Publication Date

March 2011


In the mid-nineteenth century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton used narratives of women and their involvement with the law of domestic relations to collectivize women. This recognition of a gender class was the first step towards women’s transformation of the law. Stanton’s stories of working-class women, immigrants, Mormon polygamist wives, and privileged white women revealed common realities among women in an effort to form a collective conscious. The parable-like stories were designed to inspire a collective consciousness among women, one capable of arousing them to social and political action. For to Stanton’s consternation, women showed a lack of appreciation of their own oppression. To shift the status quo, Stanton used stories of real women from different walks of life to develop women’s own sense of outrage. In Stanton’s stories, the law of domestic relations operated the same regardless of class or power, exemplifying the law’s treatment of women as a class based on gender. Stanton’s writings and public lectures drew upon the law of marriage, divorce, and parenting to demonstrate the gendered implications of coverture on all women. The goal was to first, facilitate women’s own empowerment and then, second, to garner that collective power to challenge the law itself. By creating a collective consciousness among women, Stanton identified the operative component important to the law of discrimination—the existence of a class. The recognition of this collective group was important to identity based politics of both the first and second-wave feminist movements and fundamental to modern notions of legal equality. Sex equality law today is premised on the existence of a group of “women” and individual association with the stereotypes and biases of that group. Stanton’s work to arouse women to their own subordination and to unite women as a group to reform the laws was the first step to women identifying collectively, and thus providing the social foundation for legal transformation

Publication Title

Feminist Legal History: Essays on Women and Law