How to Ask for Your Human Rights: Lessons from Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Engraving of Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Henry Bryan Hall

via Wikimedia

I have never had to ask for my human rights. They were assigned to me, along with my name and my gender, around the moment I took my first breath. But how exactly does one go about asking for their rights? How can one human be given the authority to determine how human someone else is? The task seems hopeless, as the very act of asking appears to negate your argument.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton brought this challenge before the Washington Senate Committee in December 1892. At this point, women were 28 years from attaining the right to vote. Impassioned and mournful, Stanton reflected on the essential and inevitable isolation of each individual, in what she labeled the ‘solitude of self’.

‘When death sunders our nearest ties, alone we sit in the shadows of our affliction. […] On the divine heights of human attainments, eulogized and worshipped as a hero or a saint, we stand alone. […] In hours like these we realize the awful solitude of individual life, its pains, its penalties, its responsibilities […].’

Because of our solitude, Stanton went on, every human must be ‘fitted’ for ‘independent action,’ much like a soldier receiving ‘his cup, knife, fork and spoon’ before marching off to battle. She believed that while women did not possess the same rights as men, they must face the same immense solitude and are expected to come away unscathed. The idea of the lone hero is common, but most formulations have the implicit assumption that the individual was male. Here, Stanton presented the individual as a woman, and argued that women lack the resources (i.e. the rights), but are called upon to do the same things.

Stanton’s thinking on resources was key. Instead of attempting to prove herself a complete human to obtain her rights, she approached the issue inversely. She argued that women must have rights in order to fully develop those resources innate to humanity, like courage, strength of mind, and compassion.

‘We see reason sufficient in the outer conditions of human beings for individual liberty and development, but when we consider the self-dependence of every human soul we see the need of courage, judgement, and the exercise of every faculty of mind and body, strengthened and developed by use, in woman as well as man.’

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document published 56 years after Stanton’s speech,was introduced as ‘a recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.’The UN defined rights as a recognition of something that already existed, but Stanton argued that without rights, certain traits have far more difficulty coming into existence compared to those endowed with rights. Beyond recognition, she believed that rights were also a rite of passage into your full human potential, emphasizing proper access to higher education and eligibility to elect individuals to political office.

Not only were rights an opportunity, but they were also a burden. The chilling last lines of Stanton’s address runs as follows: ‘Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take, on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?’ Disenfranchising half the population was, according to Stanton, not just an injustice to women but also a burden to the men who must shoulder those rights. In this way, her plea became a helping hand to people beyond women, offering men the chance to alleviate their burden and foreshadowing ideas that would take hold later on: women’s rights are human rights.

Stanton was asked to speak about women’s rights, and in doing so, painted a picture of the universal woman, handicapped at every turn and with no resources to fall back on. By drawing on tones of philosophy and humanistic individualism, Stanton presented not only a new definition of, but also a new approach to human rights that we can still look to today. She touched on a feeling we could all relate to, the feeling that as humans, we need all the help we can get.

Read more about Elisabeth Cady Stanton here:

Waggenspack, Beth M. The Search for Self-Sovereignty: The Oratory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

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