19th Century woman paved way for modern rights for all women
Local author examines Stanton’s views on women’s equality, family issues
By LAURA FREEMAN Reporter Published: January 22, 2017 12:00 AM
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HUDSON — Modern women may have had their ideas about family and equality introduced by a 19th century woman.
Tracy A. Thomas, professor of law at the University of Akron School of Law for 18 years and the director of the Center for Constitutional Law, will discuss her new book, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law” at the Hudson Library & Historical Society Jan. 26 at 7 p.m.
The book examines Stanton’s views on women’s equality in marriage, divorce, domestic violence, childcare and other family issues.
Historians have written Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s biography, detailed her campaign for woman’s suffrage, documented her partnership with Susan B. Anthony and compiled all of her extensive writings and papers.
Stanton herself was a prolific author, including; her autobiography, “History of Woman Suffrage” and “Woman’s Bible.” Despite Stanton’s body of work, scholars and feminists continue to find new and insightful ways to re-examine Stanton and her impact on women’s rights and history.
But for a time Stanton’s writings were omitted from the women’s rights movement.
When Thomas heard of a reference about Stanton in family law and looked it up, she couldn’t find anything more than one sentence referencing Stanton. But she found 10,000 documents talking about the topic.
“There’s a huge gap in our common understanding of history and law,” Thomas said. “I wanted to correct the legal and historical record.”
Thomas extends the discussion of Stanton’s impact on modern-day feminism by analyzing her intellectual contributions to — and personal experiences with — family law.
Throughout her 50-year career, Stanton emphasized reform of the private sphere of the family as central to achieving women’s equality.
Another reason Thomas wrote the book is to bring women’s historical experiences into the mainstream and show that women were an active part of the women’s movements beyond the right to vote.
“Stanton was a prolific writer in New York and left a huge paper trail,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t hidden. It was intentionally left out.”
By weaving together law, feminist theory and history, Thomas explores Stanton’s little-examined philosophies on and proposals for women’s equality in marriage, divorce and family and reveals that the campaigns for equal gender roles in the family that came to the fore in the 1960s and ’70s had 19th-century roots.
Thomas, who teaches divorce history, said many think women didn’t become interested until 1972 about divorce, but women in the 19th century wanted to escape abusive spouses and claim their economic rights to own and control their own property.
“We have to get the story correct,” Thomas said.
Using feminist legal theory as a lens to interpret Stanton’s political, legal and personal work on the family, Thomas argues that Stanton’s positions on divorce, working mothers, domestic violence, childcare and many other topics were strikingly progressive for her time, providing significant parallels from which to gauge the social and legal policy issues confronting women in marriage and the family today.
Stanton advocated reform from the beginning of the Women’s Rights movement at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention with 17 other reforms besides the right to vote. Some of the other reforms included joint property rights instead of the husband owning everything, mothers should have custody of their children instead of only the father, who could hire children out to work, and women should control sex and reproductive rights.
“She took on the marriage idea that the husband was in charge and she wanted equal partnerships,” Thomas said. “Stanton wanted to go to the heart of about how we think about marriage.”
She got into trouble with the church, which claimed women were cursed and should be subservient to men, Thomas said. Fundamental churches did not embrace Stanton’s true equality of marriage partners.
“They (women) heard every week they don’t have these rights,” Thomas said.
Some people were afraid that if women had all these rights, men would have no responsibilities and women would have to work, Thomas said. Stanton’s solution was that women should work.
“You had to have equal economic power to have social and religious equality,” Thomas said. “Equal partners means equal respect toward careers and raising children.”
Thomas teaches Remedies, Women’s Legal History, Alternative Dispute Resolution, and Family Law at the University of Akron. She is the Seiberling Chair of Constitutional Law and from 2007 to 2009, she served as director of Faculty Research.
Thomas received her bachelor’s degree, cum laude, from Miami University, M.P.A. degree from California State University and J.D. degree from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where she was a member of the Order of the Coif and production editor of the Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Journal.
Copies of Thomas’s book will be available for purchase and signing courtesy of the Learned Owl Book Shop. Register for this free program at hudsonlibrary.org or call 330-653-6658 ext. 1010.