other in the varied forms of slavery. (Report 33)

15Even though the basis for this sisterhood is suffering rather than shared religion or a cloistered existence, the idea that the bond among women ameliorates or transcends isolated suffering is certainly one of the lessons Stanton learned in the convent.

  • 8 According to Margaret McFadden, Stanton’s dream came to fruition in many ways. McFadden notes that (...)

16One could argue that these shared experiences are the “other foundation outside of religion on which [cooperation] can be based” that Stanton longed for in the convent. The flipside of the suffering is the desire for equality, and Stanton posits that this desire is common to them all and forms a link, regardless of their geographical distance: “Long ago we heard the deep yearnings of your souls for freedom responsive to our own […] Though divided by vast mountain ranges, boundless oceans and plains, yet the […] same great over-soul has been our hope and inspiration” (Selected Papers V: 33). Stanton reaches back to her Transcendental training here, invoking the Emersonian concept of an over-soul; in this case, one that unites all women but does not limit their source of commune to a narrowly proscribed Christianity. Stanton goes on to encourage her audience to “cultivate some esprit de corps of sex, a generous trust in each other” and to seek “[c]loser bonds of friendship between the women of different nations” as an antidote to the fragmented, oppressed conditions they currently endure individually; one can certainly interpret this desire for “closer bonds” as Stanton’s attempt to bring into reality the dream of cooperation among women that was engendered during her time at the convent (Selected Papers V:37)8.

17In what is a seeming contradiction, Stanton ends this welcome address with language that clearly foreshadows her most famous speech, “A Solitude of Self,” which she delivered four years later:

The solitude of every human soul, alike in our moments of exaltation and humiliation, in our highest joys and deepest sorrows, into which no other one can ever fully enter, proves our birthright to supreme self-sovereignty. As in all the great emergencies of life, we must stand alone, and for final judgment rely upon ourselves, we can not overestimate the necessity for that liberty by which we attain our highest development and that knowledge that fits us for self-reliance and self-protection. (Report 39)

18While Stanton’s welcome has thus far been focused on community and cooperation, here she turns to isolation and self-protection. Given what we know of Stanton’s experiences abroad, however, we can interpret these two states as flip sides of the same coin. As much as Stanton’s experiences at the convent and later at Basingstoke moved her to found the ICW, they also moved her further on the path to writing this iconic piece of political philosophy. Sue Davis reads “The Solitude of Self” as “a Darwinian articulation of each person’s ‘struggle for survival’” (Davis 215) and Ginzberg reads it in more personal terms as a text that “reflect[s] […] [Stanton’s] own sense of personal and political isolation” (Ginzberg 170). I would add that one can also read the “Solitude of Self” as—in part—a particular critique of heteronormative existence that alienates women from each other and diminishes their vitality. In the “Solitude of Self,” Stanton argues that, when women are beyond the immediate demands of mothering and domesticity (or are like the nuns, who never assumed those responsibilities), they must have internal as well as external resources to flourish:

If they cannot find companionship in books, if they have no interest in the vital questions of the hour, no interest in watching the consummation of reforms with which they might have been identified, they soon pass into their dotage. The more fully the faculties of the mind are developed and kept in use, the longer the period of vigor and active interest in all around us continues. (“Solitude” 378)

19Here, one can imagine Stanton picturing the “wives of the old cottagers” she encountered in Basingstoke, and the “unnecessary miseries” and drab nature of their “isolated” lives. By contrast, the learned conversations and sisterly cooperation that Stanton found in Toulouse seems an antidote to the attendant loneliness of not only the human condition but particularly, that of women in the late nineteenth century. If not a cure for the “solitude of self,” this serene, intellectually and spiritually nurturing place certainly abates the drudgery of it.

