The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton


Elizabeth Cady Stanton—along with her comrade-in-arms, Susan B. Anthony—was one of the most important leaders of the movement to gain American women the vote. But, as Vivian Gornick argues in this passionate, vivid biographical essay, Stanton is also the greatest feminist thinker of the nineteenth century. Endowed with a philosophical cast of mind large enough to grasp the immensity that women’s rights addressed, Stanton developed a devotion to equality uniquely American in character. Her writing and life make ...

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton—along with her comrade-in-arms, Susan B. Anthony—was one of the most important leaders of the movement to gain American women the vote. But, as Vivian Gornick argues in this passionate, vivid biographical essay, Stanton is also the greatest feminist thinker of the nineteenth century. Endowed with a philosophical cast of mind large enough to grasp the immensity that women’s rights addressed, Stanton developed a devotion to equality uniquely American in character. Her writing and life make clear why feminism as a liberation movement has flourished here as nowhere else in the world.

Born in 1815 into a conservative family of privilege, Stanton was radicalized by her experience in the abolitionist movement. Attending the first international conference on slavery in London in 1840, she found herself amazed when the conference officials refused to seat her because of her sex. At that moment she realized that “In the eyes of the world I was not as I was in my own eyes, I was only a woman.” At the same moment she saw what it meant for the American republic to have failed to deliver on its fundamental promise of equality for all. In her last public address, “The Solitude of Self,” (delivered in 1892), she argued for women's political equality on the grounds that loneliness is the human condition, and that each citizen therefore needs the tools to fight alone for his or her interests.

Vivian Gornick first encountered “The Solitude of Self” thirty years ago. Of that moment Gornick writes, “I hardly knew who Stanton was, much less what this speech meant in her life, or in our history, but it I can still remember thinking with excitement and gratitude, as I read these words for the first time, eighty years after they were written, ‘We are beginning where she left off.’ “

The Solitude of Self is a profound, distilled meditation on what makes American feminism American from one of the finest critics of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The real story of this illuminating study is not only that of a brave American's fight for equality of the sexes, but of the human yearning to be truly free, and of the lonely, fearful struggle with society, and even with oneself, that such a noble goal entails." --Ronald Steel, author of In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy

"Gornick's gorgeous prose brings alive the magnificent Elizabeth Cady Stanton in all her brilliance, complexity, and prescient understanding of the centrality of the 'woman question' to American democracy. This is a book for all who care about feminism, and also for those who care about the country itself, its deepest and finest aspirations." --Christine Stansell, author of American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century

"Wow. Not only does Vivian Gornick transform Elizabeth Cady Stanton from a name in a Women's Studies class into a flesh-and-blood lady, she convinced me that feminism itself is as American as apple pie." --Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future

"There’s a curious excitement that moves through Vivian Gornick’s thoughts about Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 'Suffrage,' she writes, 'was the university in which [Stanton’s] feeling intelligence was now enrolled . . ' And one suspects it’s Gornick’s too. Not the movement for the vote, but the deeper wrestling with the obstacles to equality; religion, for example, and the solitude of the self. These were Stanton’s contributions to radical feminism, and Gornick rescues them from that brilliant nineteenth-century oratory." --Carol Brightman, author of Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World

"In this vivid triumph of biography and cultural criticism, Vivian Gornick discovers at the root of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's polemic a sustaining and deeply American philosophy of the self. Leading us into the thinking of this great feminist, Gornick offers a way to embrace the solitude that is, for every thinking human being, the fiercest attachment of all." --Honor Moore, author of The White Blackbird

"In heartfelt and toughminded prose, Vivan Gornick illuminates the fearless intellect of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first American feminist to grasp the essential truth that an independent woman must free herself from worship of all man-made institutions--including those purporting to speak for God. We all stand today on the shoulders of this giant." --Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

