Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and Susan B. Anthony’s Proverbial Rhetoric Promoting Women’s Rights
1. “These are the times that try women’s souls”
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The American nineteenth century is marked by a series of significant cultural, political, and social upheavals, among them the charged problem of slavery, the devastating Civil War resulting from it, and the demand by women for equal rights. Abolitionists like Theodore Parker (1810–1860) and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) as well as President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) remain heroic figures to this day for their struggle to rid the nation of the inhumane institution of slavery while at the same time trying to keep the young political union in tact. Their powerful declarations, speeches, essays, and letters are lasting examples of their deep-rooted commitment to basic human decency and compassion, and they most certainly rose to unsurpassed rhetorical heights in their sociopolitical discourse. This communicative prowess was to a considerable degree informed by their effective employment of folk speech in the form of proverbs and proverbial expressions that rendered their important messages not only accessible to the general public but also charged them with emotional expressiveness (Mieder 2000 and 2001). While their proverbial rhetoric has been studied in considerable detail—something that is also true for later male orators as for example Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), Martin Luther King (1929–1968), and Barack Obama (born 1961)—no detailed investigations of the proverbial speech of female reformers and politicians have been undertaken (Mieder and Bryan 1997, Mieder 2009 and 2010a). And yet, even a cursory glance at the letters, speeches, ← 1 | 2 → and essays of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) clearly reveals that these two nineteenth-century feminists are any time the equals of the male political giants when it comes to the employment of proverbial language during the fifty years of their unceasing, emotive, and aggressive struggle for women’s rights. Of course, they have been praised for their masterful use of the multifaceted English language, but their rather obvious reliance on folk speech in general and proverbs and proverbial expressions in particular has basically received no attention by linguists, cultural historians, folklorists, and paremiologists (proverb scholars). The many biographies and studies about both Stanton and Anthony go into great detail about their fascinating lives and their progressive sociopolitical causes as they relate to women, but for the most part they fail in analyzing how their fight for abolition, temperance, gender equality, and women suffrage in particular was verbalized in such a way that their messages effected social change over time (O’Connor 1954). In other words, it is one thing to scrutinize what these two effective orators and essayists said in the cause of civil and women’s rights, but it is also of significance to analyze how they used what aspects of language to bring their message across. Just as Abigail Adams (1744–1818)—an early American feminist without a political voice—employed proverbs and proverbial phrases to argue for women’s rights in her plethora of letters to her family and many friends (Mieder 2005: 56–89), so did Stanton and Anthony also rely on Biblical and folk proverbs to make their relentless case for the equality of men and women before the law and in social interaction.
The neglect of noticing the proverbial nature of Stanton’s and Anthony’s language is also apparent in Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s otherwise superb two-volume study Man Cannot Speak for Her (1989a) that presents and analyzes nineteenth-century female rhetoric as it was practiced by them and some of their significant contemporaries in the struggle for women’s rights. In her informative introduction Campbell points out that “men have an ancient and honorable rhetorical history” dating back to ancient Greece and classical Rome, while “women have no parallel rhetorical history” since “for much of their history women have been prohibited from speaking” especially in the public arena (Campbell 1989a: I, 1). She defines rhetoric as “the study of the means by which symbols can be used to appeal to others, to persuade. The potential for persuasion exists in the shared symbolic and socioeconomic experience of persuaders (rhetors) and audiences [as well as readers]; specific rhetorical acts attempt to exploit that shared experience and channel it in certain directions” (Campbell 1989a: I, 2). And she goes on to state that rhetorical analysis has focused on “the rhetor’s skill in selecting and adapting those resources available ← 2 | 3 → in language, in cultural values, and in shared experience in order to influence others” (Campbell 1989a: I, 2). This makes perfect sense, but those linguistic resources available to women are exactly the aspects that have not been looked at in detail by scholars interested in the feminist movement over time. To be sure, Campbell even speaks of a “feminine style” of the suffragists, whose “discourse will be personal in tone, relying heavily on personal experience, anecdotes, and other examples. It will tend to be structured inductively (crafts are learned bit by bit, instance by instance, from which generalizations emerge). […] The goal of such rhetoric is empowerment, a term contemporary feminists have used to refer to the process of persuading listeners [or readers] that they can act effectively in the world, that they can be agents of change” (Campbell 1989a: I, 13). As will be seen, proverbs as generalizations of human behavior and expressions of social norms will add considerable weight to the “rhetorical creativity” (Campbell 1989a: I, 15) of feminists, and it is surprising that the vast scholarship on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in particular has not stressed this invaluable aspect of the rhetoric of the women’s rights movement (see Fuss 1989). As will be shown, the partial justification of referring to Stanton and Anthony as “rhetorical giants” (Campbell 1989b: 212) is due to their incredibly effective use and innovative manipulation of proverbial wisdom and proverbial metaphors in the service of feminist rhetoric.
