On Valentine’s Day, people are often wrapped up in gifts, dedications, and sentiments regarding romantic love; however, the ties of love aren’t only attached to romantic relationships. Many women now honor Valentine’s Day and Susan B. Anthony’s February 15th Birthday with a V-Day performance of the Vagina Monologues. These performances are symbolic of the current, global Women’s Movement, which has its roots in the work started by two friends, their dedication to one another and their desire for universal suffrage.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton shared a friendship based on tolerance and human rights. They lectured together, delivered speeches, formed political parties, created a newspaper for Women’s Rights and Universal Suffrage, wrote a History of Women’s Suffrage, testified before Congress, pledged their loyalty, and remained friends at a time when suspicions of change and true freedom divided families, friends, neighbors, and the nation itself. While both women fought tirelessly for women’s rights, they also faced the challenges of disagreeing with the socially accepted opinions of the time, which were codified into laws, their peers and one another, concerning the finer points of the Women’s Rights Movement. Together, they set about on the rigorous task of following and re-interpreting the governmental procedures (both in state governments and the federal government) to challenge the prevailing laws against women’s rights to vote and own property, as well as other common rights and liberties enjoyed by American women today. These include “the right to retain their own wages and equal guardianship of their children,” to name just two.
In Rochester Libraries’ Online Exhibition “Susan B. Anthony: Celebrating an Heroic Life”, we can see some of the physical effort put forth by Susan B. Anthony in her many letters, printed speeches, and programs for her tours. In the photographs, we glimpse the playful fire in the eyes of a young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who Anthony first met at the age of 31 in 1851, just a decade prior to the start of the Civil War. A young, liberal, mother of four, the activist Stanton is credited with “convinc[ing] Anthony that women could not be effective reformers without the right to vote.”
From that time, Susan B. Anthony devoted her life to universal suffrage, with an emphasis on the Women’s Movement. While their peers and contemporaries split over disagreements on the specifics of the suffrage movement, Anthony and Stanton tried to support one another in spite of their differences. Anthony is often seen as a mediator, trying to help conservatives, who were loyal to their religious ideologies while still fighting for women’s rights, as well as liberals like Stanton, who wanted more than simply rights. Liberals of the time pushed for a recognition of equality that encompassed such things as the right to divorce and the ability to enjoy a legally-recognized biracial marriage. While Anthony often maintained her focus on the ability to cast a vote and saw that act as the ticket to even more rights, Stanton wanted to give voice to all of the shadows of inequality. She threw a bright light out into the darkness of the time and was often criticized for her bold opinions. Though Stanton was eventually excluded by many of the women in NAWSA, the women’s rights organization that she helped to found with Anthony and several other women (ironically, she organized the first US Women’s Right convention with Lucretia Mott), Anthony often supported and encouraged Stanton’s political perspective, even when it conflicted with her own focus.
When the suffragists were divided based on the 14th and 15th Amendments and when politicians drove a wedge between “African-American males and…all women“, Anthony and Stanton maintained their dedication to universal suffrage and friendship. They suspended their own efforts during the Civil War in order to support the abolitionist movement and end slavery. The two women seemed to always recognize, respect, and honor the other’s responsibility to fight for human rights. They shared scandals, like allowing George Francis Train to fund their lecture tours and their newspaper “The Revolution“. They shared criticism for creating “The New Departure,” a new way of interpreting the 14th Amendment that prompted Anthony to cast an “illegal” vote. They were satirized as ducks “flocking” to Washington “for freedom”.
In a photograph from 1892, the two aged friends share a table while looking through papers and a book. In the photo, Stanton sits facing the camera while her gaze rests on the paper in her hands. Her white shawl with fringe is a contrast to Anthony’s formal, ruffled, black dress that’s secured at the neck with an International Council of Women pin. Anthony’s gaze is turned to the side, which is common in her photographs, due her self-consciousness about the way that her eyes appeared close together.
As true friends often are, the two women are also keenly aware of their differences. They could be called opposites, though they ultimately combined their desires for women’s rights in order to make progress. As Stanton writes to Anthony on March 10, 1887, prior to the conference for the International Council of Women, she “…cautions Anthony to ‘not get up more machinery than you can manage. You err on the side of details & I on the opposite extreme. Let us try & strike the happy medium & leave something to peoples common sense.'” This was in response to Anthony’s letter written to Stanton who supported Frederick Douglass’ marriage to a white woman. In the letter, “Anthony implores Stanton not to publicly endorse Douglass’s marriage.” After Stanton stayed in Anthony’s home for a month in 1890, Anthony extended an invitation for her friend to remain permanently; however, according to the notes of the exhibition, “Stanton, who did not relish the idea of being daily harassed by Anthony to do suffrage work, declined the offer.”
In a photo taken at Anthony’s house during that time, we discover the same accepted differences in the appearance of the two friends: the white print dress and black lace shawl worn by Stanton in contrast with Anthony’s formal, Quaker black dress and broach. Stanton faces us, while Anthony maintains her sideways stare. Anthony’s hands are clasped. Stanton reaches out toward the books stacked on a table in the doorway. Their knees meet in the middle of the photograph. Between them, the history of the suffrage movement is stacked upon the table.
Through their shared passion, opposite approaches, thoughtful tolerance, and ability to speak about their differences, Anthony and Stanton allowed us to know the benefits of their working friendship. For Anthony’s 80th birthday party held on February 15, 1900, Stanton wrote a poem honoring her “life-long friend and co-worker.” Though she was unable to attend the celebration, the poem showed the dedication of two lives and their many journeys, of the beginning of a new century and new hopes in younger American women. In Verse II, we can hear the winding routes of their journey. Stanton writes:
“We met and loved, ne’er to part,
Hand clasped in hand, heart bound to heart.
We’ve traveled West, years together,
Day and night, in stormy weather;
Climbing the rugged Suffrage hill,
Bravely facing every ill:
Resting, speaking, everywhere;
Oft-times in the open air;
From sleighs, ox-carts, and coaches,
Besieged with bugs and roaches:
All for the emancipation
Of the women of our Nation.”
Not only did the two friends put up with unsanitary accommodations in their quest for Women’s Rights, they also bravely faced hostility from the public, government leaders, and their own peers. Yet, Anthony and Stanton remained loyal to one another while respecting one another’s opinion.
All women should be so fortunate to have a true and lasting friendship in which both friends are aware of their own limitations. Our celebration of Valentine’s Day should honor our friendships, especially those that have weathered the challenges of years; in this way, we would also honor the life of Susan B. Anthony on her birthday.
Shana Thornton writes interviews, features and fiction. She also teaches composition and literature courses, chases her husband and daughter, and runs trails with her dog Mojo. She also blogs frequently at http://storytimeout.blogspot.com/