"In this wonderful biographical essay, Vivian Gornick notes that Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir each distilled her passion and philosophy into one major book about and for women. But their nineteenth-century peer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose medium was the political speech, wrote no single beacon text, no summa. So Gornick has done it for her. Better late than never--although in the on-going story of feminism this ‘essence of Stanton’ is, in fact, alas, early." --Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, author of Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World

"A powerful meditation that is all at once informative and moving." --Martin Duberman, author of Paul Robeson: A Biography

Elisabeth Griffith
Gornick combines elements of her own autobiography with Stanton's biography, making the book hard to categorize. Her disclaimer, "This book is not a work of scholarship," will not satisfy historians who may be disconcerted by the undocumented quotations, imagined conversations and casual psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, the author deserves credit for drawing attention to Stanton's significance as an intellectual heavyweight and to The Solitude of Self as the masterpiece that it is.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Without the inimitable Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the voice of 19th-century feminists would have been much less forceful. Essayist and memoirist Gornick (Approaching Eye Level) reflects on Stanton's (1815-1902) thought regarding the question of women's suffrage. Gornick anchors these rich ruminations on Stanton's final speech, vividly describing her subject, who, after some 40 years of striving for women's equality, focused on the vote as the critical right. She stood in front of her lifelong compatriots and enemies and argued that the inherent isolation of the human condition demands that people be allowed to be responsible for their own lives; thus, denying women the vote violates a basic human right to self-determination. Gornick explicates Stanton that "[p]olitics is meant to mitigate the misery to which the human condition consigns us, not add to it." This revelation resonates as Gornick investigates the development of Stanton's engagement with the ideas affecting her world, the resistance those ideas met with, and the choices she made, which defined the future of "radical" feminism. Though Gornick considers her own awakening in the early 1970s, she rarely strays to the current state of feminism. However, her intriguing ideas leave the reader hoping for more thinking from her on the subject. Agent, Charlotte Sheedy. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Provocative essays on the shaping of 19th-century suffragist Stanton's thought by feminist and literary critic Gornick (The Situation and the Story, 2001, etc.). Working as an editor at The Village Voice in 1970, Gornick realized in an illuminating flash that "well into the final half of the 20th century women still did not take their brains seriously." Her personal discovery of feminism provides a segue into the life and thinking of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: devoted wife, mother of seven, and high-spirited, uncompromising thinker and writer who laid out a scheme for universal suffrage at a time when most activists were concerned exclusively with the rights of freed slaves. By the first Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Stanton had concluded that without suffrage, one was not a citizen. She was continually amazed at the vitriol aimed at the women's movement, writes Gornick: "She was made to see the depth of unreality that a person who is a woman embodied not only for those in power, but for the mass of people living lives of ordinary appetite and acquisition, shrouded in received wisdoms so long unreviewed that they seemed at one with nature." Stanton marched in the movement's radical wing, an ally of Susan B. Anthony and an orator of extravagant rhetoric (Gornick clearly admires her flourishes). Her union with expedient radical Harry soured, eventually leading her to attack the inequitable structure of marriage. The title comes from Stanton's swan song speech in Washington, D.C., in 1892. At the age of 76, she spoke the existential truth that each person must make the voyage of life alone, and that "to deny anyone the tools of survival-that is, the power to act- is criminal." Gornickmasterfully places Stanton in the feminist tradition that stretches from the visionary Mary Wollstonecraft to the trenchant Simone de Beauvoir and beyond. An impassioned look at a fiery radical fueled by an "unyielding sense of outrage."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374530563
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/9/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 152
  • Sales rank: 811,197
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.35 (d)

Meet the Author

Vivian Gornick's books include Approaching Eye Level, The End of The Novel of Love, and The Situation and The Story. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt


Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton
By Vivian Gornick


Copyright © 2005 Vivian Gornick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-29954-4

Chapter One


ONE AFTERNOON IN JANUARY OF 1892, in a packed convention hall in Washington, D.C., a seventy-six-year-old woman rose from her seat with difficulty to address the assembled audience. She was short and very fat, dressed from neck to ankle in black silk, possessed of a clear complexion, bright blue eyes, and a headful of famously thick white curls. She could have posed as "grandmotherly Americana" except that her features were stamped with an excess of complicated character (open, haughty, warm, aloof), and over the whole of her face there played a restless intelligence upon which one might well hesitate to inflict boredom.

