Sunday, July 12, 2020

Dirty John and His Women

Connie Britton and Eric Bana in Dirty John
John Meehan was a charmer. You could tell by looking there was something a little off about him, but if you were a vulnerable woman that "something" was easy to overlook--he was an accomplished spellbinder with a sordid past that he papered over quite deftly. He regarded the women he conned as projects, and he had the skills to pull off his myriad games until his ultimate comeuppance, which, in the Dirty John true-crime anthology now available on Netflix, feels inevitable but the series keeps the viewer on the edge.

For all the fascination of the creature at the center of this, the series is really about women. It's mother-daughter relationships, man-woman relationships, and the navigating of women's roles in the contemporary world. Eric Bana as John sashays into the life of the sophisticated interior designer Debra Newell, played by Connie Britton. The actors could not have been better in their roles--Bana, playing Meehan as manipulative and subtle, and Britton, playing his prey as calm, thoughtful, and just a bit dim. This Debra has the quality so many women have in the area of relationships: she trusts too much and needs too much--exactly what makes her a target for a manipulative and sly person. Basically competent and strong, she thinks she has it right, but she does not. She has been married four times and is actively dating men she meets at online sites. Her two daughters see through Meehan at once, and despise him, just as he, knowing they are onto him, casts them as his enemy as he worms his way into the affections of their mother. Debra confides in her mother, played to perfection by Jean Smart as kindly and forgiving--a Christian ideal of a mother--giving bad advice all around as she mistakenly falls for any man who gives her daughters the time of day. The interaction of this brood, revolving around a toxic man, tells volumes about the psychology of women raised in the 20th century living out their lives in the 21st. Debra and her mother are putty in the hands of a sociopath.

I recommend watching all the series, so I won't give away any spoilers. Much of it is fairly easy to see coming, but there are ups and downs and sideways twists. As in most narratives these days, the story is told through flashbacks and flashes forward so there are scenes that give backstory long after we'd given up on learning it. It's well written and believable and it's easy to see that there are a number of women at the helm. I would think a man watching it might say, "I hope they don't think all men are like that," but I'm pretty sure we've all, male and female, known this behavior in lesser degrees in real people. Dirty John is the beginning of a long-overdue conversation, and will prompt (I hope) more evaluation of personality types and more cautious behavior all around.

The second entry in the series is The Betty Broderick Story, which ends its first season Tuesday.  The next season will begin with more episodes about Broderick, whose tale is ongoing. She too had the wrong idea about a man being her salvation, but she is the toxic one in the relationship--and her thinking is baffling and sociopathic. Trying to redeem herself in the public's eye she is probably not a bad subject for contemplation of just how twisted a mind can be--and how cleverly such a mind can manipulate others.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Fascination of Betty Broderick

In the middle of the night in 1989, she made her way to the bedroom of her ex-husband and his new wife and killed both of them in their sleep. She never denied having done it. The question all these years has been "What is wrong with her?"

Elizabeth Ann Broderick clearly had something wrong with her. She had been a beauty and an A student in high school, married a promising medical student she adored and put him through med school and then law school, bore him children, and lived the picture-perfect married life as expected of children born in the post-WWII baby boom. He rose in his profession, the family vacationed in Aspen--and she had all the money in the world she wanted.  She was charming and beautiful, if a bit of a drama queen, and swore that all she had ever wanted to be was a "mommy."

There were cracks in the marriage all along, and nothing either she or her high-powered lawyer husband Dan did much of anything to resolve issues. Buying something, having another baby, moving to a more prestigious neighborhood--none of the traditional solutions did anything but fan the flames of her discontent.

Watching The Betty Broderick Story series, a part of the Dirty John on USA Network, I was thrust back to the 1992 series A Woman Scorned, starring Meredith Baxter-Birney as Betty Broderick. The earlier series did not give much time to Dan Broderick, but focused on Betty, and portrayed her as irrational, on the surface almost as much as deep down. Baxter-Birney's rage burned through the small screen, and her ability to display a cool exterior whenever it was needed was extraordinary acting indeed. The new series shows us that Dan was no paragon of mental health either, but at least balanced enough to see that his home situation was getting out of hand. He tried to limit the children's exposure to her, the more violent her moods and language became, and it would seem he hoped that at best one day she would leave them and him alone. Betty was unpredictable; Dan was rock-hard but at least better at human transactions.

