Susan Fenimore Cooper and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Views on the Political Life of Women
Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference: Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.
Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.1 (Whole No. 83, Spring 2019): 5-14.
Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The year 2017 marked the centennial of the right of women in New York State to vote. This important achievement drew on the commitment and energy of three generations of women (and some men) and took nearly seven decades. Part of the reason the movement took so long was because bright, well-educated, and sophisticated women like Susan Fenimore Cooper adamantly resisted their own political enfranchisement, offering carefully considered and well-reasoned arguments in opposition to the demands of women’s rights activists. Often dismissed today as hilarious, the women who organized to oppose nineteenth-century women’s rights activists sincerely believed that they — and the nation-state — would suffer if gender roles changed in the dramatic ways activists demanded.
We often mark the July 19 and 20, 1848, Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls as the beginning of the movement for women’s rights, when a group of women who felt “themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights ... insist[ed] that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.” ¹ Although women’s demands for greater rights actually began in the late eighteenth century, the Seneca Falls convention holds the distinction of being the first organized meeting of women’s rights activists. ² Five women planned that convention in the summer of 1848: Quakers Lucretia Mott, the well-known preacher and abolitionist, her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, and their friends Jane Hunt and Mary Ann M’Clintock, as well as outsider Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton, inspired by the convention and others held in the following years, over time developed her theories supporting the argument that women had as much right to social, economic, religious, and political rights as men. ³ Although they did not establish a formal organization, women’s rights activists held conventions relatively frequently in the years preceding the Civil War, but set aside their own goals for women’s rights in their commitment to supporting the Union cause and ending slavery. ⁴
In the years after the Civil War, angry debates ensued over the three Reconstruction amendments (the Thirteenth ending slavery, the Fourteenth making former enslaved people — the male ones — citizens, and the Fifteenth enfranchising those male citizens) between 1865 and 1870. ⁵ Black suffrage became the “pivotal issue” of the period, prompting a focus on women’s suffrage rights rather than broader  women’s rights. ⁶ Women had justifiably expected the government to reward them for their wartime efforts with enfranchisement. However, with the addition of the word “male” to the descriptor of a citizen, they found themselves shut out of discussions of equality. Some scholars posit that Reconstruction reformers found the model of the (male) soldier-citizen most influential as they amended the Constitution after the Civil War. ⁷ Women’s work as nurses, sanitary fair fund raisers, and supporting the Union did not seem worthy of the reward of enfranchisement.
Meanwhile, in an effort to formalize their organizational efforts, Stanton and other leaders of the women’s rights movement sought to establish an origin story for the movement. As historian Lisa Tetrault compellingly argues, Stanton, Paulina Wright Davis, Susan B. Anthony, and others “keenly felt the need to bring the movement together behind a national-level campaign.” ⁸ To that end, Davis, an abolitionist, suffragist, educator, and editor of the Una, the “first women’s magazine devoted to the elevation of woman,” ⁹ organized a commemorative convention — the 1870 Second Decade Convention — to facilitate the bringing together of the “collection of movements, goals, strategies, and leaders” of postwar feminism, as well as to protest the marginalization of women’s wartime contributions and political capability. ¹⁰ In conjunction with this process, Robert J. Johnston published a speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The speech is often identified as an 1848 speech, but, according to Ann Gordon, the editor of the six volumes of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project, is much more likely to be an “artifact of 1870 than a document of 1848.” ¹¹ Gordon found no evidence of Stanton presenting such a substantial speech in 1848, a time when women’s public speaking was so rare, editors remarked upon every word. In the speech Stanton, perhaps the most provocative theorist of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement, cogently argues for the broad expansion of the rights of women. ¹² It is not particularly important exactly when Stanton gave her speech. It is far more important that Susan Fenimore Cooper very likely reacted to its publication in 1870.
In August and September of 1870, Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894) wrote “Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. ¹³ Twenty years after she rose to prominence as the naturalist author of Rural Hours, her popular book about the changing seasons in upstate New York, Cooper’s ideas on women would have drawn a widely-based, thoughtful, and supportive readership. ¹⁴ While the evidence is not clear at all that  Cooper actually read any of the speeches and writings of Stanton, when we set excerpts of their arguments side by side, they certainly appear to be in direct conversation with each other. Cooper undoubtedly knew the arguments Stanton articulated, for the point/counterpoint nature of their (imaginary) exchange reveals much about the broader theories and counter theories that suffragists and anti-suffragists expressed throughout the long years of the women’s rights and the suffrage movements. Cooper’s arguments in opposition to the core ideas articulated by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton illuminate the essence of the struggle for equal rights in the years following the Civil War, and long past it, some resonating even into the present day.