The woman's name was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The occasion was the third annual meeting of the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association. The title alone made her sigh. So much history behind it, so much anger and regret. More than twenty years before, in the wake of the Civil War, the women's rights movement, caught up in one of the worst quarrels in history over universal suffrage, had split into two associations-the National and the American. Now, two years before this moment, it had been agreed among the original antagonists-Stanton herself; her comrade in arms, Susan B. Anthony; and their adversary, Lucy Stone-that the two groups would close the split, and reunite. Stanton had then, uneasily, become the association's first president. She knew even as she campaigned for the post that vanity alone was driving her, as she was still contemptuous of Lucy Stone and her followers, and deeply at odds with the conservatism of the younger feminists now in the ascendancy in both associations. These women had, in her view, narrowed the large, visionary character of women's rights she so passionately loved down to the kind of single-issue, nuts-and-bolts politics she had come to deplore. She could understand the frustration that had led them to this pragmatism-after all, it was now forty years that they'd been struggling to win the vote-but she deplored it nonetheless. She had traveled too far in her mind to back-track along this road.

She herself had begun with the same single-minded passion for suffrage, burning in her since 1840, when she had first understood that in the eyes of the world she was "only a woman"; but the long years of failure-and this set her well apart from most of her generation of feminists-had fed a radicalism in her that had kept her thoughts moving around the stubborn, unyielding urge toward social equality that drove the reformers of her time. From suffrage to marriage to education to divorce to organized religion-in the name of women's rights she had examined each, always asking: How has this arrangement come about? For whose benefit, and to whose detriment, are these laws and customs in place? What underlying purpose do they serve? What is actually going on here? As these questions had taken hold of her, her attention had deepened and turned ever more thoughtful; that is, ever more inward. In the end, women's rights had become an instrument of illumination; attained metaphoric properties; made her understand something profound about the human condition.

She looked out at the few thousand faces gathered before her. Most of them she was seeing for the first time, but many she had been gazing at for more than forty years. They were all there: the talented organizers, the industrious drones, the narrowly intelligent polemicists. They looked back at her. Not one face, familiar or strange, shone with expectation; all seemed guarded or openly apprehensive. She knew what they were wondering: What on earth is going to come out of her mouth now? It had often been this way-her audience braced for at least one shocker-but in the old days (and for many, many years before this moment) the shocks had been salutary. She had spoken aloud what most of them had wanted to have said-by someone other than themselves. Those who had not wanted to hear what she had to say had then been in the minority. Now, she knew for certain, the proportions were reversed. She could smell it in the air, very nearly she could taste it. The division between herself and the people in this room was crucial. Whereas once the atmosphere glowed with solidarity, it now sparked with antagonism. She had decided to step down from the presidency. This would be her last public speech as head of the woman suffrage movement.

Stanton had been feeling this separation between herself and her beloved movement for a very long time. It had induced in her a terrible loneliness, unlike any that she had ever known. The loneliness had become an experience that sent her thoughts driving directly at the pain. There she had found herself staring, with sorrow and interest, into a sense of isolation that had proved revelatory. As she traveled deeper into her own solitary state, she came to understand viscerally what she had before considered only with her reasoning. She had always known that the bonds of human connection are fragile, subject to time, circumstance, and the mystery of slowly altering sympathies, but she had never before doubted that making connection was the norm; it represented a defining trait: the need for intimacy. To make connection was to be in a state of normality. Conversely, to find oneself alone, an isolate without steady or permanent attachment, was-and this, too, she had never doubted-to lay oneself open to the one thing people were pathologically ashamed of being charged with: abnormality. Now, suddenly, it flashed on her that it was loneliness that was the norm. Connection was an ideal: the exception, not the rule, in the human condition.

