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Tracing a 'passion for equality'

Insights into a feminist founder

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton
By Vivian Gornick
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 135 pp., $17

In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with her husband, Henry, and other members of the American delegation, sailed to London to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention. But when they arrived, the progressive men running the convention denied women delegates full admission. Women were allowed to watch the proceedings from a balcony, but not to speak or participate. For Stanton, the moment was a conversion experience, a fiery awakening to her existential position as a woman, and her lifelong dedication to women's equality. ''How thoroughly humiliating it was to us!" she recalled in a letter to Susan B. Anthony. ''Men and angels, give me patience. I am at the boiling point."

In this brief, intense meditation on Stanton's place in the history of feminism, Vivian Gornick argues that Stanton was the ''American visionary thinker of the nineteenth century equal in intellectual stature" to Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir. She traces Stanton's career as the leader, with Anthony, of the radical wing of the American suffrage movement; her uncompromising insistence on universal suffrage or nothing, including votes for African-American men; and especially her understanding of woman's individuality, self-reliance, and even loneliness. A tireless campaigner for women's rights, despite her own large family, and a gifted writer, Stanton also had the intellectual confidence to critique or even rewrite patriarchal texts that excluded women, from the Declaration of Independence to the Bible.

Gornick wrests bold lessons from Stanton's writings on such topics as the radical personality, the quintessentially American nature of feminism, and the ''passion for equality" that drove Stanton and her feminist descendants of the 1970s. Her claims for Stanton are large and provocative. She sees in her commitment to abolitionism a parallel to Wollstonecraft's Enlightenment philosophy and Beauvoir's existentialism, and argues that every important American radical feminist of the 19th century came out of the abolitionist movement.

Here I would disagree. Certainly Stanton was a fiery activist and a pungent writer; certainly she grasped the full dimensions of women's condition. But there are other candidates I would place ahead of her as intellectuals and visionaries. Margaret Fuller, who wrote about Wollstonecraft in her feminist manifesto, ''Woman in the Nineteenth Century" (1845), owed her intellectual formation to New England Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement rather than a political one. Fuller's revolutionary fervor equaled Stanton's, but she defined herself primarily as a thinker and writer. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose fascination with Darwin and evolutionary science provided the basis for her writings on women and gender, was also a tireless lecturer, but her influence extended well beyond the suffrage movement, and her thoughts on social arrangements were more innovative and practical than Stanton's. Overall, Stanton was less an intellectual and visionary than a professional radical, even what Gornick calls ''a radical among radicals."

In another bold claim, Gornick describes Stanton's political awakening as the discovery of an inborn radicalism: ''Those destined for a life of professional radicalism experience themselves in exactly the same way as does the artist or scientist," and when such beings realize that they have a gift, they keep looking for causes to excite and energize it.

Finally, Gornick sees the feminist tradition as profoundly American. In her essay ''The Solitude of Self" (1892), Stanton celebrated woman's essential solitude and independence. Similarly, Gornick suggests, American dissidents were able to draw on self-reliance rather than solidarity to break free of family and tradition and forge new lives.

Stanton's career illuminates the process by which other generations of feminists truly began to think. Feminism ''made philosophical human beings out of countless women who might not otherwise have held so high a regard for the virtue of seeing things whole." By recalling those revolutionary days of the 1840s and the 1970s when understanding feminism was ''like being struck by religious lightning," Gornick has generated a wide range of significant questions. Her book opens up controversial questions with which others may disagree, but always in the interests of intellectual excitement.

Elaine Showalter is a literary critic and professor emeritus of English at Princeton University.

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