“The hey-day of woman’s life”: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the journey toward your personal heyday

Ask most people about the women who led the fight for women’s right to vote, and they’ll mention Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was indeed considered a founding mother of the movement—young activists affectionately dubbed her “Aunt Susan”—but she was not among the first to call for women’s right to vote. The true founding mother was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she is one of my heroes.

Stanton in middle age.  Her hair turned white by her fifites.

Stanton in middle age.  Her hair turned white by her fifites.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born in 1815 in upstate New York. She was the eighth child of eleven born to a prominent lawyer and his blueblood wife. Only five of the Stanton children—all of them daughters—survived to adulthood, and one of the defining moments of Elizabeth’s life was the occasion when her father, grieving the loss of his second and last son, lamented, “Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” The young Elizabeth responded by trying to be the son her father desired. At every stage, from education to entering an occupation to activism, she found this ambition thwarted because she was born female. She grew up with a keen sense that women were treated with profound injustice.[1]

Observing the women who came to her father for legal advice reinforced Elizabeth’s awareness of sexism. Her father tried to explain that laws prevented him from helping women who were the victims of rapacious, irresponsible, or violent husbands, and he showed her the offending laws on the pages of the volumes that lined his library.  In her autobiography, Elizabeth recalled that she had resolved to cut every one of the unjust laws out of her father’s law books “supposing my father and his library were the beginning and the end of the law.” She confided her plan to the housekeeper who warned her father of Elizabeth’s plan. He explained to her that even “If his library should burn up it would make no difference in woman’s condition.” He added, however, “When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech. . . you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators. . . and if you can persuade them to pass new laws the old ones will be a dead letter.” Stanton may have embroidered this incident in order to explain her path to the women’s rights movement, but she would later be stung by her father’s opposition to her activism. She wrote, “Thus was the future object of my life foreshadowed and my duty plainly outlined by him who was most opposed to my public career when, in due time, I entered upon it.”[2]

In spite of her childhood awareness of sexism, Stanton followed a circuitous path to women’s rights activism. After completing her education at Troy Female Seminary, one of the finest institutions of female education of the day, she spent time at the home of her cousin, a radical abolitionist.  There she met another antislavery activist, Henry Stanton. The couple married in 1840, and he whisked her off to London for a most romantic honeymoon:  attendance at the World Antislavery Convention.  Here she was incensed to learn that women, who were full participants in anti-slavery conventions at home, had been rejected as speakers at the London event.

At the convention, she met a number of prominent female abolitionists from America, most notably the Quaker anti-slavery leader Lucretia Mott. Mott, more than twenty years Elizabeth’s senior and mother of six children, became something of a mentor to Stanton. The two walked the streets of London and talked about how someday, they would organize a convention to consider “the emancipation of women.”

Someday came eight years later. Stanton was living near Seneca Falls, New York, a tiny town in the western part of the state. Confined to the house, a mile from town, with four children (she would eventually have seven) while Henry traveled for work, Elizabeth chafed at the narrowness of her life. When Mott visited friends in Seneca Falls in 1848, the two hatched a plan to organize their convention in the small town.

Stanton with one of her children.  

Stanton with one of her children.  

The nation’s first women’s rights convention was held July 19 and 20, 1848, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls.[3]  More than 300 people, men and women, attended the event and discussed the restrictions on women in American society. Stanton was the principal author of the Convention’s centerpiece document, the Declaration of Sentiments, which declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men AND WOMEN are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. . . .” The document, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, went on to list men’s offenses against women and then to offer up a set of demands, the most radical of which was that women be given the right to vote.

Many critics, including many at the convention, were convinced that demanding the vote was just too radical for mid nineteenth century America, but Stanton was adamant. She insisted there was no way to secure women’s equality in other areas unless they had the right to vote—and thus the ability to pressure lawmakers to act on behalf of women. The Seneca Falls Convention ratified the Declaration of Sentiments including its controversial demand for the vote.

From that day forward, Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated her life to the fight for women’s rights. In 1851, she met Susan B. Anthony, and the two became partners in leading the movement. For many years while Stanton was confined at home raising her children (she’d have seven in all), she was the movement’s chief intellectual, formulating arguments, writing speeches and news articles, and developing strategy. Anthony was the movement’s spokesperson, taking to the road to drum up support for women’s suffrage all over the country.  Once Stanton’s children left the nest, she, too, went on the road to fight for the vote. Sadly, neither woman lived to see the achievement of their dream though both were engaged in the fight right up until their final days.  Stanton died in 1902, at the age of 87, and Anthony died in 1906 at the age of 86. Women would not achieve the right to vote until August 26, 1920 when the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.

Stanton and Anthony in old age.

Stanton and Anthony in old age.