Much in her life might have contributed to this insight-a disappointing marriage, friendships that had run their course, a passion for motherhood that had also run its course-but more than any of these experiences it was this one, the irreversible separateness she now felt within the ranks of her own movement, that supplied the emotional proof: not only is no attachment reliably enduring, but when the most intimate and solid-seeming are dissolved, we experience a sense of aloneness that, surprisingly, is not alien; it is almost as though we feel ourselves returned to some earlier condition. It strikes us then-and this was the revelation-that we are embarrassed by the "return." It marks us, in our own eyes, as failures at doing life. We shrink from confiding the embarrassment to a living soul, even the nearest of intimates. The reticence creates a distance between ourselves and all others. Inside the distance, in the innermost being, we remain solitary. As we grow older, the solitariness increases. Stanton looked hard at what she was seeing, and she thought, How unspeakable, then, that worldly arrangements should contribute to the forlornness of one's natural state! Politics is meant to mitigate the misery to which the human condition consigns us, not add to it.

The long, rich devotion to women's rights had given her many extraordinary insights, though none more powerful than this one. She turned to her manuscript. The title page read "The Solitude of Self." She began to speak.

The thing that she wanted her audience to consider, she said, was the individuality of a human being: that which Protestant American culture held as a first value. In one sense, the idea of the individual is a declaration of proud independence; in another, it is the recognition that we are, in fact, a world of Robinson Crusoes, each of us alone on the island of life:

No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency, they must know something of the laws of navigation. To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot, engineer; with chart and compass to stand at the wheel; to watch the winds and waves, and know when to take in the sail, and to read the signs in the firmament over all. It matters not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman; nature, having endowed them equally, leaves them to their own skill and judgment in the hour of danger, and, if not equal to the occasion, alike they perish.

She realized that to the greatest degree the solitude is self-created, the result of being locked from birth into a psychology of shame: "Our most bitter disappointments, our brightest hopes and ambitions, are known only to ourselves ... there is something of every passion, in every situation, we conceal ... We ask no sympathy from others in the anxiety and agony of a broken friendship or shattered love. When death sunders our nearest ties, alone we sit in the shadow of our affliction. Alike amid the greatest triumphs and darkest tragedies of life, we walk alone." It is precisely because this is the reality of our nature, she continues, that we are compelled to create a society that will help us fight the worst in ourselves. To deny anyone the tools of survival-that is, the power to act-is criminal. One of these tools, surely, is political liberty. The strongest reason that she. Stanton, knew for giving women every means of enlarging their sphere of action is the ultimate solitariness of every life. And it is from this perspective that she now speaks directly to the consequence of withholding the rights of citizens who are women:

The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, and to conquer. Such are the facts in human experience ... rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant. wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman; it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself ... [I]n the long, weary march, each one walks alone ... [This] is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea: the solitude of self. Our inner being which we call ourself, no eve nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced ... Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?

She read these words into a silent room. No one clapped, no one spoke. Not because the audience, as when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, was profoundly moved, but because a voice speaking existential truth was not, at this politically practical moment, wanted. It was, however, a very American speech that she had given, one that any of the original Revolutionaries might have made, bent as he would have been on forcing politics to reflect a New World insistence that equality would let one grow a self strong enough and independent enough to do battle with life's irreducible starkness. This was how Americans arrived at eloquence: insisting on more democracy. Not another American feminist had ever, until that moment in 1892, placed the cause of women's rights so squarely at the center of such perceptions.

ELIZABETH CADY STANTON is the American visionary thinker of the nineteenth century equal in intellectual stature to the two feminist greats who preceded and followed her: Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir. Like them, she had the philosophical cast of mind large enough to see the thing whole, to grasp with radical speed the immensity that women's rights addressed. Each of these women-Wollstonecraft, Stanton, Beauvoir-had been an ardent partisan of a powerful intellectual movement-the Enlightenment, abolitionism, existentialism-and the contribution that each made to feminist understanding turned, appropriately enough, on an application of the central insight of the movement to which she had been devoted. Wollstonecraft urged passionately that women become rational beings; Stanton that every woman exercise governance over her own inviolable self: Beauvoir that women cease to be Other (that is, become the central actor in their own lives).