Obviously thoughtful about the world around her, Cooper could not help but observe the increasingly strident, provocative, and persuasive calls for women’s rights. As she explained the growing demand for rights for women equal to those of men:
An adventurous party among us, weary of the old paths, is now eagerly proclaiming theories and doctrines entirely novel on this important subject. They reject the idea of all subordination, even in the mildest form, with utter scorn. They claim for woman absolute social and political equality with man. These views are no longer confined to a small sect. They challenge our attention at every turn. The time has come when it is necessary that all sensible and conscientious men and women should make up their minds clearly on a subject bearing upon the future condition of the entire race.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her supporters demanded “absolute social and political equality with man.” Outspoken, unafraid to challenge existing political or social issues in her “thrilling prose,” Stanton challenged appropriate behavior for women. ¹⁵ Cooper, confident of her own position as an authority on women’s proper role, and aware that her words would hold sway with her readers, had taken the initiative to thoughtfully respond in print to the growing agitation for gender equality.
From the time she was a girl, Stanton resented the limitations on women built into the laws of the United States. As a child, after overhearing the legal difficulties a female client of her father’s faced in widowhood, she tried to cut the offending laws from his law books. ¹⁶ Stanton argued that she and others
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 — to be represented in the government which  we are taxed to support — to have such disgraceful laws as give to man the right to chastise and imprison his wife — to take the wages which she earns, — the property which she inherits and in case of separation the children of her love — laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty — it was to protest against such unjust laws as these and to have them if possible forever erased from our statute books, deeming them a standing shame and disgrace to a professedly republican, Christian people in the nineteenth century.
Stanton referred to the laws that bound married women to no legal existence separate from that of her husband. These laws, based on the codification of English common law, defined married women as feme covert, when “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” Married women had no claim to their property, their earnings, or their children. Unmarried women, like Cooper, held status as feme sole, whereby they retained the rights women lost upon marriage. ¹⁷ But few women had the economic wherewithal to remain single. Throughout the United States, laws and customs assured that men would retain marital, property, and economic rights over their wives, and since wifehood was virtually the only option for most women, they lived with the factors that kept them in a state of inferiority to men.
Cooper, a devout Episcopalian, argued for the historical and logical subordination of woman to man for three main reasons. First, she was his physical inferior, making her “entirely in his power, quite incapable of self-defense, trusting to his generosity for protection.” To this statement, Stanton countered that man’s protection is dangerous for the woman, analogous to that “the wolf gives the lamb.” ¹⁸ For Stanton, “the power of mind seems to be in no way connected with the size and strength of body. Many men of Herculean powers of mind have been small and weak in body.” Stanton continued by pointing out that man could not claim physical superiority “until the physical education of the boy and the girl shall have been the same for many years.”
Second, according to Cooper, “though in a very much less degree,” woman was “inferior to man in intellect,” although she acknowledged that intellectual inferiority probably resulted from physical inferiority. Cooper believed most women were not politically astute enough to make informed and beneficent decisions. Stanton, of course, would never have conceded to that point, but would argue that women, if given the same opportunities and education as men would be as capable. In her judgment, “man’s superiority cannot be a question until we have had  a fair trial. When we shall have had our colleges, our professions, our trades, for a century a comparison may then be justly instituted.”
Finally, as Cooper contended, the directives of Christianity made it very clear that woman necessarily held a subordinate position relative to man. No woman could call herself a Christian if she denied her subordinate role. Her role, as decreed by God, was meant to be distinctly different from that of man. As she put it, “Christianity has raised woman from slavery and made her the thoughtful companion of man ... his helpmeet in every worthy and honorable task.” Stanton contended that those who argued that the source for man’s authority over woman comes “from the injunctions of Paul.” Furthermore, “it needs but little attention to see how exceedingly limited that command of St. Paul must be even if you give it all the weight which is usually claimed for it.” Although she would not begin her “assault” on orthodox religion until the 1890s when she published The Woman’s Bible, Stanton contended that the “ideological basis for women’s subordination” rested in the Bible. ¹⁹
The separate spheres ideology, while it focused predominantly on middle-class white women, actually influenced to one degree or another the marital lives of most women in the United States. From the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, the ideology of separate spheres for women and men dominated thinking about gender roles. Men would occupy the public world of industry, commerce, and politics, while women occupied the private spheres of home, church, and social activities. The ideology of separate spheres, sometimes referred to as the “culture (or cult) of domesticity” deemed that a woman would dominate the home with her presence and display characteristics of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. This ideology is far more complex than it seems, for the idea of “confining” women to the home did not limit women from social and political activism in the broader community. ²⁰ Cooper, for example, would establish a very successful orphanage in Cooperstown in 1873, and like many other women of her time, prided herself on the significance of her contributions to Cooperstown. ²¹
Informed by this ideology, Cooper agreed that a proper gender balance required that the duties and responsibilities of women and men necessitated different characteristics. She detailed the specific requirements for each sex, contending that
to be noble the man must be manly. To be noble the woman must be womanly. Independently of the virtues required equally of both sexes, such as truth, uprightness, candor, fidelity, honor, we look in man for somewhat more of wisdom, of vigor,  of courage, from natural endowment, combined with enlarged action and experience. In woman we look more especially for greater purity, modesty, patience, grace, sweetness, tenderness, refinement, as the consequences of a finer organization, in a protected and sheltered position.
