Voting: A courageous act to share
By SUZANNE SCHNITTMAN
While this year’s election and the 100th anniversary of woman suffrage that America is marking in 2020 are fresh in our minds, let’s wish Elizabeth Cady Stanton a happy birthday. On Nov. 12 Elizabeth, who was born in Johnstown in 1815, would have turned 105 years old.
While many have heard about Susan B. Anthony voting in Rochester in 1872, and being arrested and tried for this crime, we know less about Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s first time at the polling place eight years later.
Elizabeth shared this event with two of her seven children in a letter 10 days after the outrageous act. A mother who loved sharing good news with five sons and two daughters, she also loved demonstrating her audacious public acts. Early in her speaking career, Elizabeth’s father, Judge Daniel Cady of Fulton County, forbade her to speak to the New York state Legislature. She defied him, which he called a very expensive act because he cut her inheritance. In 1880, her father had been dead for 20 years, so she was freer to act.
“This is my birthday,” Elizabeth wrote to Harriot and Theodore Stanton on Nov. 12, 1880. “I am 65 years old, nearing the seventies. Looking back through life, I feel that our troubles are fully compensated by our joys. I have had an existence of hard work, but I think it has been a success.”
Elizabeth, who had spent the past decade writing the history of woman suffrage, knew that many women had either tried to vote, and some had succeeded. Even though it was illegal, she believed it was time to put her money where her mouth was, or “demonstrate the faith which is in me.”
She proudly told her children that when the Republican wagon came to the Stanton home on Nov. 2, 1880, to pick up the male part of her household, she told the driver that her legal representatives were “all absent,” but that “I would go down and vote.” He was flabbergasted. But down she went to the polling booth, where she “offered my ballot and argued the case with the inspectors.” While there, she “had great fun frightening and muddling” them. The whole town of Tenafly, New Jersey, where she then lived, was “agape with my act.” The men were divided equally for and against it.
The letter did not end without advice. “This is a good example of what I have often said of late that acts, not words are what is needed to push this woman suffrage question to the fore,” she told her children.
The next evening when she went down to the mail, the postmaster offered her five dollars for the ticket she used to vote. He planned to have it framed and hung up in his house. Elizabeth told him that she “really felt quite tired holding that ballot so long and arguing with the judges of election.” (Source: Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Harriot Stanton and Theodore Stanton, Nov. 12, 1880)
Most of us did not wait decades before our ballot was legal, but some waited in long lines. We voted in numbers that would have made Johnstown’s daughter proud. Elizabeth Cady Stanton encouraged her children and grandchildren by her courageous example. We all have the obligation to mimic her behavior. Don’t forget to take your children — or parents — with you next time you vote. Do it to celebrate Elizabeth’s birthday.
Suzanne Schnittman, PhD, is an independent scholar from Rochester. She is the author of “Provocative Mothers and Their Precocious Daughters: 19th Century Women’s Rights Leaders.”