More radical than ever

20Stanton’s time in Europe, however, was not by and large spent in such paradisiacal retreat. As she recalls in Eighty Years & More, “My sojourn within its enchanting walls was short—too short—and I woke one morning to find myself, after an absence of forty-two years, again on the shores of England, and before my eyes were fairly open, grim old London welcomed me back” (Eighty Years 350). Throughout this and her subsequent trips to Europe, Stanton immersed herself in the great rush of late nineteenth century life. Her desire to sightsee and explore were insatiable, and she threw herself into reform communities with gusto. Nevertheless, Stanton maintained a critical eye, measuring and judging the Old World against the New and usually—but not always—finding the Old coming up short. In particular, she was increasingly incensed by the disparity of wealth in Europe as well as the treatment of the workers. Not long after arriving in Europe in 1882, she wrote to Mary Post Hallowell that “the hopeless slavery of the working classes makes me almost despair for the freedom of mankind […] I rejoice every day that I was born in America. With us there is progress enterprize [sic] & hope for uplifting all” (Selected Papers IV: 170-71). By 1887, she was even more virulent. She wrote to Sara Francis Underwood from Basingstoke April 13: “I am so disgusted with the extremes of wealth & poverty, & this hateful distinction of classes, that I cannot write anything in this old world with patience. The utter contempt of labor, & the laborer is truly pitiful” (Selected Papers V: 22). Outbursts like this abound in Stanton’s diary and letters.

21There is, however, one notable exception in which she believes the “masses” are treated better in Europe than in America. In Eighty Years & More, she recalls, “Sunday in Paris is charming—it is the day for the masses of people. All the galleries of art, the libraries, concert halls, and gardens are open to them. All are dressed in their best, out driving, walking, and having picnics in the various parks and gardens; husbands, wives and children laughing and talking happily together. The seats in the streets and park are all filled with the laboring masses” (Eighty Years 405). Such democratic access must have been on her mind in 1892, when she wrote an editorial criticizing proposals to close the Chicago World’s Fair on Sundays. Stanton writes, “It is the only day that the laboring masses can enjoy it, as they are practically excluded every other day by the necessities of their condition. […] When we consider the multitudes that comprise these classes and their immense value in the world of work, we appreciate the importance of their rights and interests […] So far from the fair being closed on Sunday, it should be the one day especially reserved for the masses” (Selected Papers V: 439-440). Of course, part of Stanton’s vexation here is that some folks think the Sabbath should be kept holy. But she nonetheless notes how such religious propriety will do real damage to the lives of working class people. Stanton’s preoccupation with class disparity and other hierarchical distinctions in the Old World led her to explore social and economic alternatives that pushed the boundaries of her typically liberal ideology.

22When Frederick Douglass encountered Stanton in Paris in 1886, he wrote home that he found her “more radical than ever” (qtd. in Ginzberg 169). Indeed, during her time in Europe, she immersed herself in militant and radical social movements and went so far as to countenance armed rebellions. In her letters and diary, she describes several evenings in the company of Positivists, Nihilists, Socialists, and other radical thinkers. For example, Stanton records meeting the Russian revolutionary, Prince Kropotkin, who tells her, “All children are anarchists – perhaps all women too.” (Revealed II: 249). In particular, she became deeply invested in the Irish campaign for Home Rule, publishing a defense of the Irish Nationalist leader Charles Parnell against adultery charges entitled “Patriotism and Chastity.” In a diary entry from Basingstoke, January 12, 1887, the contrast of the Queen’s Jubilee with the Irish rebellion causes Stanton to exclaim, “I detest the words royalty and nobility and all the ideas and institutions based on them […] Those who declare that Ireland has no grievances are ignorant alike of human nature and the facts of history (Stanton Revealed II: 237-8). A year later, she was even more zealous, entertaining the idea of armed resistance as a viable strategy for the Irish. After attending a peace rally on January 30, 1888, she observes, “Theoretically I am in favor of the peace movement, though I am ready to accept war under certain conditions in the present state of society.” In this same entry, she notes, “I am so interested in the success of Home Rule that I have a special fondness for these leaders” linking Home Rule to the necessity of war (Revealed II: 247-8). Just a few weeks later, on February 19, Stanton draws a direct comparison between her own history and the family of John Dillon, one of the Irish leaders: “Dillon’s father was a ‘rebel’ in 1848, the very year that I, in Seneca Falls, urged the rebellion of American women. Though I was not shot or hung, or imprisoned therefore, I have been insulted, mocked, mobbed, and ostracized. So I always have a fellow feeling for all those who are kicking against the pricks” (Revealed II: 249).