Society, in Cooper’s view, was the “soundest, the happiest, where each sex conscientiously discharges its own duties, without intruding on those of the other,” echoing a view similar to male anti-suffrage writers of the time, the articles in the popular Godey’s Ladies’ Book, and the marriage manuals of the day. ²² Stanton, conversely, pointed out that the “only happy households we now see are those in which Husband and wife share equally in counsel and government. There can be no true dignity or independence were there is subordination, no happiness without freedom.” ²³ Cooper saw happiness in subordination while Stanton recognized happiness only in equality between marital partners.
To most people of the nineteenth century, private social relations had an impact on the health of the nation-state. Cooper argued that enfranchising women would lead to the “perilous convulsions of a revolution more truly formidable than any yet attempted on earth.” Gender roles must remain distinctly different for the nation to survive intact, for the home was equal in importance to the nation-state. Women should keep “aloof from all public personal action in the political field.” No legislation could improve the moral civilization of the country nor eliminate the evils society faced; that was women’s special and worthwhile work.
Stanton pointed out that women had no intention of dismantling the nation-state, but, rather, needed to increase their participation in that state. Referring to the demands of women’s rights activists at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, women
did not as some have supposed assemble to go into the detail of social life alone, we did not propose to petition the legislature to make our Husbands just, generous and courteous, to seat every man at the head of a cradle and to clothe every woman in male attire, no none of these points however important they may be considered by humble minds, were touched upon in the convention.
Although Stanton did not necessarily believe that her sex was superior to men, she argued that because the government expected the contributions of women (especially in the form of payment of property taxes), they, like the patriots of the American Revolution, deserved representation in government. Women’s rights activists long after the  Seneca Falls convention argued that the nation-state would benefit from — and depended upon — the full contributions of women to function properly, whether or not the state acknowledged it.
As for women’s right to the ballot, Cooper was adamant that it was not “an absolutely inalienable right universal in its application.” Enfranchising women would distract them from their more important duties at home, which would be injurious to themselves, their families, and the nation-state. While Cooper acknowledged that there were areas of law where women suffered abuses, she believed that those laws could be changed without resorting to the extreme measure of suffrage for women. Stanton countered that women
should not feel so sorely grieved if no man who had not attained the full stature of a [Daniel] Webster, [Martin] Van Buren, [Henry] Clay or Gerrit Smith could claim the right of the elective franchise, but to have the rights of drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rum selling rowdies, ignorant foreigners, and silly boys fully recognised, whilst we ourselves are thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens — it is too grossly insulting to the dignity of woman to be longer quietly submitted to.
Predicting what would happen if women did have the right to vote, Cooper claimed that “all women, without restriction, even the most vile, would be summoned to vote in accordance with their favorite theory of inalienable right.” She believed that the “degraded classes of the ignorant and unprincipled, will always be ready to sell their votes many times over ... They will sell their vote any day for a yard of ribbon or a tinsel brooch — unless they are offered two yards of ribbon or two brooches.” In Cooper’s prediction, this,
the most degraded element in society will, in fact, represent the whole sex. A hundred honest and intelligent women can have but one vote each, and at least fifty of these will generally stay at home. ... Avocations more urgent, more natural to them, and in which they are more deeply interested, will keep them away.
Because in some states women comprised the majority of the population, Cooper continued, “that wretched element of society will, in fact, govern those States, or those who bribe them will do so.” It is not entirely clear why Cooper held her own sex in such contempt.
Because she never married, Cooper might be seen as actually having failed to live out the creed that women best served society as wives and mothers. She devoted her life to her father, serving as his amanuensis, which would have been considered an appropriate life choice for an  unmarried woman of her class and era. Nevertheless, she wholeheartedly supported the ideology of separate spheres, and lived her life in that realm. Stanton, wife of Henry B. Stanton, a prominent abolitionist and a politician, bore and raised seven children, another proper life choice for a woman of her class and era. With the aid of a housekeeper and Susan B. Anthony, her friend and colleague in the women’s rights movement, she managed a home and family; at the same time, she gleefully shook up the world with her speeches and writings.