In 2020, with the tightly-wound Amanda Peet playing Betty Broderick, we see a young couple working hard to fulfill the American fantasy of married life, and it takes a while before the picture becomes a horror movie with the ring of truth. Betty is a Jekyll-Hyde character, female 1980s version, who cannot sleep at night and feasts on the rage she holds for her husband. She goes to their former home, yanks his expensive clothes out of the closet, and burns them in the backyard. She drives her car into the front of his new house. She calls him hundreds of times, leaving obscene messages on his answering machine, and when talking to her children on the phone uses vile language about their father and his fiancée relentlessly, all the while they, in tears, beg her to stop.

This is more than a story of the worst marriage known in U.S. history. It is more than a story of a woman becoming unhinged at losing her husband and children. It is more than a story of what Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name," a woman  who bought the myth of marriage being the most rewarding career she might have and finding herself depressed and unfulfilled. These factors are all part of it but is something else here--two people living out the same madness, a folie a deux, feeding each other's mental illness in the only way they can understand. She fears losing him and she drives him away. But it's more than that; he acts out her fears by having an affair with a younger, more desirable version of her. In the real-life story, Betty gained weight and her anger made her physically unattractive--how they will achieve that in this nuanced reimagining of the earlier series I do not know. (Three more episodes to Season 1.)

Betty's illness is at the heart of the story. She becomes a different person through her mental deterioration. She cannot accept her part in Dan's inevitable choice to leave her. From the 2020 vantage point one cannot help wondering why this woman did not get help sooner--even though we do know that the personality disorders (Wikipedia says narcissism and histrionic personality disorder) she had are not exactly curable. Today there are anxiety drugs and antidepressants that probably would have helped, and maybe a brain scan and a few months at a rehab-spa would have done some good. As it was, she rejected therapy and chose to indulge her obsession with her own anger, fear, and hatred until it won out, once and for all.

We don't understand all we know about the tawdry tale, but it will fascinate us until the day we are able to put a name to it.


Saturday, June 6, 2020

What Is a Male Chauvinist?

Whether or not you ever heard of a male chauvinist, you do need to know about them. The phrase has been all but replaced, but it still rises to the surface occasionally.

Nicolas Chauvin was a legendary soldier in the First Army of the French Republic and in the Grand Armee de Napoleon. He is said to have been wounded in battle 17 times, resulting in considerable maiming and disfigurement.  A noble fellow, Chauvin adored his commander and loved his homeland even more--if that were possible--so much so that Napoleon personally granted him a Sabre of Honor and a pension of a few hundred francs. He is thought to have served in the Old Guard at the Battle of Waterloo, and to have shouted "The Old Guard dies but does not surrender!" implying that ultimate blind and unquestioned devotion to one's country was not only a good thing, but the expected thing.

 

There is some doubt the real Nicolas Chauvin ever existed, but is, rather, a folk hero emblematic of a kind of fanatic patriotism whose zealotry bordered on a personality disorder rather than genuine heroism. The French word Chauviniste was coined to cover extreme patriotism, but, as Bonaparte fell from favor, the term evolved to mean a mindless bias on almost any topic.

 

It was not until the late 19th century that chauvinism took on the meaning "excessive or prejudiced support for one's own cause" and came to used in contexts other than nationalism. As the Women's Liberation movement grew in the early 1960s in the United States, the phrase "male chauvinist" was born. A man who patronized, disparaged, or otherwise denigrated females in the belief that they were inferior to males and thus deserving of less than equal treatment or benefit was termed a male chauvinist by women who were in the vanguard of the fight for women's rights. The word "pig" was added to the phrase, as more people used the word pig to describe a group perceived as the enemy--as the counterculture of the day used the term pig to characterize brutal police. 

