1875, A Lean Year
Project Newsletter Winter 2000.
Is That History or the Fragility of a Collection?
In the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, 1875 is a very lean year. The 90 documents dated 1875 amount to roughly one-third of what survives from 1872 and one-half of the documents from 1876. Is this paucity of sources evidence that Stanton and Anthony lacked ideas and activity in 1875? Does it point to diminished enthusiasm and opportunity? Or is it indicative of a series of accidents?
There are many reasons to suspect that Stanton and Anthony, like other suffragists and reformers in general, might lack enthusiasm and opportunity in 1875.
- An economic depression persisted, and it stands to reason that the suffrage movement suffered somehow as a consequence.
- The Republican party was on the defensive. Democrats regained a balance of power in the states and won a majority in the House of Representatives at elections in 1875. Surely, Republicans were unlikely to demonstrate new support for an unpopular cause like woman suffrage.
- Suffragists were stymied about where to turn for relief. A stunning defeat in Michigan in November 1874 put in doubt the likelihood of gaining the vote state by state. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Minor v. Happersett, in March 1875, against the National Woman Suffrage Association's claim that women's voting rights were already protected by the 14th and 15th amendments, it closed another route to suffrage and also affirmed the right of states to bar women (and anyone else) from the vote.
- The Beecher-Tilton scandal continued in the courts in 1875, tarnishing suffragists for their association with Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton. Lawyers and the press tried to lay blame for the adulterous plot on woman suffragists. Did they lose public support as a result? Did the press punish them, as Anthony charged, for Stanton's criticism of Beecher?
However, the unusually thin record of 1875 well illustrates the accidental ways that Stanton's and Anthony's papers survived at all. Just a few changes rippled through the documentary record and upset its fragile structure.
- Martha Coffin Wright died on 4 January 1875. A resident of Auburn, New York, she met Stanton while planning the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and she served as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association at the time of her death. Her death closed one of the richest collections of Stanton's and Anthony's letters (now part of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College) in which 116 of their letters were found, along with copies of many other letters that they sent for her to read.
- The silence left by Wright's death was deepened by the deaths of Stanton's cousin Gerrit Smith on 28 December 1874 and his wife, Ann Fitzhugh Smith, in March 1875. The Smiths also kept extensive files of their correspondence, and their papers (at Syracuse University) supplied 82 letters from Stanton and Anthony over a span of four decades.
- Isabella Beecher Hooker withdrew to Europe in 1874 and stayed through most of 1875, trying to escape the investigations and trials of her brother, Henry Ward Beecher. Although she came late to the movement, in 1869, the importance of her role is indicated in part by her file (at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Connecticut) of 131 letters from Stanton and Anthony received before she left for Europe.
- Friends and leaders who filled the voids left by these four did not match them as archivists. Matilda Joslyn Gage, Sara Andrews Spencer, Clemence Lozier, and Ellen Clark Sargent, all of whom worked closely with Stanton and Anthony in 1875, left few, if any, of the letters they received.
- Worst of all, Anthony's diary of 1875 disappeared. Her diaries map out where to search for speeches, meetings, and interviews, not only for Anthony but often for Stanton too. Without knowing where they spoke or what meetings they attended, the record consists only of accidental discoveries.
No doubt Stanton and Anthony felt the impact of the historical forces that might dampen the spirits of suffragists in 1875, but evidence of their dampened spirits does not lie in the scarcity of their papers. What records of the past survive and how we recover them in modern times are separate stories, ones that in this case resulted in dramatic loss of evidence for 1875.