23Stanton must have felt a deep kinship with the Irish Nationalists, not only because of their treatment but because of their desire for self-governance. According to Pauline Collombier-Lakeman, the Home Rule crisis came about because “Ireland was treated by Britain more as a colony than as a province” (Collombier-Lakeman 1). The Irish Nationalists came to prominence in the mid-1880s, claiming that the “Irish were civilized enough to obtain their own local parliament and act as responsible citizens in a self-governing entity” (Collombier-Lakeman 2). In this argument, Stanton would have seen, not only the more immediate parallels between the woman’s movement, her own rebellion and that of the Irish Nationalists who are “kicking against the pricks” of British rule, but the deeper connection between American and Irish efforts to gain independence from Britain. As I will suggest later, however, some of the arguments against Home Rule – namely, that the Irish were illiterate and immoral and therefore should not be given a say in governing – make their way into Stanton’s own reasoning against the political participation of immigrants in America. In this way, the influence of these radical movements on Stanton are more complicated than they may first appear.

  • 9 Much has been written about Stanton’s writing of the Woman’s Bible, a masterful dissection of the B (...)

24Nevertheless, Stanton’s growing awareness of class disparity and her embrace of more radical methods and political parties continued on American soil, even as she was increasingly disaffected from the woman suffrage movement. Davis asserts that the venerated leader’s “increasing isolation from the woman's rights movement was in large part a result of her refusal to limit her agenda” (Davis 195). As I note above, as first wave feminism became more mainstream it also became more conservative in nature, not only by embracing strategies that foregrounded femininity, such as the concept of Municipal Housekeeping, which drew an analogy between women’s domestic skills and their potential to “clean up” government if they were allowed to vote, but also by embracing religiosity and narrowing their agenda to focus almost exclusively on the vote. Stanton – who grew increasingly critical of Christianity with age and more and more impatient with what she saw as the oppressive sexism of organized religion in the United States – must have been galled that the ICW convention began and ended with religious services. In her opening address, Stanton makes two observations that allude to her growing rift with the current movement. In remembering its early days and the equal rights arguments that predominated then, Stanton says, “I hope during this Council they will be rehearsed once more, for the benefit of those who, while holding the vantage ground they secured, are afraid of the principles by which it was gained” (Report 32). Later in the same speech, she admonishes her audience to “hold our theological speculations of future life in abeyance to the practical work of the present existence, recognizing all sects alike and all religions,” a swipe no doubt at the sometimes stifling (to her) presence of Christian rhetoric at American suffrage events (Report 37)9.

25Even though Stanton’s desire for future cooperation among women motivated her to convene the ICW, her growing militancy—a change equally indebted to her European sojourn—was also on display at the convention. In her closing address, Stanton extemporaneously said to the international cross-section of feminist activists, “If the wrongs of our sex are not righted […] women will join hands with laboring men, with Socialists, with Anarchists, and the scenes of the French Revolution will be repeated within this fair land of ours” (Selected Papers V: 94). The remark, according to local newspaper accounts, “was received with perfect silence” (Selected Papers V: 94). Stanton’s reference to open revolt, her willingness to “accept war under certain circumstances” that she noted in her diary entry about Irish Home Rule, clearly stunned her rather polite audience.

26As she moved away from the suffrage movement, Stanton embraced political movements in America motivated by economic disparity and socialist leanings, just as she had done in England. The most prominent example is her support of the Populist Party. In her autobiography she remembers following “the brilliant campaign of William J. Bryan” in 1896. She goes on to say, “[I]n the demands of liberal democrats, populists, socialists, and the laboring men and women, I heard the clarion notes of the coming revolution” (Eighty Years 456). In a letter to the New York Journal in September of that year, she endorsed Bryan’s candidacy for President, saying “A man who, as President of the United States, would use his influence to carry out such principles [as the “ballot […] in the hand of every citizen”] I would be glad to see in the highest position in the [sic] gift of the American people” (Selected Papers VI: 104). Interestingly, she signed the letter, “Honorary President Woman’s Suffrage Association.” Davis sees Stanton’s move away from the woman suffrage movement and towards people like Bryan as directly related to her time in England. Davis notes that, once back on American soil, “Stanton preferred alliances with more radical and democratic movements, such as the Populists in the early 1890s, and she later spoke favorably of the socialist movement in the United States” (Davis 182).

