Who is Elizabeth Cady Stanton and why is she on the new $10 bill?

—Tracy A. Thomas

The U.S. Treasury Department announced a newly-designed $10 bill featuring five women’s suffrage leaders on the back: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul. The front of the bill remains Alexander Hamilton (after all, he has his own hit Broadway musical).

Each of these five women contributed to the 72-year-fight for women’s right to vote, finally achieved in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment. Stanton politically conceived of the idea of women’s right to vote on July 14, 1848, in her Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed at what is called the first women’s rights convention, which she and Mott organized (Although small groups of women had previously presented petitions for the right to vote to the legislature of New York and women voted in New Jersey during colonial times). Stanton and Anthony then led the organized movement for women’s suffrage rights for fifty years, as documented in Ken Burns’s PBS series, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Lucy Stone might have also been recognized for her pivotal leadership role for suffrage as well, leading the conservative parallel organization to Stanton and Anthony’s, equally focused on women’s suffrage. Truth was a leading lecturer and advocate for women’s suffrage, combining it with her testimonial of slavery and abolitionist message. Paul pushed the demand for the vote through to the finish by adopting politically-savvy media techniques and the militant use of demonstrations, parades and protests, documented in the popular movie Iron Jawed Angels.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, however, stands out from this respectable group as the leading philosopher and advocate of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement. As I discuss in my book Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law, Stanton was the “radical conscience” and founding mother of feminism. She was also a leading legal thinker advancing a full array of women’s rights. Stanton is memorialized today at the National Women’s Rights Museum located in Seneca Falls, New York. There, a waterfall pours over her prophetic words written in the Declaration of Sentiments.

In Stanton’s Declaration, she laid out seventeen demands for women’s rights in addition to the vote. These included the right to equal opportunity in education, employment, and religion. And they included rights within the family designed to assure gender equality, such as joint marital property, no-fault divorce, domestic violence protections, maternal child custody, and equal access to lawmaking through women jurists, lawyers, and juries. Stanton rejected the prevalent idea of the separate sphere of domesticity confining women to the “protection” and isolation of the home. Instead, she saw integrating women into the public sphere of political action and employment as important, while also elevating women as an equal power in the family with rights to property, autonomy, and parenting.

Stanton’s advocacy for sex equality is integrated into the legal history of family law. She advocated for change to the laws of marital property, equal marital partnerships, no-fault divorce, domestic violence remedies, women’s reproductive control, maternal custody, and de-gendered parenting. It turns out that almost all of Stanton’s radical ideas for the family seem innocuous today only because they have become the law. Turns out she was right, even if she was one hundred years too early.

Stanton saw far beyond the vote as the lone mechanism to women’s equality. Instead, she saw it as but one part of the multi-stranded cord that bound women in subordination and inequality. As Stanton explained it, the institutions of government, church, family, and industry 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.” The vote was important as one way to loosen the entire stranglehold. However, all four systemic sites of subordination—state, church, home, and industry—must be reformed, Stanton said, for women to have full equal opportunity of being.

Honoring Stanton on the $10 bill therefore seems appropriate, given her foundational contributions to the establishment of women’s rights and a law and society of equality. Even if most people looking at their $10 bills will never know it.

Tracy A. Thomas is Professor of Law at The University of Akron School of Law, where she holds the Seiberling Chair of Constitutional Law and directs the Center for Constitutional Law. She is the author of the forthcoming Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYU Press, 2016).

Feature image: Elizabeth Stanton. Public Domain via Wikimedia.