David Sehat on National Women's History Month
Me: So while reading your chapter on the beginnings of the women’s rights movement, I was surprised to learn that there was actually a split in ideology when it came to religion…
Sehat: Exactly. The women’s movement was not monolithic. Henry Ward Beecher, who was the most famous preacher in the last half of the nineteenth century, was in the branch that thought that God had created women to be more inherently moral. So women needed the vote and greater participation in public life in order to increase the moral tone of public life. Beecher thought that women were crucial to upholding communal moral standards.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on the other hand, believed that the notion of women’s inherent moral superiority was a ruse to keep them isolated and in the home. She thought it excused a lot of philandering on the part of men (because their moral deviance didn’t matter as much as women’s). She concluded that women needed first to be seen as individuals, rather than matrons or mothers or ciphers of morality to society at large, in order to reform society in a just way.
Me: Which is why she also took on marriage?
Sehat: Right. She thought marriage law was the linchpin that held together Christian patriarchy. When a woman married, she lost control of nearly everything when women surrendered her legal identity and then couldn’t get out of the marriage because it would upset society’s morals.