Fear of the “ignorant vote”

27While Stanton surely gained awareness of and outrage about class conflict abroad it was tempered significantly by the way she experienced some Europeans as not only radically othered, but often as a genuine threat to American progress. In many instances, her elitism, her xenophobia, breaks through in her descriptions of Europeans, even at moments when she seems sympathetic. In France, Stanton found peasant life “quaint” but also “primitive” and static: “There was a certain pleasure in studying these old-time ways. I caught glimpses of the anti-revolutionary epoch, when the king ruled the state and the nobles held the lands. Here again I saw, as never before, what vast strides the world has made within one century” (Eighty Years 343). Here, the French farmers represent the opposite of modern life; their behavior strikes Stanton as “stuck in time,” and while she finds it picturesque, it serves as a reminder of the progress the rest of the world—especially America—has made. Even Stanton’s cherished nuns in Toulouse serve as an example of Europeans’ inability to move into the present or future. She notes in Eighty Years & More, “I found their faith had not made much progress through the terrible upheavals of the French Revolution” (Eighty Years 347). The condescension in these passages, however, pales in comparison to her distaste for those she considers uneducated and hence immoral. Later in the autobiography, she reminisces about the censure of two English friends who publicly supported population control, and she wonders, “Who can contemplate the sad condition of multitudes of young children in the Old World whose fate is to be brought up in ignorance and vice—a swarming, seething mass which nobody owns—without seeing the need of free discussion of the philosophical principles that underlie these tangled social problems?” (Eighty Years 369). While the condition of the children is “sad” to Stanton, her tone is ominous here, her fear of these children palpable.

  • 10 I recently saw on Facebook a post from a politically progressive friend demoralized by what he saw (...)

28When Stanton returned to America in the 1890s, she turned this imagined “seething mass” into a kind of bogeyman, a burgeoning threat to progressive American ideals, and in particular, gender reform. In 1894 she published two editorials championing “Educated Suffrage,” which means in this context denying the vote to anyone who can’t read and write English. Stanton sees this restriction as merely “regulating the suffrage” until those prohibited gained literacy in English; by contrast, she argues, not allowing someone to vote because of their “sex or color” is “denying [suffrage] outright” (Selected Papers VI: 656). Stanton believes drawing this distinction makes educated suffrage consistent with America’s democratic ideals, while pointing out once again that not allowing native born women to vote is inconsistent with the nation’s professed values. Stanton argues that educated suffrage is urgent because of the significant uptick in immigration: “With the ignorant and impecunious from the Old World landing on our shores by hundreds every day, we must have some restrictions of the suffrage for our own safety” (Selected Papers IV: 656). Not allowing newly immigrated men to vote until they can pass a literacy test is not anti-democratic; in fact, Stanton argues it is the only way to insure the progress of what she views as the single most democratic reform America needs. Stanton laments, “The greatest block in the way of woman’s enfranchisement, is the fear of the “ignorant vote” being doubled” (Selected Papers IV: 657). Here, Stanton is making a stereotypical assumption that became commonplace among some suffragists in the twentieth century, that immigrant men were profoundly conservative and thus some of the strongest opponents to American progressive ideals, including woman’s rights10.

29Of course, nativism and xenophobia were accelerating rapidly in late nineteenth century America, and in this way, Stanton’s position isn’t unusual. Nevertheless, Stanton’s bigotry exists not in spite of her time abroad, but in part because of it; her elitist perspective led her to see some people she encountered in France and England as retrograde at best and threatening at worst. Furthermore, it may not only be Stanton’s perspective on immigrants that was shaped in Europe but her specific arguments against their voting. As noted above, Stanton had championed the Irish Nationalists who wanted to wrest control of their government from the English. The Conservatives and Liberal-Unionists against Irish Home Rule had responded with claims very similar to Stanton’s about immigrants. For example, L. G. Hamilton calls the Nationalists “ignorant and illiterate,” warning that “No people with, such antecedents as the Irish could be suddenly trusted with the unexampled powers [of self-government] which [the Nationalists] propose to confer on them” (qtd. in Collombier-Lakeman 6). It seems Stanton absorbed from this debate a particular way of framing issues around political participation and education that served her own fight against the immigrant vote when she returned home. While she championed the Irish’s autonomy on their own soil, she could not see the hypocrisy of viewing American immigrants through the same lens as those opposed to Irish Home Rule. This was not the first time that Stanton had resorted to arguments that pitted white women against “othered” men; she was against African American men being enfranchised in the 1860s unless all women were as well; however, the particular nature of her arguments for educated suffrage in the 1890s are crafted in a way that mimics more closely the Irish Home Rule debate.

