Last week would have been the 200th birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the foremost activists for women’s suffrage. So I thought I’d honor her by taking a look at not only the outcome of her work (women being able to vote) but at the process of it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her best friend and colleague, Susan B. Anthony, fought hard for women’s rights but they never lived to see the end goal. They cared deeply for the plight of others and they worked hard, not for personal benefit, but because it was the right thing to do. In today’s selfish world, we would do better to follow their example.
Ken Burns made this fabulous documentary called “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. It is an incredible work of art documenting the friendship and legacy of those two phenomenal women. I’ve seen it many times and I never fail to cry at each and every showing when I see how brilliant, brave, persistent and selfless these two women were in the search for women’s rights. Now more than ever, we need people like them.
One of the most amazing and tragic things about the work Cady Stanton and Anthony did was that neither lived to see the end goal of their struggle. Neither was ever able to vote legally. Both knew that their work would never provide positive results for their own lives yet they continued to fight valiantly so that others could benefit. As Cady Stanton wrote in her journal, “We are sowing winter wheat… which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.” Stop and reflect on that statement for a moment. Cady Stanton and Anthony worked incredibly hard and endured much suffering, including public ridicule, ruptured relationships and even imprisonment, all so that others could have better lives. Who in our current public discourse would make such a statement? And if they did, who would appreciate it?
We seem to be living in an age in which the dominant culture celebrates narcissism. It’s gotten to the point where many people seem to be thinking (and voting) along the lines of, “I’ve got mine, so I don’t care about you.” When I was talking with a neighbor about overpopulation and how it will negatively impact the human race, she replied, “What do you care? It won’t happen in your lifetime or your son’s.” I think my mouth dropped open. Later that same week, a patient informed me that he didn’t care about the reprehensible state of our local air and water because it didn’t affect his health. It was difficult to finish his session. In both examples, I was flabbergasted at not only the lack of care for others but in the shortsightedness that they displayed.
Leaving aside for the moment the lack of care for others, these kinds of beliefs demonstrate a startling ignorance of the connection between our self-interest and the rights of others. Advocating cuts in public education because your kids go to private school ignores the possibility that the bridges you cross may one day be built by people who don’t have the knowledge they should. Avoiding vaccinations because everyone else gets them means you run the risk of getting a major illness that returned because it wasn’t completely eradicated. Discouraging labor concerns now could lead to horrible working conditions for your child. Promoting the integration of church and state risks state-mandated religious dictates from a religion that is not yours. Ignoring environmental protections could cause a reptile that produces venom vital for your health to become extinct. And, of course, discouraging civil rights for others may one day lead to a time when your civil rights will no longer be available. Consequently, even if you care nothing for others, people need to at least consider how they will impact them in the future. Cady Stanton and Anthony were aware of how women’s rights would affect the society and worked with renewed vigor because of this knowledge.
As a psychologist, it is my job to care about other people. I work hard to help others heal and teach them how to make their lives better. A lot of times I do not immediately see results and this is how I understand why Cady Stanton and Anthony did what they did. They did so because it was the right thing to do but also because they trusted that their efforts were not in vain. I feel the same way. Like they did, I plant seeds in the hope that one day they will bloom. Thus, I am appalled by the idea that we should focus only on ourselves and not worry about the suffering of others. It runs so counter to what it is that I do every day that I find it offensive.
Even more than that, it is unhealthy. Narcissistic features run rampant through a variety of mental disorders because focusing solely on oneself leads to bad personal outcomes. Beyond actual mental illness though is the need for us to be connected with others. Connection with other human beings is vital to our physical and mental health. People who are isolated from others get sick more often, die earlier and report decreased levels of happiness. Consequently, it is essential to our job as human beings to care about others and have them care about us.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were two women well ahead of their time. They fought so many fights first so that we who came later did not have to. They did it because it was the right thing to do and because they felt a responsibility to future generations. They did not do it for themselves but, thankfully, they did get something out of it. The two had an amazing friendship and, because they were so connected, they were able to have happy, healthy and meaningful lives. One could even say that because of their all-encompassing perspective and their care for others, their lives were rich in ways many of us today cannot imagine. So happy 200th birthday, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You left us a great legacy and we will try to do some things not for ourselves alone.