Monday, November 15, 2010


1815: A momentous year it was, beginning with British commanders sending attack after attack at the American fortifications and entrenchments surrounding New Orleans only to surrender the field to General Andy Jackson, tough as hickory. Many a year later Jimmy Driftwood, a folk singing high school teacher, who wanted to fire his students interest in tedious American history (what a concept!) wrote a song in which he described the battle. The chorus of it went like this: “We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin./There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago…” How my 8-year-old self loved that song!

Not two months later, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the isle of Elba and led a march to Paris, to a few more months of glory, before he met his undoing in Belgium, at Waterloo, to be more specific. Meanwhile, in the spring, dashing Commodore Stephen Decatur had sailed out of New York harbor with a squadron of 10 ships bound for the successful clashing with the pirates of the Barbary Coast, who’d been bedeviling navigation on the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the fact that the U.S. President, James Madison, and Dolley, his vivid, hospitable First Lady, had been burnt out of their official manse on Pennsylvania Avenue, this was a heady time for the young United States of America.

Charles Dickens turned three in 1815 and John Adams celebrated his 80th. His 'dearest friend,' who once beseeched him to 'remember the ladies,' was 71 now. Away out on the frontier, Abraham Lincoln was a shirt-tailed 6-year-old. In the fall, when the weather had turned cold up in New York State, Daniel and Margaret Cady welcomed their 8th child into the world on November 12, 1815. As anyone knows, if she’s been alive longer than a decade or so and has been blessed with as many brains with which God endowed a cuckoo clock, life is not fair and it'd be particularly unfair for baby Elizabeth Cady because her soul, her divine spark, all of her energies and intelligence came packaged in the body of a girl.

In my book, Rabble Rousers (Dutton, 2003), I wrote about this about Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Lizzie fizzed with indignation over the fact that her father, Judge Cady, wished that she were a boy. After [she] graduated with honors from Emma Willard’s Female Seminary…she married Henry Stanton. At this time, this meant that she was giving him the keys to her life. If a married woman had a job, the husband got the paycheck. If she inherited a farm or money, he got those, too. The children [There would be seven little Stantons.] were his and only his. A woman could not be on a jury or sign a contract.” And she certainly wasn’t allowed to vote. Men claimed to idealize women, but as Carrie Chapman Catt would say later on in the 20th century, they “governed her as though she were an idiot.”

It was almost three years after Mrs. Stanton and a small group of like-minded reformers convened the Women’s Rights Convention when Amelia Bloomer introduced short, pretty Lizzie Stanton to tall, spare Susan B. Anthony on May 13, 1851. Somewhere hereabouts is a photo, a slide, taken of me, posing with the life-size trio of statues in Seneca Falls, New York, commemorating the fateful encounter.

If you’re reading this or if you’ve read Tanya Lee Stone’s fine Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote or seen Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, Not For Ourselves Alone, then you know that E.C.S. and S.B.A. spent the next 50 years forging and firing the thunderbolts, speaking, lobbying, organizing, working for civil equality and the vote. “The right is ours,” wrote Mrs. Stanton. “Have it we must. Use it we will.” (This last was optimistic.) Neither of them lived to cast a law-sanctioned ballot, but they knew full well that, as the saying went, they were sowing winter wheat, as mindful as the nation’s founders had been, of posterity, of girls yet unborn. In her later years, Elizabeth Cady Stanton looked more like a tea cozy than a radical, but a radical thinker she was, the woman that was born 195 years ago this month. Beneath her snowy curls her tough brain crackled to the end.


lvharris said...

Something sparked in my brain from long ago as I read the start of the chorus, "We fired our guns and the British kept a'coming..." I could hear the singer's deep voice.

lvharris said...
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