Anybody who knows anything about women’s suffrage knows Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was the catalyst for the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 where she introduced demands for the right of women to vote. The rest, as they say, was history. Few people know, however, about Cady Stanton’s close connection with Quakers.
It was evening, and the large Quaker meetinghouse in Farmington, New York, was lit with candles. A wood fire in the small stove brought warmth against the chill October air. Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood facing benches filled with people, with balconies on three sides. She was about to give the first speech she had ever written on women’s rights.
She had a respectful audience. These Quaker reformers had walked out of the Farmington Meetinghouse in June, finally done trying to appease their quietist brethren. Now they were gathered to form a new Yearly Meeting of Congregational Friends, and they invited Elizabeth Cady Stanton to give the main address. They knew what she would say, because she had given this talk once before, in a smaller Quaker meetinghouse in Waterloo, Town of Junius, just west of her home in Seneca Falls. There she had worn a turban bedecked with bows, which struck some in her audience as “rather theatrical.” Perhaps she appeared in less fashionable dress at Farmington.
In any case, her message was the same. In Seneca Falls, she reminded Friends, “we did assemble to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed & to declare our right to be free as man is free.” Nowhere, Stanton stated, “not even under what is thought to be the full blaze of the sun of civilization,” is woman’s position “what God designed it to be.” There was one way to change that: give women the right to vote. “This right is ours,” she proclaimed. “Have it we must. Use it we will. . . .The great truth, that no just government can be formed without the consent of the governed.”
After her talk, she passed around a petition for women’s suffrage. Young Benjamin Gue, a student in the nearby Macedon Academy, noted in his diary that he had signed it. But when Stanton asked if anyone in the audience had questions, she confronted silence. Finally, Henry Bonnell, wearing his broad-brimmed Quaker hat, rose and announced in a sing-song voice, “”All I have to say is, if a hen can crow, let her crow.” He pronounced the word “crow,” Stanton recalled, “with an upward inflection on several notes of the gamut.” The meeting broke up in laughter, but Bonnell assured Cady Stanton that all he meant was that women should be able do whatever they could do.
These new Congregational Friends organized on the basis of “radical principles,” the promotion both of “righteousness” and of “practical goodness—love to God and man.” Cady Stanton felt so comfortable with this group that she continued to attend their meetings through the 1850s. In 1852, her friend Martha Wright heard a rumor that Cady Stanton had joined the Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls. Cady Stanton was indignant. “I am a member of Junius meeting [in Waterloo] and not of the Episcopal Church,” she wrote Wright. “I have heard that infamous report and feel about it very much as if I had been accused of petty larceny. . . .If my theology could not keep me out of any church my deep and abiding reverence for the dignity of womanhood would be all sufficient.”
The Congregational Friends (later called the Progressive Friends and still later the Friends of Human Progress) attracted a group of like-minded people of both European and African descent, advocating the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and total abstinence from alcoholic drink. They left to the world a model of mutual respect, inclusivity, and civil discourse that echoes down to our time.
For more information on Cady Stanton and Quakers, see:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More (1898), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11982/11982-h/11982-h.htm
Ann Gordon, The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. I (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
Judith Wellman, The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention (Urban: University of Illinois Press, 2004).