By James A. Haught
This is the thirteenth segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.
The struggle for women’s rights in America was launched largely by one brilliant, determined activist who waged the battle for a half-century.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was born in Johnstown, New York, and raised in a climate of religious severity. She was gifted, but few schools of the early 1800s admitted females; so Elizabeth’s father, a judge, arranged for her to attend male-only Johnstown Academy, where she won second prize in Greek. Since no degree-granting colleges were then open to women, she attended Emma Willard’s academy at Troy, New York. Studying law with her father, Elizabeth was outraged by the many laws denying women the right to own property or control their lives. Her study could not lead to a career, because women were forbidden to practice law.
Denied access to other fields, Stanton became active in the abolition and temperance movements. She married an abolitionist lawyer in 1840 and accompanied him to London to a world conference against slavery. Women delegates were refused recognition, however: renowned clergymen contended that the will of God forbade their participation. But the convention allowed the two American women attending, Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to sit behind a curtain and hear the proceedings, without speaking. This experience bonded them in a determination to fight for equality for women.
Back in America, they called an 1848 conference that marked the start of the modern women’s movement. Stanton sought the right to vote, as the key to other rights. Mott felt this demand was too drastic, but Frederick Douglass exhorted both delegates to pass a suffrage resolution.
Three years later, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian social activist, and they became a team crusading tirelessly for women’s rights through the last half of the nineteenth century. They were joined by fellow Unitarians Lucy Stone and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other reformers. The advocates met scorn, ridicule, threats and even violence, but never ceased their speeches, writings, meetings and court challenges.
As she struggled for equal rights, Stanton often scoffed at supernaturalism and called religion a millstone around the necks of women.
Stanton had seven children and a happy home life. She died eighteen years before America finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, allowing women to vote.
Stanton’s views on religion
“The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with the superstitions of the Christian religion.” – Eighty Years and More, 1898, p. 26
“I found nothing grand in the history of the Jews nor in the morals inculcated in the Pentateuch. I know of no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of women.” – ibid., p. 395
“How anyone, in view of the protracted sufferings of the race, can invest the laws of the universe with a tender loving fatherly intelligence, watching, guiding and protecting humanity, is to me amazing.” – letter to Henry Stanton, Aug. 2, 1880
“The religious superstitions of women perpetuate their bondage more than all other adverse influences.” – Be Reasonable: Selected Quotations for Inquiring Minds, Prometheus Books, 1994
“The Bible and Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.” – Free Thought magazine, September 1896
“The whole tone of church teaching in regard to women is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading.” – ibid., November 1896
“To no form of religion is woman indebted for one impulse of freedom, as all alike have taught her inferiority and subjection.” – Women of Freethought calendar, 1993, Carole Gray
“I have been into many of the ancient cathedrals – grand, wonderful, mysterious. But I always leave them with a feeling of indignation because of the generations of human beings who have struggled in poverty to build these altars to an unknown god.” – from her diary
“When women understand that governments and religions are human inventions; that bibles, prayer-books, catechisms and encyclical letters are all emanations from the brain of man, they will no longer be oppressed by the injunctions that come to them with the divine authority of ‘thus saith the Lord.’ ” – Great Infidels, by Thomas Vernon
“All through the centuries, scholars and scientists have been imprisoned, tortured and burned alive for some discovery which seemed to conflict with a petty text of Scripture. Surely the immutable laws of the universe can teach more impressive and exalted lessons than the holy books of all the religions on earth.” – ibid.
“I can truly say that all the cares and anxieties, the trials and disappointments of my whole life, are light, when balanced with my sufferings in childhood and youth from the theological dogmas which I sincerely believed, and the gloom connected with everything associated with the name of religion.” – ibid.
“Out of the doctrine of original sin grew the crimes and miseries of asceticism, celibacy and witchcraft; woman becoming the helpless victim of all these delusions.” – The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations, Charles Bufe
“Throughout this protracted and disgraceful assault on American womanhood, the clergy baptized each new insult and act of injustice in the name of the Christian religion.” – a statement “for the betterment of woman” signed by Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Gage
“How can any woman believe that a loving and merciful God would, in one breath, command Eve to multiply and replenish the earth, and in the next, pronounce a curse upon her maternity? I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code, or gave out the laws about women which he is accused of doing.” – What Great Men Think of Religion, by Ira Cardiff
“The Bible contains some of the most sublime passages in English literature, but is also full of contradictions, inconsistencies and absurdities.” – ibid.
“The Christian church has throughout the ages used its influence in opposition to the freedom of woman.” – ibid.
“All the men of the Old Testament were polygamists, and Christ and Paul, the central figures of the New Testament, were celibates, and condemned marriage by both precept and example.” – ibid.
“Every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman. Man himself could not do this; but when he declares, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ of course he can do it.” – quoted by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in Women and Atheism
“Only those who have lived all their lives under the dark clouds of vague, undefined fears can appreciate the joy of a doubting soul suddenly born into the kingdom of reason and free thought. Is the bondage of the priest-ridden less galling than that of the slave, because we do not see the chains, the indelible scars, the festering wounds, the deep degradation of all the powers of the God-like mind?” – ibid.
“The real difficulty in woman’s case is that the whole foundation of the Christian religion rests on her temptation and man’s fall.” – Views of Religion, by Rufus Noyes
“Through theological superstitions, woman finds her most grievous bondage.” – ibid.
“Among the clergy we find our most violent enemies, those most opposed to any change in woman’s position.” – ibid.
“I decline to accept Hebrew mythology as a guide to twentieth-century science.” – ibid.