30While it is difficult to reconcile Stanton’s radicalism – her investment in socialism and Home Rule—her nativism—her belief that native-born American women were better political participants that immigrant men—her interest in Charles Darwin, honed while abroad, gives us one clue. As early as 1882, Stanton was reading Darwin; she records in her diary from that year, dated London, Nov 25: “I have dipped into Darwin’s Descent of Man and Spencer’s First Principles, which have cleared up many of my ideas on theology and left me more than ever reconciled to rest with many debatable ideas relegated to the unknown” (Revealed II: 198). Five years later, she writes to her friend Elizabeth Smith Miller, “[A]dmit Darwin’s theory of evolution […] and the whole orthodox system topples to the ground’ (qtd. in Ginzberg 172). While Darwin posed a formidable critique of conservative religious values in particular and the Victorian worldview in general, his work and those of his followers such as Herbert Spencer, buoyed anti-immigration arguments, which mushroomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Davis observes, “Evolutionary theory, in combination with the Anglo-Saxonism that posited the superiority of white, native-born Americans over black people and foreigners, lent credibility to ascriptive doctrines and helped justify racially exclusionary policies” (Davis 197). Although Stanton was always prone to elitist, bigoted arguments, the particular stamp they took in the late nineteenth century are a product of an increasingly industrialized, heterogeneous society and are supported ostensibly by science, marking them as particularly modern in tone.

The time has come

31Back in Washington, D. C. in 1885, between her two late sojourns to Europe, Stanton wrote to Theodore’s wife Marguerite, “everybody says my trip abroad renewed my youth, & that I returned brighter than ever” (Selected Papers IV: 406). Indeed, as I have been arguing, Stanton’s later forays into Europe reinvigorated her and helped her find new—sometimes progressive, sometimes reactionary—ways to think and write about her lifelong interest in women’s condition. This renewed vigor manifested itself in a prolific outpouring, even in Stanton’s last years. Her biographer reminds us that well into her eighties, “Stanton did not remain satisfied reflecting on the past. With her mind racing from topic to topic, she wrote with passion about urban filth and the ‘jackasses’ in the legislature, the Spanish-American War, injustices towards women in Hawaii, women’s right to ride bicycles, strikes in Chicago, capital punishment, prisons, public reading rooms, books she had read, and recipes she had tried” (Ginzberg 182).

  • 11 According to Ellen Carol DuBois, earlier versions of this essay appeared in 1891 and 1896. See Eliz (...)

32Regardless of her ostensible topic, Stanton always returned to the same core questions of American women’s rights. One of her final essays, “The Degradation of Disenfranchisement,” published the year before her death in 1902, encapsulates the often uneasy co-existence of the three threads of Stanton’s late work that I have teased out here: her commitment to transnational women’s cooperation, her embrace of socialism and militancy, and her championing of xenophobic policies, and serves as a microcosm of the lingering effects of Stanton’s late encounter with Europe.11 In this essay, Stanton unites her early frustration with African American men gaining the vote before white women with her current frustration of immigrant men’s suffrage:

It is no palliation of our wrongs to say that we are not socially ostracized as [the African American man] is so long as we are politically ostracized as he is not. That all orders of foreigners rank politically above the most intelligent, highly educated women—native born Americans—is indeed the most bitter drop in the cup of our grief that we are compelled to swallow. (“Degradation” 315)

33Later in the essay, Stanton predicts—with no awareness of her discordant elitism or exclusionary stance—“as an equal factor in the State, [a woman’s] influence would be for an equal distribution among all, for a system of political economy that would prevent the extremes of poverty and wealth, secure clothes, food, shelter and education to the whole people […] The socialistic and the woman’s rights movement are but equal throbs of one great impulse—toward liberty for all” (“Degradation” 317). Aligning woman’s rights with socialism would be a bold move for any other suffragist but Stanton in 1901, as the narrowing of the movement’s agenda had continued unabated to this point. Nevertheless, Stanton insists upon the expansive view, challenging her reader to acknowledge that “suffrage for woman does mean political, religious, industrial and social freedom,” a claim Stanton had been making since 1848 but which few wanted to acknowledge 53 years later (“Degradation” 319, emphasis added). Although it would be another 19 years before women gained the right to vote, Stanton ends with a prediction: “the time has come. Women understand the situation and are organizing as never before” (319), conjuring for a moment the world-wide cooperation necessary to gain the vote, a victorious effort that Stanton has dreamed of in the past but is too old to see come to fruition in the future.

