There are countless examples throughout American history of women who have created change via immeasurable foresight and uncanny courage. I can think of two women who exemplify the landmark virtues upon which our nation is perched: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founding mothers of feminism and a pioneering prophet of the female philosophy—every man and woman should be familiar with her discourses; and Anne Hutchinson, perhaps one of the bravest people who ever lived, a woman who stood up in the face of man’s mental darkness to become a trailblazer for unfettered religious practice, and in so doing planted some of the earliest seeds of American female independence.
The first American settlers were a hardy bunch, to say the least. Between deadly winters and deadlier wars with Indians, a surprisingly few of these people had the fortitude needed to persevere. Those who did make it are the backbone of our United States.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson had a titanium backbone. She was a member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that original settlement to which we owe much of our early, tumultuous history. She became the leader of a regular women’s gathering in her home, in which she preached an alternative worship style that was comprised of simple, honest faith in a creator—not the dogged, fear-induced worship that had become the Puritan way. Doesn’t sound like such a big deal, except that in those days, women were up to their chins in the mire of misogyny. It was actually illegal for a woman to lead worship or for women to gather in high numbers and think.
It was during the ensuing trial in which Hutchinson earned herself a permanent place in the history books. It was Governor John Winthrop (if not for the blatant absurdity in many of his dictates, our country might not be the place it is today; but that’s another biased history lesson) who decided her fate. He presided over her trial and was aided by 10 or so of his male cronies. After his scary, ignorant introduction, Hutchinson asked him, “What law have I broken?” He replied, “Why, the fifth commandment.” She proceeded to dismantle each of his assertions until he finally told her, “We do not mean to discourse with those of your sex”.
Hutchinson was banished but left happily (settling nearby and helping to establish the community that would become Portsmouth, Virginia). After being embarrassed by her, Winthrop and his cronies established Harvard University in order to keep their male descendants more intellectually prepared. But the damage was done; after her public display, more and more Puritans began thinking for themselves. Her refusal to acquiesce created a whirlwind that rotates to this day. Still, it wasn’t until later, after Indians killed Hutchinson and most of her family, that we began to truly appreciate what she did.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Two hundred and fifty years later, 76-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton would channel Hutchinson in one of the most important speeches ever given on womankind’s behalf. She titled her address “The Solitude of Self.” It was 1892. Stanton spoke to Congress and put forth a philosophy that transcends gender; she formed an argument for which there is no counter argument. There is no repetition in the human design, she said; everyone is a solitary piece of the puzzle, whose niche can only be filled by him or her. She said, “It matters not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman; nature, having endowed them equally, leaves them to their own skill and judgment in the hour of danger, and, if not equal to the occasion, alike they perish”.
The importance of the individual is uncountable, she said. Therefore, to squash or smother any percentage of individuals is unconscionable.
Stanton was integral to the painfully long women’s suffrage movement. The struggle began, essentially, in the mid-1800s when Stanton submitted her “Declaration of Sentiments” to the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. Soon after, she initiated her historical, long-standing partnership with Susan B. Anthony. Her writings became the fuel for Anthony’s lobbying. Stanton is perhaps most remembered for her controversial tome, The Women’s Bible, a response to the portrayal of women in scripture that she wrote and published in her 80s. In addition to her writings, she was responsible for reforming several marriage and property right’s laws, allowing countless women to escape male-designed, lopsided legal arrangements they had previously believed were unbreakable.
In her exhaustively researched and insightful work The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell remarks on Hutchinson’s plight: “She should have been a minister or a magistrate. …There’s something very wrong, or at least very sad, that a legal, theological mind like hers, on display only in her trial transcripts, didn’t get to study law or divinity at Cambridge like her male peers and accusers.”
It’s a shame it took another 250 years for Stanton to have a voice. It’s a shame that women couldn’t vote until 20 years after she died. And it’s a shame the female population even needs “feminism.” A redundant gene seems to linger in too many male minds (some might say it’s there in too many females as well), and it still generates fear in response to a woman’s equal nature. But if we keep the work of people like Stanton and Hutchinson alive, irrational fear will be stomped out by equal footing.