 

Now, rather than male chauvinist, we're more likely to use the word misogynist, which means a man who hates women. A male chauvinist was likely to deny he hated women--frequently responding that, to the contrary, he "loved women too much," which indicated an extremely skewed definition of the word love.  If they, as healthy heterosexuals did, participated in sex with women, such men equated the act with love, in spite of the fact that the two are hardly one and the same. Misogyny manifests in numerous ways, including sex discrimination, overt hostility,  patriarchy, male privilege, the belittling of women, the disenfranchisement of women, violence against women, and the sexual objectification of women. This behavior had been rampant in the 20th century, and women's objections to it came as a total surprise to the men who were criticized for it as women began to revolt in mid-century. In the 1950s and carrying over to the 1960s and 70s, women were portrayed in advertising and pop culture as objects, playthings, and obedient mental deficients. We were either overtly sexual objects or happy housewives. Billboards and bus cards used images of women to sell all manner of items, from wine ("Had Any Lately?") to automobiles. Throughout the 60s many of those ads were critiqued by graffiti saying THIS INSULTS WOMEN. If an attractive female office worker in a major city walked past a construction site on her way to the office, she was likely to be bombarded with catcalls and profanity by the macho men operating shovels and heavy machinery. They were male chauvinists, all--exercising their right to exert their masculine impulses. The fight for women's rights and the subsequent movement against male domination and exploitation was sometimes confusing.  

 

Society has made great strides since then. However, male chauvinism is not dead; it's not even asleep. It survives in many guises, and the exposure of more of its facets does boggle the mind. We've lifted the stone to uncover sex trafficking (known in the days of the Feminism of the 19th century as "white slavery," yet not spoken about much for almost a century.) We are pondering the value of pornography. We know about the psychological grooming of young girls--and boys--and the exploitation of them by their teachers and priests. Today we can examine the phenomenon scientifically. But at the root of it all is the acceptance of male supremacy and power. This stems from the prevailing Victorian attitude of male superiority, which we are bound to find out is a baseless concept that has been allowed credence for a couple of centuries too long. 

 

We are inundated with new names for things. New phrases for old behavior pepper our conversations. Machismo has become toxic masculinity, simple courtesy and civility ia now known as political correctness, and is not seen as a good thing. 

 

Things have changed somewhat, and at least we are talking about them differently. We are offended by the overt exploitation of women for the pleasure of men. We cringe at the portrayal of women as merely sex objects in the films of the 1950s and 60s. The man of those days was almost invariably a male chauvinist, and who could blame him? Hugh Hefner was a hero to them, and young women actually vied for places in Playboy Magazine. An examination of this phenomenon is still ahead of us, as strip clubs abound, the porn industry is thriving, and plastic surgery has become an art of body reconstruction.    

Too much emphasis on physical appeal has led us to this. We human beings are naturally sexual creatures. But that is not all we are. One gender is not superior to the other and it does not require force to support the idea that it is. If there is a battle of the sexes, there will not be a victor. The Old Guard may have to surrender, or at least compromise.

 

 

 


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

On the Wrong Side of the Battle

Left, Phyllis Schlafly; Right, Cate Blanchett
The mini-series "Mrs America," which aired recently on FX and Hulu, chose to focus on the woman who was hellbent on destroying the Women's Movement of the 1960s and 70s, and they cast the charismatic and talented Cate Blanchett to portray this fierce human being as an elegant, soft-spoken and smart. I don't remember her that way.

Not that I knew Schlafly personally, but I was an early recruit to the Movement, stimulated by the watershed book The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. In a period when women's rights had been ignored for decades, Friedan eloquently described the dilemma young American wives faced. Conventional wisdom dictated they should be content--happy even--with life in the background while their husbands rose in the worlds of business, politics, power, and glory. I was a mother at the age of 23; the year was 1963. My baby was precious and precocious, but something told me tending her and my young husband's needs was not quite what I had expected when I walked down the aisle. I was experiencing what Friedan identified as "the problem that has no name," meaning I was not fulfilled by being a passive participant and cleaner-upper while all the attention and all the rewards went to somebody else.

