Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The Solitude of Self (1892)
Women solitaries such as ammas, anchoresses, beguines, and cloistered nuns were familiar historical figures, but the possibilities of non-institutional or secular women solitaries required a new philosophy of the individual.
The lives of ancient and medieval female solitaries in the West existed
within a specific historical and social setting. Few if any women lived as
forest hermits or theologians, landowners or political authorities. Physical
security, limitations on education, the absence of social and political rights,
and the mores of patriarchal society, limited the role of women. Religious
vocation as an escape for intelligent women was as much a psychological and
physical alternative as a social alternative to the structures of the day.
Not until the emergence of Enlightenment philosophies of the individual was a body of theory available that would give women a status of legal if not de facto equality in society. But this was theory and not practice. A theory of potential equivalency did not become practical in the Anglo-American world despite the occasional forays of essayists like John Stuart Mill or Mary Wollencraft.
The irony of these theories is that they arise after the era of anchoresses and hermits is gone. The individual in Enlightenment thought is a symbolic package of potentialities as dependent on the society and institutions as ever, even if secularized.
Not that these Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theories were attempting
to revive the solitary vocations as they were known in the Middle Ages. Nor were
they attempting to protect or foster a voluntary lifestyle of solitude among
women. On the contrary, they advocate an equivalency with men in every legal and
social role, and saw women's historical solitude as an involuntary state
in which women were denied the status enjoyed by men.
"The Solitude of Self"
What makes the essay "The Solitude of Self" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) unusual is its philosophical premise that individuals are entitled to equality and social dignity not because of legal status but because they function in profound solitude one from another.
Stanton was a life-long advocate of
women's rights, which included the right to vote, but she was concerned
about the more sweeping issues of the legal and social status of women. Although closely
identified with the women's suffrage movement in the nineteenth-century
United States, beginning with the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, Stanton
rejected an exclusive interest in suffrage. She presented the address
entitled "The Solitude of Self" to an 1892 meeting of a suffrage
association in resignation from its presidency, due in part to its narrow focus
on the vote.
At the outset of the essay, Stanton offers several perspectives:
- the individual in the abstract ("our Protestant idea, the right of individual conscience and judgment"),
- the practical world of citizenship "according to fundamental principles" of government and society,
- women as equal in "civilization and aspirations for happiness and self-development," and
- women as distinct from their incidental social functions.
are based on the common existence of all human beings.
The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings. The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities -- for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear -- is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.
Here solitude is not a voluntarily chosen lifestyle but a psychological
and physical condition of life, as is free will or responsibility. Stanton argues that women need the
fullness of opportunity enjoyed by men because ultimately, "as an
individual, she must rely on herself."
Men can elect solitude if they wish and imagine it a form of self-reliance, but in fact men enjoy a comfortable net of security and safety in their monopoly of social, political, economic, and educational institutions. They can fall back on them such that their experience of isolation and solitariness need not be profound or lasting, not to say debilitating.
But Stanton magnanimously does not draw these conclusions,
instead viewing both men and women as suffering the same inexorable
fate. It is women's "birthright to self-sovereignty" and not
competitiveness or jealousy of men, not even abstract notions of equality, that motivate her.
Rather, it is the common fate of both men and women and the need for both to be
equipped mentally and physically that motivates women. "It matters not
whether the solitary voyager is man or woman."
The emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual supercedes even the strictly social argument.
No mortal ever has been, nor mortal ever will be, like the soul just launched on the sea of life. ... Nature never repeats herself and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another.
Hence the urgency to afford each human being the opportunity for
self-development, so that the tools of self-reliance can enable every
person to discover their way. The general good will benefit, but surely
every individual will benefit as well, Stanton argues. Underlying
this plea is the recognition that each person merits the same
preconditions regardless of where fate takes them. "The solitude of the
king on his throne and the prisoner in his cell differs in character
and degree, but it is solitude nevertheless."
Society makes of the natural and inevitable solitude of life a more painful and alienating solitude by its cold indifference to the plight of those without natural or human rights or claims to self-dignity and independence. Women suffer the denial of this integrity in innumerable and subtle ways. Stanton traces the negative forces in a woman's lifetime, from the lack of education and training in youth to dependence upon meager resources in old age.
The chief reason for opening to every soul the doors to the whole round of human duties and pleasures is the individual development thus attained, the resources thus provided under all circumstances to mitigate the solitude that at times must come to everyone.
The author relates her interview with the Russian political activist
Kropotkin, inquiring how he could endure long years in prison without
books or pen. He responded that he recalled all that he had read or
learned and recreated this world of resources in his mind and heart,
"a world no Russian jailer or czar could invade."
Stanton argues that opportunities for learning can help us survive the most adverse conditions. "Such is the value of liberal thought and broad culture when shut off from all human companionship, bringing comfort and sunshine within even the four walls of a prison cell." So, too, it may be added, within the cell of the hermit or anchorite -- or the room of a modern solitary.
While the essay concludes by presenting anecdotal examples of women's sense of community participation and equality, the main thesis is far-reaching.
Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one's self-sovereignty, the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded; a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment by inheritance, wealth, family, and position.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton's thesis is not reducible to a feminist harangue but is a
reflective insight advocating universal and moral principles.
"The Solitude of Self" is based on the sacrosanctity of the individual,
but the title helpfully grounds the presentation on the philosophical
and psychological reality of solitude. This was an unusual insight for its
time and context, both precocious and bold. Stanton wrote the
essay at the age of 77, and delivered it to a U.S. Senate committee. She died before women in the United States were
granted the vote.
A list of books containing "The Solitude of Self" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton is available at http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/studies/solself.html. The essay itself is available at http://www.pbs.org/stantonanthony/resources/solitude_self.html