Neither woman changed her mind about suffrage and expanded rights for women. In 1874, Cooper wrote that women had enough to do already without having to vote; she continued to believe that voting would “degrade” women and that women’s votes would corrupt politics. She also continued to argue that if women did win the right to vote, that “the downfall of the Free Institutions would follow inevitably.” ²⁴ Additionally, neither woman lived long enough to see the changes that would be wrought by women’s political enfranchisement or had an opportunity to comment on the validity of their predictions. The thrust-counter thrust connection between Susan Fenimore Cooper and Elizabeth Cady Stanton tantalizingly suggests a riposte between two strong-minded and intriguing women, leading to a more nuanced understanding of just why it took three-quarters of a century for the women of the United States to obtain the right to vote.
1. Virginia Bernhard and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, eds., The Birth of American Feminism: The Seneca Falls Women’s Convention of 1848 (St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1995), 88.
2. The Seneca Falls convention gave “form and voice” to the views of many women on their “long-standing discontents and ideals.” Lori D. Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 53.
3. Some sources focused on the origin of the movement in New York State include Judith Wellman, The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Lori D. Ginzberg, Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman’s Rights in Antebellum New York (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Sallie G. McMillen, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Studies of the longer New York woman suffrage movement include David McDonald, “Woman’s Culture and the Politics of Woman Suffrage in NYS, 1865-1917,” Ph. D diss., SUNY Stony Brook, 1987; Ellen Carol Dubois, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (New Haven: Yale University, 1997); Susan Goodier, No Votes for Women: The New York Anti-Suffrage Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2013); Susan  Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).
4. Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), 52.
5. For more on the debates about the Reconstruction Amendments, see Faye E. Dudden, Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Laura E. Free, Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil Rights Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).
6. DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, 54.
7. Suzanne M. Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 71.
8. Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 47.
9. Sarah Henry Lederman, “Davis, Paulina Kellogg Wright,” www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00166.html, American National Biography Online Feb. 2000 (accessed September 28, 2017).
10. Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls, 37, 39, 47. I use the term “feminism” here, although these activists would not have recognized it. The word did not come into use in the United States until the first decade of the twentieth century, although it had its birth in France in the 1880s. See Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 13-14.
11. Ann Gordon has meticulously compared lines and paragraphs, locating the first and subsequent times they were published. For the entire speech with Gordon’s concise notes, including Stanton’s sources, see The Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Papers Project, ecssba.rutgers.edu/ docs/ecswoman1.html (accessed September 28, 2017). See also Belinda A. Stillion Southard, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ‘Address on Woman’s Rights’ (September 1848)” Voices of Democracy 2 (2007): 152-169. Southard accepted that the speech was presented in its entirety in 1848.
12. All quotes from Stanton come from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Address by Elizabeth Cady Stanton on Woman’s Rights, September 1848,” Stanton & Anthony Papers Project, ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/ecswoman3.html (accessed September 28, 2017).
13. All quotes from Cooper come from Susan Fenimore Cooper, “Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 41 (June-November, 1870): 438-446, 594-600.
14. Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours, by A Lady (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850).
15. Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 133-36.
16. Mary C. Francis, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Godey’s Lady’s Book (July 1896), 69. 
17. McMillen, Seneca Falls, 18-20.
18. Stanton & Anthony Papers Project, ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/ecswoman3.html (accessed March 17, 2019).
19. Maureen Fitzgerald, foreword to The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1993), viii.
20. See Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood:1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1966): 151-174; Barbara Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977); and Leila J. Rupp, “Woman’s History in the New Millennium: A Retrospective Analysis of Barbara Welter’s ‘The Cult of True Womanhood,’” Journal of Women’s History 14, no.1 (Spring 2002).
21. James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., “Cooper, James Fenimore,” Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton: 1888), 729.
22. An interesting study of sixty-three nineteenth-century marriage manuals makes the “reverence-obedience-submission complex” on the part of authors critical to the marital relations; a woman must be subordinate to her husband to fulfill the requirements of a good wife. See Michael Gordon and M. Charles Bernstein, “Mate Choice and Domestic Life in the Nineteenth-Century Marriage Manual, Journal of Marriage and the Family 32, no. 4 (November 1970): 665-74.
23. Stanton & Anthony Papers Project, ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/ ecswoman4.html (accessed March 16, 2019).
24. “Susan Fenimore Cooper Remarks,” MSS Alpha Cooper, Susan Fenimore, 1813-1894, April 7, 1874, Chicago History Museum, Chicago, IL.