Book
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYU Press Nov. 2016)
(2016)
  • Tracy A. Thomas
Abstract
This book analyzes the feminist and legal thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton on gender equality in family as to marriage, divorce, marital property, domestic violence, reproductive control, and parenting. It reveals Stanton's comprehensive demand for systemic legal reform that challenges conventional depictions of the limitations of early feminism, of the development of family law, and women's alleged acquiescence in domestic subordination. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the principal feminist thinker, leader, and “radical conscience” of the nineteenth-century woman’s rights movement. Stanton initiated the women’s rights movement on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, where she issued her feminist manifesto, the “Declaration of Sentiments,” demanding women’s right to vote. This is generally all that history has remembered of Stanton. Her Declaration, however, demanded seventeen other rights for political, religious, social, and civil rights equality. These included the right to public office, marital property, divorce, education, employment, reproductive control, and religious autonomy. As Stanton explained, the institutions of government, church, family, and industrial work constituted “a fourfold bondage” of women, with “many cords tightly twisted together, strong for one purpose” of woman’s subordination. They were all intertwined, so that “to attempt to undo one is to loosen all.” As Stanton later explained, to break down this complexity required women to have “bravely untwisted all the strands of the fourfold cord that bound us and demanded equality in the whole round of the circle.” Holistic reform was required to break down the complex system of women’s oppression. 

The family was one centerpiece of Stanton’s feminist agenda. The family, governed by patriarchal laws and sentimental gender norms, created and perpetuated women’s inferiority. “If the present family life is necessarily based on man’s headship,” Stanton argued, “then we must build a new domestic altar, in which the mother shall have equal dignity, honor and power.” The private sphere of the family was not segregated from the public sphere, as both nineteenth-century suffrage reformers and twentieth-century feminists often argued, but instead was intertwined with the other institutional strands strangling equality. As a result, radical concrete change to the family institution was required in the forms of egalitarian partnerships, economic rights, free divorce, and maternal autonomy. Stanton’s commitment to women’s equality in marriage and the family was longstanding -- from Seneca Falls to her last writings. As Stanton said, she “remained as radical on the marriage question at the age of eighty-six as [she] had been a half a century earlier.” 

Stanton’s family reforms seem less shocking today because most of them have become law. Her proposals to reconstruct marriage and the family, detailed in this book, are now mainstream. Women have separate and joint marital property rights. Spouses inherit equal shares of estates when one partner dies without a will. Common law marriage is prohibited in most states, and civil marriage requires procedural safeguards. Divorce is available for irreconcilable differences or for misconduct equally applicable to both spouses. The law supports domestic violence protections, reproductive choice, and maternal custody.

Recovering Stanton’s feminist thinking on the family reveals the longevity and persistence of women’s demands for family equality. Contrary to popular wisdom, these feminist ideas were not invented in the 1970s, but instead reach back more than a century earlier as part of the original conceptualization of women’s rights. This longer perspective bolsters the truth and credibility of such feminist demands, dispelling their characterization as a modern anomaly and demanding legitimization and consideration in the law. As these issues of family, marriage, work/life balance, pregnancy, and parenting continue to challenge the law and confound feminism, Stanton’s work adds historical evidence of important principles that should be part of the legal equation. Her work shows that feminism and the family have not been historically in opposition, as we usually think. To the contrary, feminists have existed not apart from the family, but within it. Thus, understanding Stanton’s views is critical to understanding both feminism and the family today.
Keywords
  • legal history,
  • family law,
  • feminist theory,
  • women and the law
Publication Date
November, 2016
Publisher
New York University Press
ISBN
9780814783047
Publisher Statement
Much has been written about women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Historians have written her biography, detailed her campaign for woman’s suffrage, documented her partnership with Susan B. Anthony, and compiled all of her extensive writings and papers. Stanton herself was a prolific author; her autobiography, History of Woman Suffrage, and Woman’s Bible are classics. Despite this body of work, scholars and feminists continue to find new and insightful ways to re-examine Stanton and her impact on women’s rights and history. 

Law scholar Tracy A. Thomas extends this discussion of Stanton’s impact on modern-day feminism by analyzing her intellectual contributions to—and personal experiences with—family law. Stanton’s work on family issues has been overshadowed by her work (especially with Susan B. Anthony) on woman’s suffrage. But throughout her fifty-year career, Stanton emphasized reform of the private sphere of the family as central to achieving women’s equality. By weaving together law, feminist theory, and history, Thomas explores Stanton’s little-examined philosophies on and proposals for women’s equality in marriage, divorce, and family, and reveals that the campaigns for equal gender roles in the family that came to the fore in the 1960s and ’70s had nineteenth-century roots. Using feminist legal theory as a lens to interpret Stanton’s political, legal, and personal work on the family, Thomas argues that Stanton’s positions on divorce, working mothers, domestic violence, childcare, and many other topics were strikingly progressive for her time, providing significant parallels from which to gauge the social and legal policy issues confronting women in marriage and the family today.
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Citation Information
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (New York University Press 2016)