Naturally there are studies that have looked at the language of Stanton and Anthony in some detail, to wit Beth M. Waggenspack’s valuable book The Search for Self-Sovereignty. The Oratory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1989) that by necessity also comments on Susan B. Anthony’s oratorical strengths. It has long become a commonplace to refer to these two feminists as two sides of the same coin or, proverbially expressed, as two peas in the same pod. In other words, the following remarks about Stanton’s rhetorical style are also pretty well applicable to Anthony’s deliberate use of language:
The addresses and essays [also the letters!] displayed a wide range of rhetorical strategies. Cady Stanton was especially adept in using extensive testimony and precedent, vivid imagery, extended metaphor and analogy, humor and irony. She structured her speeches with precision and utilized the logical argumentation skills she learned in her father’s law office. She gently, but sometimes sarcastically, juxtaposed truth and reality with false beliefs by citing examples of the conditions woman was forced to endure. Cady Stanton displayed a unique ability to draw from wide-ranging sources in legal, religious, political, and literary arenas. She developed compelling narratives replete with imagery that evoked emotions ranging from despair to elation. According to contemporary sources, she was reported to be a confident and serene speaker, self-assured and motherly on the platform. In fact, she was one of the more popular female orators of her day. (Waggenspack 1989: 91)
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This is indeed a fitting characteristic of Stanton that to a lesser degree fits Anthony as well, the latter being for the most part the lesser master of the written and spoken word. Nevertheless, if is surprising that when Waggenspack speaks of imagery and metaphor that proverbs do not appear on her linguistic radar screen.
This unfortunate lack of recognition of their proverbial language is even more surprising when one considers the theoretical underpinnings of so-called “rhetorical biographies” which so many books on the two feminists claim to be:
The rhetorical biography focuses not on the details of an advocate’s life, but rather on how he or she characteristically employed strategic language in addressing specific audiences [and readers]. According to Carl Burgchardt, the rhetorical biography focuses not so much on a person as on his or her language, “understanding its persuasive purpose, the social and political contexts that called it forth, and its influence on society.” In short, rhetorical biographies emphasize the “creation, transmission, and reception of persuasive, public discourse.” They are concerned with the “creation and consequences of ideas manifested in arguments, metaphors, images, and strategies.” (Strange 1998: 18)
And John Bowers and Donavan Ochs state in their co-authored book on The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control (1971) that “the tactics in the strategy [of solidification among members of a group of agitators] include plays, songs, slogans, expressive and esoteric symbols, and in-group publications” (1971: 20). All of this fits the modus operandi of the feminists of the nineteenth century, but when scholars speak of images, metaphors, symbols, and slogans, they ought to consider proverbs as well, for they are verbal signs or strategies for dealing with recurrent social situations (see Burke 1941: 256, Mieder 2004: 8 and 133–134). Since Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were fighting against traditional social norms, it follows quite logically that they would look critically at proverbial wisdom.
Of course, both women were such extraordinary human beings that the proverbial style of their recorded words could be overseen or pushed aside. This is not the place to review their incredibly engaged lives as social reformers. The numerous biographies tell their amazing stories in great detail. Instead of recounting their complex biographies, it must suffice here to cite a few telling paragraphs from informed sources to present a cursory image of two unique women who shaped the women’s rights movement during the nineteenth century and who continue to be held in highest esteem by modern feminists in particular and people in general.
Here then are a few telling paragraphs from books dealing with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life and accomplishments. The mentioning of persuasion, straightforwardness, propaganda, natural demeanor, metaphor, analogy, humor, and intellectual simplicity are all aspects that influenced Stanton to make use of expressive proverbial language:
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Cady Stanton’s central aim was to alter attitudes toward women. To serve this end, she turned particularly to oratory and journalism, forms of expression whose goals of enlightenment and persuasion are best served by simple argument without intellectual trappings. […] Independent by nature, with a childlike love of surprises, impatient of partial solutions and unable to tolerate delay, the political mode of moderation, compromise, and slow progress did not fit her. Rather she preferred to shock her colleagues, to stir them out of complacency, to arouse their passions through introducing issues they had not considered. (Banner 1980: 45 and 70)
Stanton wanted to take women’s rights into the homes and lives of the American people. She thrived in her self-made role as agitator and propagandist. […] She was perceived as maternal, dignified, and eminently respectable. Stanton was what she appeared to be. She was a gracious, good-humored, charming mother of seven. She was also a radical feminist. She shrewdly exploited her maternal identification to legitimize and camouflage her revolutionary vocation. (Griffith 1984: 162–163)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the great speakers and writers of the nineteenth century, but her rhetorical prowess has gone unrecognized […]. Her speeches were replete with metaphors, analogies, and descriptions, the rhetorical means by which ideas are embodied and made vivid and by which audience members are enabled to move from the known and familiar to the unknown and unfamiliar. […] Humor, frequently satirical, regularly appeared in her speeches. […] Her arguments were grounded in cherished cultural values, and her skill with metaphor, analogy, and humor brought her ideas vividly before our eyes. (Campbell1987: 340 and 345–346)