Schlafly was one of those housewives who, married to a powerful big-city lawyer, found it offensive that anyone would suggest that she was not living the ideal life. A practicing Catholic, she had six children and proclaimed them the greatest achievement any woman could ask for. While espousing the glory of being a "homemaker," she dedicated her life to Republican politics, in hopes of being granted an appointment to office after years of hard work on building her base of support, women who bought her version of their reality even though her own was quite different. Her message was to housewives: You are the fortunate ones; you have that powerful man to do the difficult work while you are privileged to stay at home and raise the next generation. She was a throwback to the Victorians who not only believed a woman's place to be in the home but also that they should love it.

My first reaction when I heard about a TV series dedicated to this creature was an incredulous jaw-drop. Who would want to see a series about her? Trailers of the project revealed that the series was to be about the Women's Movement, however; and that featured in it would be actresses portraying Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm--and all the women I had admired as a young and "trapped" housewife. I thought it might be fun to revisit those days of upheaval and hope, even though I knew it did not end well, and that the reason it didn't lay at the feet of Phyllis Schlafly.

Watching the episodes of "Mrs. America" I experienced an eerie sense of deja vu. I saw the confabs at Ms. Magazine, with Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) at the helm and the very vocal participation of Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), and others. My recollection of Steinem in those days was that she wasn't as wispy as Byrne plays her--she always had a strong presence although she was very feminine and sexy. Byrne seemed a bit delicate in the early episodes, but as the series went on she grew into the role, rather as Gloria herself seemed to do. I don't like to think of Betty Friedan as being that contentious and volatile, but Tracey Ullman had her looks and style down pretty well, so I could have been wrong.  I never saw Betty looking as disheveled and disgruntled as Tracy did, but I admit I didn't see her when the cameras were off. I used to see her on television, holding her own with confrontational male interviewers and working very hard to appear gentle and ladylike. I remember once she wore a feather boa which wafted in the televisual breeze as she spoke of women's rights. She did get emotional occasionally, but I am not sure that was her default position.  Once when an English actor deliberately pushed her buttons on a daytime talk show, she blurted out a phrase I had never heard before, "You, sir, are a male chauvinist pig!" 

To me the actors coming closest to the real life people I followed in the movement were Uzu Abuda as Shirley Chisholm and Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. These two had voices and personal appearance down pat. It was a time when solid characters emerged--women with personalities, substance and at least the appearance of clout. They weren't beauties, these Women's Liberation Movement founders, but they had brains, humor, and courage.

I enjoyed looking back at those early days at the resolve and intellect of the women who had such an influence on my life, but it was poignant seeing them again as young and so very determined. It was painful, however, to see them trying to work within the system, trusting the powerful politicians who gave lip service to supporting them all the while apparently looking for ways to weasel out of any real action to help, backing the women for their own part, hoping primarily to manipulate them to get an even stronger hold on power for themselves. There were details of the battles they fought--some I didn't know about, some I did--portrayed in the series in a no-nonsense way.

"Mrs. America" was well produced, slick and beautifully written and acted, but, gripping as it was at times, it ended up minimalizing the women who threw themselves into the work of gaining an equal foothold in a man's world. 

Because its emphasis was always on Phyllis Schlafly. The series exposes her family life, her husband, her devoted sister-in-law and all those children who certainly provided at least as much stress as most children do. There was Phyllis' own personal ambition to get a law degree and get into politics, all the while claiming to be a housewife, and also claiming that was the most important job a woman could hope for. Her life was actually a model for a liberated woman--her husband supported her goals and backed her financially, women worked for her without pay, yet she made a name for herself through public appearances agitating against Women's Liberation by misstating its goals and its methods. She truly despised the movement and did what she could to create a counter movement celebrating women who did not dare to assert themselves. Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses working today, and one of the most sympathetic ones. Her version of Schlafly is perhaps too much like Blanchett herself; where Schlafly was strident and sarcastic, Blanchett brings more class to the role than the real one ever had. Her polish makes her appear a bit two-faced where Schlafly's rage was never far beneath the surface.

It would be possible to watch the whole series and come away disliking Phyllis Schlafly, but I think it would also be possible to come away wondering what that whole movement was about. However, if you lived through it and believed it was going to change history, the real question is, what was Phyllis Schlafly all about? With all the power she amassed, what did she accomplish? And why is there a series about her at all?


Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Highest Office in the Land

Victoria Claflin Woodhull
Victoria Claflin Woodhull was a woman like no other. She has a place in history—being the first woman to run for president—but her own story was so complicated, her own adventures so diverse, her own background so questionable, it is remarkable she managed even to live to her 88 years, much less achieve some fame and respectability.

She was born into a family of charlatans, liars, and dirt poor crooks in the middle of the U.S. in the 19th century. There were seven children and two of the worst parents in American history, living in a chaotic house on bare land. Her mother, Roxy, was probably certifiably insane. At best she was schizoid and cruel. Roxy tormented and laughed at her children, and sent them to the neighbors to beg for table scraps to eat.  Victoria’s father, Buck Claflin, did odd jobs and looked for schemes to make big money, including selling patent medicine cooked up by his wife of alcohol, laudanum, herbs, and molasses, and setting up his daughters Vicki and Tennie, as psychics and fortune tellers, and likely prostitutes as they grew up.  

Even in childhood, even with this squalid background, little Victoria had a way about her. She was a pretty, soft-spoken child, and when she went to the neighbor’s house she did not ask for food but asked if there were some work she might do around the house. Rachel Scribner, the kindly neighbor, was touched by her innocent appearance, with her sincere blue eyes, and asked her in. Victoria was to remember her experiences with Rachel all her life. Entering that house, with red gingham curtains and clean floors, was the first time she had seen a semblance of a normal home. Rachel taught her to read and write and presented a picture of a balanced and somewhat prosperous existence. Rachel was taken by cholera and died suddenly, and dealing with this death gave Victoria her first brush with spiritualism. She was literally struck down,  passing out, and experienced a vision of a changed world, a paradise. After this she occasionally consulted with the spirits of a variety of bygone heroes, including, most often, Demosthenes, who told her of the future and consoled her in times of stress. Her sister Tennie, too, had a certain spiritual talent, saying she could read minds. Buck Claflin played these traits his daughters shared for all they were worth in an era when séances were common and crowds flocked to religious revival meetings.  

Victoria and Tennie made a small fortune as faith healers. Victoria married Canning Woodhull when she was 14. He was a small-town doctor who unfortunately had a serious drinking problem. The couple had two children. The first born was mentally defective, and Victoria, probably correctly, thought this was because of Woodhull’s alcoholism. The second was a girl they named Zulu (or Zula). She divorced Woodhull after the second child was born, but kept his name. Victoria nurtured these children, and the sick father, all their lives, but she was to go on to much grander things.

She had a variety of careers before deciding to get into politics. Having lived as a woman abused in many ways, she fought for the rights of women and admired the women who were working in the movement. In their travels as spiritualists and faith healers, she and Tennie came in contact with influential men, and began to advise them on the stock market. They opened the first women’s brokerage firm, at a prestigious address in New York City, and became darlings of the press and basically the talk of the town, advising the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was said to be contemplating marrying Tennie. Both young women were comely—Victoria was seven years older than her sister—and she had a line on stocks from other clients, giving her an edge with her advice to Vanderbilt. He was convinced that the tips she gave him were coming from the spirit world and believed her totally. However she got her information, Vanderbilt made millions from the deals she proposed.

Susan B. Anthony visited the brokerage house and was very impressed with the beautiful, competent Victoria, who espoused the Feminist cause of the day. Anthony had only good things to say about the future of the movement with such sleek young women involved. The suffragist movement was beginning to come to a head.

