American Woman

Elizabeth Cady Stanton's great, great granddaughter looks back at the legacy her ancestor left her, and hopes to pass her story on to future generations.


By Coline Jenkins


"It’s a wonder the Republic has done as well as it has done, when it has used only half of its resources.” The words of my great, great grandmother Elizabeth Cady Stanton—an early pioneer of women’s rights—speaking of the failure of her country to recognize women as equals to men. As early as the mid-19th century, her battle cry for gender equality shook the cultural political foundation of America.

Stanton was born in 1815 into a country founded on freedom—yet women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t go to college. They couldn’t become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or legislators. They were prohibited from serving on a jury, testifying in their own defense, or claiming any legal ownership of wages, property, or possessions shared in a marriage. In the case of divorce, they were regularly denied rights to their own children.

The circumstances she overcame—the circumstances all American women have overcome—came flooding back to me as I stood in her historic home nearly 40 years ago, during a long-overdue trip to Seneca Falls, New York. The house had been secured by a private foundation, and as wandered rooms that looked surprisingly unchanged considering their age, could picture Stanton as a young woman in this very house, receiving visits from Susan B. Anthony—a leader of the women’s rights movement—who would insist on stirring the pudding and minding the children so Stanton could focus on writing Anthony’s next speech.

My next destination—the old Wesleyan Chapel on Fall Street, where Stanton helped organize the first Women’s Rights Convention—would prove a stark contrast: The chapel had been converted into a Laundromat. Aside from a small plaque on the side of the building, there was nothing to indicate that this was the birthplace of some of the greatest democratic freedoms in the history of the United States.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine such a fate befalling Independence Hall, where Americans staked their claim for self-government. Or McLean Home at Appomattox Courthouse, where our country’s bloody civil war came to an end, snuffing out the institution of slavery with it. As stood in that chapel that had somehow become a Laundromat, I couldn’t help wondering when women’s history would stand shoulder to shoulder with men’s. I tried to understand why it was so easy for a nation to overlook women’s incredible contributions in building our democracy.

Thankfully, the chapel has since been restored and is one of four sites that makes up Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which commemorates the women who lobbied, petitioned, marched on New York City’s 5th Avenue, picketed the White House, organized national conventions, delivered speeches, convinced their husbands and sons to support women’s rights, and raised their daughters and granddaughters to fight for the cause.

This year, we have a chance to make an even bigger leap, thanks to the National Women’s Rights History Project Act—a bill that would create a commemorative driving route across New York, linking the park unit to properties like Susan B. Anthony’s home, the Harriet Tubman house, and the courthouse where Anthony was tried and found guilty of voting. The Park Service’s women’s history website would feature travel itineraries to women’s history sites nationwide. And interpretive and educational programs throughout the Park System would also get a boost. (The bill passed the Senate in January, but was still awaiting approval in the House when this issue went to press.) It’s a story that must be told, and perhaps no one is better suited to tell it than the Park Service, which reaches millions of people and interprets stories in such powerful ways.

A Modern Vision
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s ability to accomplish change wasn’t just a matter of luck. She was immersed in law and human rights from the very beginning. Her father, a judge, practiced out of an office attached to their home in upstate New York, and she often accompanied him to the courthouse located just across the street. But some of her keenest observations came from within her own home. Once, young Stanton overheard her father reciting laws to a distraught client whose husband squandered her wages on alcohol while her family starved. But according to law, women didn’t own the money they made—their husbands did. Shocked by this knowledge, Stanton devised a plan to sneak into her father’s office with scissors and cut out the unjust paragraphs from his law books. When he caught wind of it, he challenged her to change the law. She took his advice to heart, and years later in 1857 she was the first woman to testify before the New York State legislature, challenging the very laws her father had made a career of upholding.

Fortunately, Stanton—and the millions of women’s rights activists who followed—never stopped believing in America’s founding principles. She reveled in Thomas Jefferson’s ideas, captured so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...” There was only one thing missing from that statement: the word women. So in 1848, at the first Women’s Rights Convention, Stanton began her own rewrite by drafting the Declaration of Sentiments—a declaration of independence for women, by women.

Sadly, my great, great grandmother died in 1902, eighteen years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. But if it hadn’t been for her radical vision—controversial to even her most ardent supporters at the time—the declaration wouldn’t have contained a resolution that set the framework for that amendment.

In Her Footsteps
Where Stanton grew up in a world of law, I grew up in a world of strong, career-focused women: My father and two grandfathers had died by the time was four years old, so my primary role models were my mother—an architect—and my grandmother—a civil engineer, who actually lived with Stanton in her New York City apartment for a short time. It was not unusual for me to skip school to attend a local civil rights trial, to join my mother as she picketed the nearby Texaco headquarters to support female employees facing sexual harassment and job discrimination. My grandmother’s stories of testifying before Congress enlivened our Sunday dinners. One Thanksgiving, she went so far as to slam her high-heeled shoe on the mahogany table to quiet the guests and make a political point.

Last summer, 87 years after Congress granted women the right to vote, my mother died. Her life was a measurement of women’s rights progress: She was born into a nation where women weren’t allowed to run for President, much less vote for one, and died during a time when women all over the country were casting votes for a woman and an African-American man.

My mother’s death leaves a terrible hush. But she lives on within me—as does my grandmother, my great grandmother, and my great, great grandmother. I hear their voices and know how hard they worked to give women—to give me—more freedom and equal opportunity.

Women in America did not start out as equal citizens, but thanks to a government that guarantees the right of free speech, assembly, and the right to petition, women eventually gained the rights they were entitled to. It has enabled each generation to stand upon the shoulders of those women who came before them. But we can’t forget the path we traveled to get here.

For more information about Women’s Rights National Historical Park call 315.568.2991 or visit www.nps.gov/wori. To learn more, visit the Park Service’s website, “Places Where Women Made History,” at www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/pwwmh.

Coline Jenkins, a mother and a legislator in Greenwich, Connecticut, owns a house on Long Island Sound originally designed by her mother and grandmother.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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