Her temperament was extreme: simple actually, but extreme. To all who ever knew her, the self-confidence was extraordinary. […] She had a sharp tongue—ironic, mocking, challenging—and her brains were unrelenting. She was not as loved as Susan Anthony because she was feared intellectually […]. She spoke and she wrote fully, freely, directly, without tact or political caution, engrossed only by where the argument was going, where her thought would come out. She did this because life on the intellectual barricades was, for her, the only real exhilaration. (Gornick 2007: 20–22 and 25)
A rather similar picture is drawn for her friend Susan B. Anthony in the following paragraphs, once again referring to characteristics that quite naturally brought about the employment of metaphorical language in the form of proverbs and proverbial expressions that added “pepper and spice” to her utterances and writings:
Men and women of the late nineteenth century may have been shocked to hear her call a spade a spade, but the wealth of statistical materials, coupled with innumerable examples of the social evils to which women of the period were being submitted, could not have failed to hold the audiences and must have sent them home with much to ponder over. (McDavitt 1944: 179; for the phrase “to call a spade a spade” turned slur, see Mieder 2002)
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Anthony clearly did not have Stanton’s rhetorical flare. Instead she gave straightforward, no-nonsense, direct speeches. She did not mince words but conveyed the message through the fiery passion of her convictions. […] Yet she was reachable; she spoke their own language. Her magnetism was precisely in her accessibility to working people; wives in particular identified with her as a common woman […]. (Barry 1988: 103–104)
Susan Brownell Anthony personified the quest for social and political reform in nineteenth-century America. […] Never fully comfortable with the demands of speech composition, Anthony normally spoke extemporaneously or from brief notes. She adapted readily to group discussion and impromptu speaking situations and was quite effective in welcoming delegates to conventions, describing the logistics of rallies, and offering appropriate remarks at public meetings. […] Anthony’s suffrage speeches reflected a strong reliance on logical argumentation. […] She also possessed wit and quickness of mind, as evident in her use of satire and sarcasm in refuting critics of the revolutionary doctrine that women should share equally with men in political rights. (Merriam 2007: 28–30 and 32)
First, she was an engaged leader who herded her troops toward their goals, most importantly toward a federal guarantee of women’s right to vote. […] Second and simultaneously, Susan B. Anthony was the most familiar symbol of the cause for which she advocated, useful to her allies and opponents alike in images ranging from sainthood to desiccation. […] She would always insist on her own equal rights, whether they were to enter public life, be contentedly single, speak out in a meeting, earn wages, debate political pundits, travel, or protest the arbitrary legal and political disabilities of her sex. But she taught women that equality was not simply a matter of choice; it required organization and mobilization in order to wield political power against their disabilities. (Gordon 2012: 201–202)
Advocating and teaching go hand in hand to a certain degree, and no wonder that Stanton and Anthony often saw themselves in the role of educating women in demanding their self-evident rights as equals of men. Since proverbs among other functions often take on a didactic function, it should thus not be surprising that they would call on them to add generational wisdom to their arguments. Of course, that is not to say that these forward-looking reformers did not also disagree with some of the traditional messages of proverbs! In other words, both Stanton and Anthony made use of proverbial language in whatever way it served their social reform purpose.
They were masterful rhetoricians and employed all registers of the English language, just as that great British orator Winston S. Churchill did in the following century. When Churchill was made an honorary citizen of the United States on April 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy described Churchill’s rhetorical grandeur with the following words: “In the dark days and darker nights when ← 6 | 7 → England stood alone—and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life—he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” (Mieder 1997: 66). The same could be said about these two untiring advocates of women’s rights. They mobilized the English language to battle social ills, with Susan B. Anthony on two occasions brilliantly describing her fifty years of fighting for the women’s cause with the anti-proverb “These are the times that try women’s souls” (SBA, Jan. 14, 1856; cited from Harper 1898–1908: I, 138–139; and SBA, III, 228; June 7, 1876). By simply replacing the word “men” in Thomas Paine’s proverbial statement “These are the times that try men’s souls” from 1776 with “women” (Shapiro 2006: 576), she was able to encompass the trials and tribulations of half of the population! And Elisabeth Cady Stanton performed a similar linguistic trick, when at the beginning of the women’s rights movement she changed the proverb “All men are created equal” to the inclusive “All men and women are created equal” (ECS, I, 78; July 19–20, 1848). That revolutionary declaration served as the proverbial motto in their dedicated struggle for equality of the sexes, and as will be seen throughout the pages of this book, proverbs and proverbial expressions played a major role in their constant struggle and lasting success.