Victoria took it upon herself to speak to the Senate Judiciary Committee about women’s rights in 1870. It was unheard of that a woman would invade men’s domains in such a way, and she was shaky and terrified when she started her speech—but she did so, with help from Demosthenes and her other spirit friends, and made the point to the committee that women already had the right to vote as the 14th and 15th amendment stated that citizens of the United States automatically had that privilege. By now Victoria had several brilliant male allies, and had married Col. James Harvey Blood, a Civil War veteran. She and Tennie published a newsletter with a circulation of over 20,000 readers weekly. The main thrust of the newsletter was to promote Victoria as a candidate for President of the United States, but it was fearless in espousing such causes as sex education, free love, and spiritualism. Stephen Pearl Andrews was writing editorials, and he and Blood both wrote speeches for her as she began to make the lecture circuit. She had quite a following as a public speaker, and both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were pleased with her for a time. She ran for president as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party, and chose Frederick Douglass as her running mate, although he had not been consulted and never attempted to run. He was an acquaintance and had been a supporter of her efforts in women’s suffrage.

Victoria abhorred hypocrisy and made an enemy of the powerful Protestant minister Henry Ward Beecher by uncovering his sexual affairs with a number of his parishioners. She believed in free love and advocated for it, and called upon this man to reveal his own proclivities on the subject but he would not.

At one of her speeches she veered into the taboo territory of free love and someone in the audience called out, “Are you a free lover?” to which she replied “Yes! I am a free lover!” and then the wheels began to come off her otherwise promising campaign for women’s rights. Her ugly family roots came out, with her mother, definitely off the rails now, denouncing her and some of her sisters and in-laws coming forward to spread falsehoods about her and her intentions. Stanton and Anthony pulled away, fearing for the degradation of the movement they had worked so diligently for.

Politics was pretty much a shambles at this point. Running for re-election, Ulysses S. Grant was on shaky ground, and his opponent, Horace Greeley, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Stanton and Anthony reluctantly backed Grant, and both were arrested for voting and Susan spent a night in jail—but Victoria and Tennie had a much harder time of it in the court system, for unrelated reasons.
The Claflin-Woodhull weekly was declared to be obscene and the sisters were jailed for their part in passing its distribution through the U.S. mail.  Victoria, Tennie, and Col. Blood were in jail in November, and couldn’t have voted if they tried. Despondent in a jail cell, Victoria wrote to Stanton, calling on her to speak what she knew to be true about Beecher, but Stanton didn’t respond.

It took some behind the scenes work by a number of people to get Victoria and Tennie back but six months later their conviction was overturned by a technicality. They were marginalized by society now and Victoria’s bid to become the first woman president was soon all but forgotten.
In 1876, in hopes of cleansing her reputation, she divorced Col. Blood. “The grandest woman in the world went back on me,” he was reported as having said at the time.

A surprise was in store for her and her sister at the death of Cornelius Vanderbilt. After the reading of the will, it was clear there were going to be disputes among his heirs, and his son William Henry called on Victoria to inquire if she had certain letters in her possession that might create problems for the family. She played her last card pretty well, ending up with a thousand dollars (about $24,000 in today’s currency) for her and Tennie, enough to get them started on a life in a new place. They set sail for Southampton and both finished their lives in England.

According to Wikipedia, “She made her first public appearance as a lecturer at St. James Hall in London on December 4, 1877. Her lecture was called "The Human Body, the Temple of God," a lecture which she had previously presented in the United States. Present at one of her lectures was the banker John Biddulph Martin. They began to see each other and married on October 31, 1883. His family disapproved of the union.”

Her sister Tennie married Francis Cook, chairman of Cook and Son drapers, and also Viscount of Monserrate in Sintra on the Portuguese Riviera. Claflin was correctly known "Lady Cook", and in Portugal was also Viscountess of Monserrate. She lived a long and happy life from then on.

Victoria never gained the presidency, but by her unique gifts and tenacity she overcame incredible odds to rise from a childhood of impossible anguish to heights a lesser person might not even imagine.

Much of this information comes from the book OTHER POWERS, by Barbara Goldsmith; and from THE SCARLET SISTERS, by Myra MacPherson.




Friday, May 8, 2020

Working Women


The Road to Equal Rights Required Strength

  

Reform was in the air in the mid-1800s. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony responded, both espousing support for abolishing slavery, and Elizabeth also for the rights of women. Elizabeth had befriended the Quaker progressive Lucretia Mott, and went to hear her speak in public, a privilege heretofore afforded only to men.