Of course, I admire Stanton for her tenacious pursuit of women’s right to vote.  I also admire her for other actions. She did testify before the New York General Assembly, much to her father’s displeasure, to advocate for a married women’s property rights law which would guarantee women the right to control any property they held in their own names. She pushed for more liberal marriage, divorce, and child custody laws which would enable women leave abusive marriages and to retain custody of their children (custody typically went to men according to the laws of the time period). She advocated for laws that would allow women—rather than husbands or fathers--to control their own wages. She became an outspoken critic of the established church which she believed had played a major role in the oppression of women over the centuries.

In recent years, I’ve also come to admire Stanton for her outspoken promotion of the joys of middle age and beyond.  On the occasion of her seventieth birthday, about fifty friends of Stanton’s gathered in New York City to fete her. On that occasion, she gave a twenty minute speech on “The Pleasures of Aging.” In it, she scoffed at the notion that growing older was necessarily a matter of decline. Instead, she insisted, “If we analyze the pleasures of youth, middle life, and old age, we find all alike depend on the capacity of the individual for enjoyment.” She went on to describe two hypothetical women and their responses to life at every age. One when young is “like a beam of sunshine wherever she goes. . . with her own glad outlook on life” while the other is “a discontented girl, more and more unhappy as the years roll round.” In middle age, the sunny young woman had become an avid reader “engaged in the reforms of the day” who labored for the good of her family and her country while the other was rich in material goods but self-absorbed and discontented. In old age, Stanton said, these women’s experiences would be “as varied as their experiences in bygone years.” In other words, the woman who approached life with vitality and curiosity would enjoy her life while the one who was restless and discontented at every stage would remain restless and discontented. As Stanton put it, “The pleasures of age depend on what constitute the threads of our lives and how they are woven together.”[4]

Stanton herself declared that her life had grown richer and more fulfilling with the passage of years. She chalked this up to her accumulated knowledge of how to live in the world.  She said, “After many experiences on life’s tempestuous seas we learn to use the chart and compass, to take soundings, to measure distances, to shun the dangerous coasts, to prepare for winds and weather, to reef our sails, and when it is wise, to stay in safe harbor.” Another factor that contributed to the pleasures of age, Stanton said, lay in the fact that as we age, we are freer to pour our energy into pursuits that give us great satisfaction. As she said, “Fifty, not fifteen, is the heyday of woman’s life, then the forces hitherto finding an outlet in flirtations, courtship, conjugal and maternal love, are garnered in the brain to find expression in intellectual achievements, in spiritual friendships and beautiful thoughts, in music, poetry, and art. It never is too late to try what we may do.”[5]

A few years later, Stanton returned to this theme that women might find their highest expression of themselves after they had fulfilled obligations to their families. She wrote, “Women trained to concentrate all their thoughts on the family circle are apt to think — when their children are grown up, their loved ones gone, . . . — that their work in life is done, that no one needs now their thought and care, quite forgetting that the hey-day of woman's life is on the shady side of fifty, when the vital forces heretofore expended in other ways are garnered in the brain, when their thoughts and sentiments flow out in broader channels, when philanthropy takes the place of family selfishness, and when from the depths of poverty and suffering the wail of humanity grows as pathetic to their ears as once was the cry of their own children. Or, perhaps, the pressing cares of family life ended, the woman may awake to some slumbering genius in herself for art, science, or literature, with which to gild the sunset of her days.”[6]

Of course, aging isn’t a piece of cake.  As women age, we often find ourselves once again thrust into the role of caregiver. We’ll face disappointment and loss. Stanton faced harsh criticism of her activism as she grew more radical in middle age. She faced the loss of loved ones and estrangement from friends. Like Stanton’s, our bodies will wear out, and we may face health problems. Many of us will struggle to find financial stability, as indeed Stanton herself did in the last half of her life. And as she said, “I suppose the time will never come when women, or men, either, will delight in crow’s feet, wrinkles or grey hairs, but the time will come. . . when they will view these blemishes as but a petty price to pay for the joy of added wisdom, for the deeper joy of closer contact with humanity, and for the deepest joy of worthy work well done.”[7]

I don’t romanticize old age (and I believe Stanton did—just a wee bit), but I believe that life fully lived is a journey toward that heyday—that period of our greatest success, happiness, and vigor. I believe we can work toward more happiness and vigor at any age, and that’s why I named my coaching practice Heyday Coaching, in honor of my hero, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

[1] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More:  Reminiscences, 1815-1897, 1898, p. 25.

[2] Stanton, Eighty Years and More, p. 35.

[3] Today you can visit the National Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls. 

[4] Stanton, “The Pleasures of Age,” Rutgers University, The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project, http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/thepleasuresofage.html.

[5] Stanton, “The Pleasures of Aging.”

[6] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of class of 1832,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary, and Reminiscences, vol. one, edited by Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, pp. 344-345, digitized by Brigham Young University Library, Provo, Utah,  https://archive.org/stream/elizabethcadysta01stan/elizabethcadysta01stan_djvu.txt.

[7] Stanton, “The Pleasures of Aging.”