On Writing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Originally published: “Get to the Point,” a blog from Macmillan, May 2, 2011

Fittingly, I think, the idea to write a book about a friendship originated during lunch in 2006 with Christy Ottaviano, my longtime editor, who is also a friend. We had just wrapped up our negotiations for my social history, Thanksgiving: The True Story, (Holt 2008), and Christy wanted to celebrate. It turned out, she also wanted to me to write a biography. We tossed around names, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and parted with the understanding that I would continue brainstorming ideas.

I did consider other subjects, but kept coming back to short, rotund, vivacious Elizabeth, a scintillating thinker, prolifically influential writer, fearless orator, and the married mother of seven children, and tall, angular, austere Susan, an indefatigable doer, an organizer and planner extraordinaire, principled pragmatist, and an unmarried former teacher. In particular I was intrigued by their fascinating friendship that fueled their fierce fight for women’s rights, a fight they relentlessly waged despite fierce opposition, daunting conditions, scandalous entanglements, and betrayal by their friends.

Their friendship lasted fifty-one years, and, as Susan once wrote they were “busy through every one of them stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women.” They didn’t always agree, and, at times, they were at odds. Nevertheless, Elizabeth once wrote, “Nothing that Susan could say or do could break my friendship with her and I know nothing could uproot her affection for me.”

They met in 1851 when Elizabeth was thirty-five years old and Susan was thirty-one years old. Of course, that is where I could have started their story. But I was curious about the differences and similarities in how they grew up. That meant I had to decided how to write about the years before they met. Should I write one chapter in which I compared and contrasted their early experiences? Should I write two chapters, one covering Elizabeth’s life and the other Susan’s until they met? I spent weeks working through this decision. Then, one day, as I was studying the parallel timelines I had written on a long sheet of paper taped to a wall, I realized that the same four time periods encompassed significant events in the years from their birth (Elizabeth in 1815 and Susan in 1820) until they met in 1851. That insight enabled me to write Part I with eight alternating chapters that focused on one and then the other. For example:

Chapter I “Ah, You Should Have Been a Boy!”
ELIZABETH CADY: 1815-1832

Chapter 2 “An Affectionate Family”
SUSAN B. ANTHONY: 1820-1832.

The years from their meeting through the Civil War appear in Part II. What Elizabeth called the “dark hour of woman’s struggle” is covered in Part III. Their final years, in which they go from ridicule to reverence, ostracism to embrace, are examined in Part IV.

To do my research, I traveled to libraries, archives, historical societies, sites, and museums. I surveyed online sources, including “Susan B. Anthony: Celebrating ‘A Heroic Life’” http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=4119; and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust: http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/index.html. I talked with knowledgeable people, including Coline Jenkins, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great, great granddaughter. In July 2008, I undertook a three-day, 880 – mile road trip for a first hand look at sites in New York that I was writing about, including Battenville where Susan’s childhood home still stands and Johnstown, the site of Elizabeth’s birthplace. I arrived in Seneca Falls in time for the celebration of the 160th Anniversary of the First Woman’s Rights Convention, which Elizabeth had spearheaded in 1848 http://www.nps.gov/wori/index.htm. She met Susan three years later when Amelia Bloomer, a mutual friend, introduced them. The momentous event is commemorated by “When Anthony Met Stanton, a memorial in Seneca Falls sculpted by Ted Aud, which shows Susan and Elizabeth being introduced by their mutual friend Amelia Bloomer.

Immersing myself in their places is one of the ways, I brought Elizabeth and Susan to life for me, and, of course, I hope for everyone who reads Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World.

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