  "When I first her from her lips that I had the same right to think for myself that Luther, Calvin, and John Knox had, and the same right to be guided by my own convictions, I felt a new born sense of dignity and freedom," Mrs. Stanton said of Mrs. Mott. Conversations between them bolstered her confidence and set her on her path toward leadership of other women. The idea of a big Women's Rights Convention was hatched in 1840 but it was not until 1848 that it came to fruition. in a meeting that brought together women and men in the cause. Elizabeth and a committee of like-minded women drafted a document they called the "Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions," which contained a section advocating for the right to vote, a radical idea that even her husband objected to. He made sure to leave the area when the convention happened, and her father, a judge in the Upstate New York town of Jonestown came down to Seneca Falls to see if she had lost her mind.

The convention was attended by 300 men and women and 68 women ad 32 men signed the Declaration, including the formidable Frederick Douglass, a free man of color who fought for women's rights as well as for the abolition of slavery. Douglass had befriended Elizabeth and her husband Henry in the cause of abolition, and he also became a supporter of women's rights, including that of suffrage.

A few years later Elizabeth Cady Stanton was to meet her lifelong compatriot and partner in battle, Susan B. Anthony. Susan came from Rochester, NY, where she was active in the temperance movement as well as the anti-slave movement. There was always a close connection between the cause of women's rights and the cause of civil rights for the black race--the more the women gathered at abolition meetings, the more they came to realize that symbolically at least they were slaves too. They did not have the right to own property (and if a woman inherited money or land, it was automatically transferred to her husband's name), to attend universities, or to participate in the political process, including the right to vote. Stanton and Anthony were a powerful duo, both as speakers and organizers. They wrote newsletters and traveled across the country giving lectures when lectures were a popular form of diversion and education. They worked together for years, forming a close friendship, even though there were many periods of time when they disagreed on a crucial topic and didn't communicate with each other for years.

In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting and was put in jail, which was what she wanted--as a way of publicizing the cause. She never married but put all her energy into the women's rights movement, while Stanton stayed married and was the mother of seven. Stanton had the charm, the writing talent, and both shared the wholehearted commitment to the movement. They both were adept at public speaking, but basically Susan did the organizing, and often came up with ideas she asked Elizabeth to write about. Throughout their work together they both often felt on the verge of seeing suffrage for women made into law, through a Constitutional amendment. They threw themselves into lobbying for the 14th amendment, about to pass, include a woman's right to vote as well as that of black freed slaves. This was not to be in their lifetimes, but they carved a niche for it, all the while thinking a victory was at hand.

Uptight and Victorian as the 19th century was, it did spawn generations of offbeat characters, and Elizabeth and Susan encountered any number of them in their journey to liberate women. One was an almost-forgotten flamboyant young man named George Francis Train, who had a ton of money and liked to wear outrageous clothes. Train traveled with them and appeared on the lecture circuit, espousing the liberation of women but spewing racist comments at the same time. He funded a feminist newsletter, Revolution, which Elizabeth edited. She and Susan found his anti-abolition rhetoric harmless as long as he backed their principle cause, and he amused them until he didn't. He was rich and charming, but basically as charlatan and their friends thought him insane. Another con artist who beguiled multitudes and won Elizabeth and Susan's admiration for a time was the fascinating Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who deserves a special place in the history of women's rights. She had a checkered career, at last forming her own political party and running for president of the United States in 1872. I'll post about her in my next entry. 

If you're interested in reading more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I recommend In Her Own Right, by Elizabeth Griffith and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony by Penny Colman. Victoria Woodhull is the subject of many books too, but the best of them is Other Powers, by Barbara Goldsmith.