34Although in 1901 Stanton was essentially persona non grata in the national suffrage movement, the ideas and tactics that she formulated in Europe and brought to bear on her late work are—for better and worse—prescient and anticipate much of what follows in the Progressive Era, as women finally gained the right to vote in 1920. Although American first wave feminism writ large never escaped its rather narrow lens of white privilege and heteronormativity, some advancement was made in forging stronger connections among women of different classes and nationalities. Not coincidentally, one of the people who helped further these alliances was Harriot Stanton Blatch. As Belinda A. Stillion Southard observes, upon Stanton Blatch’s return to America after her mother’s death, she “founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women in 1907, recruiting women across classes to engage in public activism (Stillion Southard 173). Stanton Blatch, along with Alice Paul, also became instigators of more “militant tactics borrowed from socialist feminists in England,” such as staging spectacles such as Voiceless speeches, picketing, and allowing themselves to be jailed and forcibly fed (Stillion Southard 173). Efforts such as these – borrowed from European labor activists and predicted and encouraged by Stanton – breathed new life into a movement that had been mired in the doldrums. Stanton’s efforts on the transatlantic front had lasting results as well; the International Council of Women is still a thriving organization.

  • 12 For a lengthy discussion of the nativist impulse in twentieth century suffrage texts, see Leslie Pe (...)

35The bigotry that Stanton espoused took root as well; xenophobia and nativism are ubiquitous in later suffrage texts and speeches. Take, for example, the speech of Lillian Russell, actress and second generation suffragist, who ran for mayor of New York City in 1914 on an anti-immigration campaign, stating “Our melting pot […] has become overcrowded” (Douglas 380)12. More generally, xenophobic attitudes like Stanton’s affected many marginalized communities in America. There is no question that Jim Crow laws requiring literacy tests before African American men could vote were buoyed by arguments for educated suffrage. Furthermore, both houses of Congress passed a bill requiring a literacy test to become a U.S. citizen in 1896. Although it was vetoed, it spawned an effort that ultimately led to rigorous citizenship tests, and perhaps later laws like the Johnson Act of 1921, which severely limited the numbers of immigrants who could enter the United States.

36Thus, Stanton’s post-European legacy is a vexed one; she theoretically embraced female community and the progress and equality of all people, regardless of nationality, but at the same time, her perspective was deeply limited by her unexamined privilege as an elite, white American woman. This contradiction runs throughout Stanton’s career, but her sustained exposure to Europe in the 1880s and early 1890s put a particular stamp on the forms it took during the last twenty years of her life and in fact presages the contradictions of American progressivism in the early twentieth century. In some ways, then, Stanton second foray into Europe and its aftermath—while not singlehandedly ushering in a new stage of the suffrage movement—did in fact signal not only a personal turning point for Stanton but for social justice movements as well.

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Anderson, Bonnie. “The Lid Comes Off: International Radical Feminism and the Revolutions of 1848.” NWSA Journal, vol. 10, no. 2 (1998): 1–12.

Collombier-Lakeman, Pauline. “Nationality and Citizenship in the Irish Home Rule Debates of 1886.” French Journal of British Studies, vol. 21, no. 1 (2016):1–15.

Davis, Sue. The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Women’s Rights and the American Political Traditions. New York University Press, 2010. Web.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. 1. The Noonday Press, 1996.

DuBois, Ellen Carol, and Richard Cándida Smith (eds.). Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker: A Reader in Documents and Essays. New York, New York University Press, 2007.

Elbert, Monika M (ed.). Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930. University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Ginzberg, Lori D. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. New York, Macmillan, 2010.

Gordon, Ann D., editor. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: An Awful Hush, 1895-1906. Vol. VI, Rutgers University Press, 2013.

---. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: Their Place Inside the Body-Politic, 1887-1895. Vol. V, Rutgers University Press, 2009.

---. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: When Clowns Make Laws for Queens, 1880-1887. Vol. IV, Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Kern, Kathi. Mrs. Stanton’s Bible. Cornell, Cornell University Press, 2002.

Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918: With a New Preface. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2003.

Kraditor, Aileen S. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920. Norton, 1981.

McFadden, Margaret H. Golden Cables of Sympathy: The Transatlantic Sources of Nineteenth-Century Feminism. University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Patterson, Martha H. Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915. 1st Illinois paperback, University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Petty, Leslie. Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920. University of Georgia Press, 2006.

Report of the International Council of Women by the National Woman Suffrage Association. R. H. Darby, 1888.

