Much of America as we know it evolved in the 19th century, as we'll explore in a series of three conversations this week with writers who seek out new ways to understand old events.
In 1979, 19th-century activist Susan B. Anthony became the first woman to appear on a circulating United States coin. Anthony is remembered for her work in fighting for women's right to vote, but it was her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton who actually launched the women's rights movement. She, however, never got a coin.
"If she wanted a career where she ended up on a coin and [would be] remembered for accomplishing a particular goal, then, yes, we can say she sabotaged herself," historian Lori Ginzberg tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
Ginzberg, the author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life, says that although Stanton is well-known for her involvement in the women's rights movement, she often got in the way of that cause by prioritizing the concerns of middle-class, white women over others.
Ginzberg says that prioritization has had lasting effects on the way we think about feminism and identity politics today.
On the women Elizabeth Cady Stanton really fought for
"She certainly claimed that she fought for the rights of all women. She fought to end the barriers that denied America citizens their rights purely on the basis of sex, and she demanded rights that not one of us would be willing to give up. I mean, she demanded — in the true liberal tradition — access to the mainstream of American society in terms of professions, education, law, politics, property and so on. But when she said 'women,' I think ... that she primarily had in mind women much like herself: white, middle-class, culturally if not religiously protestant, propertied, well-educated. And my disagreement with Stanton is that she ... came to see women like herself as more deserving of rights than other people."
On the post-Civil War fight over the 15th Amendment
"In the post-Civil War period, when there was a battle among abolitionists — of which Stanton counted herself — between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans, Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal human rights for all and — historians have argued about this ever since — not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men. ... African-American men were [eventually] granted the rights of citizens, and African-American women, of course, weren't.
On losing the moral high ground in the fight for "universal human rights"
"[Stanton] didn't just stand on the moral high ground. She also descended to some rather ugly racist rhetoric along the lines of, 'We educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.' ... She talked about how much worse black men would be as voters than the white women about whom she was concerned, and she was really quite dismissive of black women's claims. ... There were some comments about, 'What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?' She has one, I think, inexplicable comment about black women [finding] an even worse slavery under black men than they did under their former white slave owners.
"That's why when people talk about Stanton and women's rights and her devotion to women, my first question is always, 'Which women? What are the issues here? Which women are we talking about? Whose concerns are going to take priority?' And then, along the way, and this is where my disagreement with Stanton is strongest: Whose rights are you going to put down in the process of demanding your own?"
On the dangers of declaring "the women's rights issues of an age"
"I think that there [are] modern implications to this. I mean, I think that Stanton helped create a rhetoric or a political ideology where when we say women — and often when the media says women — in terms of feminist goals, we think middle-class, white women. It's never been the case that the contemporary women's movement was all white or middle class. This kind of arrogance in assuming that you can declare which are the women's rights issues of an age has always struck me as an ongoing problem.
"The obvious analogy that's been raised to me many times when I've spoken about this book is the one between, in the 2008 presidential primary, when Clinton and Obama were running against each other and there [were] a lot of people saying, 'Who should be president first? A woman or an African-American?' That's where I say it's a false dichotomy to continue to describe women's rights as represented by this white woman — I'm not saying that Clinton did that, but the media often did that — and black civil rights as represented by a black man. There's a more complicated way to talk about that."