Saturday, May 2, 2020

Wonder Woman

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1904
Ideas are like people, they come and they go, and sometimes an extraordinary idea takes an extraordinary person to embrace, embody, and articulate it. Such was the case for the idea of equality of the sexes, and such was the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

She was one of eleven children (eight surviving) in the days of large families--in Jonestown, New York. Her mother, statuesque and queenly, was an enigma to young Elizabeth, a bright child who apparently was born wanting to break boundaries. Her father was a judge in Upstate New York at the beginning of an era of revolution and reform. He spotted considerable intellect in his daughter and educated her himself, telling her he wished, with her remarkable brain, that she had been born a boy. She graduated from Jonestown Academy in the days before women were allowed admittance to universities. She had a neighbor who taught her Greek, a brother-in-law who taught her the equestrian arts, and law students of her father's to teach her to debate. After graduating from Emma Willard's Seminary for Women in Troy,  she continued to read omniverously and take classes. She read her father's law books and questioned him relentlessly about why the law favored the male sex exclusively. He had, of course, no answer, but he saw the rightness of her arguments and probably saw a wave of rebellion in her eyes.

After a brief foray into the Great Troy [religious] Revival in her teen years, Elizabeth settled into a rational view of religion. She combined the fervor of revivalist Charles Grandison Finney with the reformist mood of the times and questioned the hold religion had on society and the role it afforded women in particular. She spent a good deal of her time thinking about religious matters and decided that “…all religions on the face of the earth degrade her [women], and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible," Elizabeth later wrote in her book The Women's Bible.  She came to believe the natural course of studying theology would result in rejecting religion altogether, as she felt religion itself simply a delusion. But she continued to ponder and write about it until her last years.

Elizabeth was pretty and petite when she was young, and always brilliant and brimming with ideas and personality.  As she reached what was considered the marriageable age, she apparently fell in love with her sister's husband, who was a mentor to her and a guide in her self-propelled studies. The two knew their relationship was unwise at best--and, both smitten, they thought better of it and he and his wife removed themselves from the scene and moved to another city. She decided to marry Henry Stanton, an attractive man with a bright future in the law and in politics. Elizabeth asked that the minister remove the phrase "promise to obey" from the wedding vows, whom she had met through her work on the Abolitionist Movement . Henry was ambitious and shared many of her political passions, however, he never supported the cause of women's suffrage. His focus was on abolition and a place for himself in politics. He was impressed with Elizabeth and felt she could be steered away from the life as a belle she was entering. He sought to influence her to be his partner in the cause of the emancipation of slaves, but he did not comprehend or embrace the cause of women's rights. Elizabeth was in love with the handsome, eloquent, and serious fellow, and she looked forward to marriage as a shared adventure for two independent adults. He was ten years older, and she was just 23. She would find a life with him different from what she anticipated.

Shortly after the marriage, both she and Henry were elected as delegates to the World Anti-Slavery convention in London. When couples gathered in London, Elizabeth met, among other American women in the delegation, the formidable Lucretia Mott, a Quaker abolitionist who would join her in the fight for women's suffrage in future years. The most exciting controversy at this convention was that of the eligibility of women to be seated in the hall. They were not considered to be serious delegates and it was said that seating them would be--ahem--promiscuous and inappropriate. Henry made a stirring speech in support of seating the women, but it is generally thought he voted against it when the time came. The convention did little to promote anything to do with abolition of slavery, but it was important because it brought Elizabeth Cady Stanton in touch with Lucretia Mott, and launched her into the burgeoning women's rights movement.

Mrs. Mott was 22 years older than Elizabeth, a practiced speaker in the days when women were not thought to be proper public speakers. She got her experience in the Quaker church, which was ahead of the world in all areas of human rights, and she was in the vanguard of the movement toward woman's suffrage. She was a Quaker minister, an abolitionist, and a feminist. She always dressed and spoke in the modest Quaker mode, but in her heart she came to rebel against the orthodoxy of the sect. Elizabeth found her "a peerless woman," and stated, "...my soul finds great delight in her society." Together in London they not only attended the convention sessions, but also went shopping together, inspected schools and prisons and found time for sightseeing. In a letter, Elizabeth later wrote, "Wherever our party went, I took possession of Lucretia, much to Henry's vexation."

Elizabeth's gifts were many, but perhaps her superpower was her stamina. She was to live a long and rich life, and to get into and out of many scrapes and remain optimistic in spite of many setbacks and outright blunder on her part. I'll deal with some of those in the next entry, but so far I hope I've piqued your interest in one of the fascinating and charming American women in the history of this or any other country. Hold onto your hat.