Southard, Belinda A. Stillion. “A Rhetoric of Epistemic Privilege: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriot Stanton Blatch, and the Educated Vote.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric vol. 17 (2014): 157-78.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897. Northeastern University Press, 1993.

---. Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences. Edited by Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, Vol. I, Harper and Brothers, 1922.

---. Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary and Reminiscences. Edited by Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, Vol. II, Harper and Brothers, 1922.

---. “The Degradation of Disenfranchisement (1901).” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker: A Reader in Documents and Essays, edited by Ellen Carol DuBois, New York University Press, 2007, pp. 312–19.

---. “The Solitude of Self’ 1892.” Man Cannot Speak for Her: Key Texts of the Early Feminists. Edited by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. Vol. II. Praeger, 1989, p. 371-384.

Tetrault, Lisa. The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Weiss, Penny A. Canon Fodder: Historical Women Political Thinkers. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Ohio University Press, 1976.

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1 Stanton and her contemporaries used the singular when naming their movement. I follow suit by calling it the “woman’s movement,” even though the “women’s movement” is more familiar to current readers.

2 This “genesis story” is widely disputed by scholars. See, for example, Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (2014).

3 Barbara Welter’s Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1976) is one of the first scholarly sources to define “separate spheres ideology” and the “Cult of True Womanhood.” Later books, such as Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930 (2000) complicate the simplistic binary of these spheres and point out the exclusivity of the concepts.

4 Standard time was debated internationally throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Greenwich Standard or Mean Time was established in 1884 by 25 countries, but it took several years for it to be almost universally adopted (see Kern 11). Thus, Stanton’s international travel would have taken place during this “flux” period, her first voyage predating it but later ones certainly influenced by it.

5 The “New Woman” was a catchphrase that attempted to capture the changing gender roles of the late nineteenth century. While its most narrow definition is that of a young, affluent, white woman who is unmarried and politically engaged, several scholars have recently expanded our understanding of the term. See, for example, Martha Patterson’s Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 (2008).

6 This amendment, written by Susan B. Anthony, was the one that was eventually approved by Congress in 1919.

7 Aileen Kraditor first defined Arguments of Expediency and Arguments of Justice in The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (1981). A key factor in the movement towards expediency arguments was the popularity of Frances Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who reframed woman suffrage as “home protection,” a way for women to protect their husbands and sons from the vice of alcohol by having a say in the laws regulating it.

8 According to Margaret McFadden, Stanton’s dream came to fruition in many ways. McFadden notes that as a direct result of the ICW, “Fifteen women were appointed to an international council, and a decision was reached to hold an international congress of women every five years. Thus a self-sustaining organization was set in place that continued well into the twentieth century (McFadden 176).

9 Much has been written about Stanton’s writing of the Woman’s Bible, a masterful dissection of the Bible’s misogyny, and the ways her time in Europe (and her reading of Charles Darwin) helped develop her ideas. The publication of the book in 1895 caused the National American Woman Suffrage Organization (which Stanton founded) to disavow her, cementing the rift between Stanton and the movement she created. Given how much scholarship is already devoted to the subject, I will not expand upon it here but refer those interested to works such as Kathi Kern’s Mrs. Stanton’s Bible (2002) for a full exploration of the topic.

10 I recently saw on Facebook a post from a politically progressive friend demoralized by what he saw as the “ignorant” American voters who elected President Trump. He notes that he has “wrestled with the idea of requiring a test in order to vote--the same test in fact that immigrants applying for citizenship have to take and pass.” The paradox of progressive people advocating anti-democratic measures continues well into the twenty-first century.

11 According to Ellen Carol DuBois, earlier versions of this essay appeared in 1891 and 1896. See Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist as Thinker (2007).

12 For a lengthy discussion of the nativist impulse in twentieth century suffrage texts, see Leslie Petty, Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Fiction, 1870-1920 (2006).

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Electronic reference

Leslie PETTY, « “Grim old London welcomed me back”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Second Foray into Europe », E-rea [Online], 16.2 | 2019, Online since 15 June 2019, connection on 03 December 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Leslie PETTY

Rhodes College
Dr. Leslie Petty is Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. She received her M.A. from Louisiana State University and her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. Her first book, Romancing the Vote: Feminist Activism in American Literature, 1860-1920, was published by UGA Press in 2006. Her current research focuses on the intersection of first wave feminism and American modernism.

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