Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law A number of feminist scholars have mined the wealth of primary sources on the life and work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with magnificent results. While such works differ in their approaches and conclusions regarding her strategies and ideas, virtually all have demonstrated the richness and breadth of Stanton´s contributions and her recognition that radical change would be necessary if women were to assume their rightful place as fully participating members of society. Using an innovative approach, Tracy A. Thomas has made an important contribution to the studies of Stanton. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law, she has reorganized much of the extant material on Stanton's history and feminism and integrated it with her analysis of the development of family law in the nineteenth century. Structured around five major strands of family law: married women's property rights, the institution of marriage, divorce, the right of sexual refusal, and maternal rights, Thomas's study underlines the extent to which Stanton demanded radical change in the legal institutions that perpetuated the subordination of women, reaching into the most intimate relations between married couples. In many ways Thomas's work is superb, especially insofar as it highlights so systematically Stanton's astute analysis of the patriarchal legal tradition and her resolute efforts to obliterate it. Be that as it may, I have concerns with the work. First, Thomas exaggerates the extent to which Stanton was a de facto lawyer. She worked for her father and spent time with his apprentices, no doubt learning much about the law that was denied to most women of her day. Despite her brilliance, the lack of educational opportunities for women left her far outside the boundaries of the legal profession. Second, at least one of Thomas's arguments lacks coherence and, thus, remains unconvincing. She claims that “Stanton's theories on marriage and the family were not an evolution of thought over fifty years as they were a persistent application of her theories that repeated even as they developed” (p. 35, emphasis added). Does the author mean to suggest that Stanton's ideas developed but did not evolve? In the same paragraph Thomas asserts, “Stanton tailored her thoughts to the evolving social and political context” (ibid.). If the context evolves, does it not stand to reason that her ideas would reflect such changes? Third, Thomas avers that Stanton's “universalizing of women has been criticized by modern feminist scholars” (p. 28). In a footnote, she cites several sources to support such a claim: the first is Sue Davis's The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (2008, p. 249n108). This struck me as not quite correct, so I checked the source and failed to find any such criticism of Stanton's feminism. When I turned to Thomas's second source, Angela P. Harris's “Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory” (Stanford Law Review, vol. 42, 1989–1990, pp. 581–616), I found no mention of Stanton. I would like to hear more about the claim that she universalized women and the objections to it. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax475
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

A number of feminist scholars have mined the wealth of primary sources on the life and work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with magnificent results. While such works differ in their approaches and conclusions regarding her strategies and ideas, virtually all have demonstrated the richness and breadth of Stanton´s contributions and her recognition that radical change would be necessary if women were to assume their rightful place as fully participating members of society. Using an innovative approach, Tracy A. Thomas has made an important contribution to the studies of Stanton. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law, she has reorganized much of the extant material on Stanton's history and feminism and integrated it with her analysis of the development of family law in the nineteenth century. Structured around five major strands of family law: married women's property rights, the institution of marriage, divorce, the right of sexual refusal, and maternal rights, Thomas's study underlines the extent to which Stanton demanded radical change in the legal institutions that perpetuated the subordination of women, reaching into the most intimate relations between married couples. In many ways Thomas's work is superb, especially insofar as it highlights so systematically Stanton's astute analysis of the patriarchal legal tradition and her resolute efforts to obliterate it. Be that as it may, I have concerns with the work. First, Thomas exaggerates the extent to which Stanton was a de facto lawyer. She worked for her father and spent time with his apprentices, no doubt learning much about the law that was denied to most women of her day. Despite her brilliance, the lack of educational opportunities for women left her far outside the boundaries of the legal profession. Second, at least one of Thomas's arguments lacks coherence and, thus, remains unconvincing. She claims that “Stanton's theories on marriage and the family were not an evolution of thought over fifty years as they were a persistent application of her theories that repeated even as they developed” (p. 35, emphasis added). Does the author mean to suggest that Stanton's ideas developed but did not evolve? In the same paragraph Thomas asserts, “Stanton tailored her thoughts to the evolving social and political context” (ibid.). If the context evolves, does it not stand to reason that her ideas would reflect such changes? Third, Thomas avers that Stanton's “universalizing of women has been criticized by modern feminist scholars” (p. 28). In a footnote, she cites several sources to support such a claim: the first is Sue Davis's The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (2008, p. 249n108). This struck me as not quite correct, so I checked the source and failed to find any such criticism of Stanton's feminism. When I turned to Thomas's second source, Angela P. Harris's “Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory” (Stanford Law Review, vol. 42, 1989–1990, pp. 581–616), I found no mention of Stanton. I would like to hear more about the claim that she universalized women and the objections to it. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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