Stanton differed from the other two in that each of them wrote a single famous-making book at white heat in a comparatively short time-Vindication of the Rights of Woman over a period of a few weeks, The Second Sex over a few years-while she, Stanton, lived within the embrace of feminist thought for half a century, thinking the matter out decade by decade, provocation by' provocation, through a series of speeches, letters, and essays that demonstrate the preoccupation with revolutionary republicanism that led her steadily toward an ever more existential view of the human condition.

It was the promise of the democracy outraged that was working in her, flaring as brightly at the end of her political life as at the beginning. Behind that enduring slow burn lies the whole strength of American liberationist movements. It is what makes them American. That unyielding sense of outrage-the one that's experienced when one realizes the democracy is being held in check by virtue of class, race, or sex-is serious in this country, serious and lasting. It is responsible for the great civil rights movements of our own time. Certainly it is responsible for the fact that modern feminism has repeatedly taken root here and not elsewhere, even though its intellectual beginnings can be traced to the work of brilliant Europeans. Much as the Europeans might burn over their second-class status, it was impossible for them-from Wollstonecraft's generation to Beauvoir's-to give up their longing for inclusion in the world as men have made it. This longing has always bound them to a dividedness of will that is politically crippling. The Americans, on the other hand, were moved to harden their hearts against the romantic pull of the world as it is, and concentrate on the denial of what is promised them by right of birth-not birth into the world, birth into the American democracy. That concentration is the poetry of Elizabeth Stanton's political existence: it multiplied her insight, deepened her thought, clarified her spirit. Had she written "the book" we would be reading her today instead of John Stuart Mill on the subjection of women. As it is, she left public life with that final address-"The Solitude of Self"-its long shadows casting back to Plato, forward to our own day. Hers was the American contribution, and it goes far to explain why feminism as a liberation movement has flourished here as nowhere else in the Western world, rising up repeatedly every fifty years or so-never reversing itself, never completing itself-always arriving out of a passion of original discovery that is both painful and stirring. When it was my turn to realize that in the eyes of the world I was only a woman, Elizabeth Stanton's was the voice that spoke most clearly to me across the intervening century.

IN NOVEMBER OF 1970, an editor at The Village Voice asked me to go out and investigate women's libbers.

"What's that?" I asked.

A week later I was a convert.

First, I met Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone; next, Phyllis Chesler, Ellen Willis, and Alix Kates Shulman. They were all talking at once, and I heard every word each of them spoke. Or, rather, it was that I must have heard them all saying the same thing, because I came away from that week branded by a single thought, it was this: the idea that men by nature take their brains seriously and women by nature do not is a belief, not an inborn reality-an idea that serves the culture, and from it our entire lives follow. Simple, really. And surely this had already been said. How was it that I seemed never to have heard it before? And why was I hearing it now? A question that cannot be answered, it remains one of life's great mysteries, the matter of political readiness: that moment when the elements of dissatisfaction in a culture are sufficiently fused to achieve a critical mass. If you are one who responds to the moment you can never really' explain it, you can only describe what it felt like.

Now, in 1970, awake and asleep, a review of my life as a woman kept repeating itself like a broken record going round and round inside my head. Again and again, I rehearsed-in snatched phrases, fleeting images, half sentences-that which I had grown up accepting as normal and now experienced as alien. As though waking from a dream, I found myself daily uncovering evidence of a culture within that had been hidden, so to speak, in plain sight. I was, suddenly, a candidate for lost memory.


Excerpted from THE SOLITUDE OF SELF by Vivian Gornick Copyright © 2005 by Vivian Gornick. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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