The Solitude of Self Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

152 Pages



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Elizabeth Cady Stanton—along with her comrade-in-arms, Susan B. Anthony—was one of the most important leaders of the movement to gain American women the vote. But, as Vivian Gornick argues in this biographical essay, Stanton is also the greatest feminist thinker of the nineteenth century. Endowed with a philosophical cast of mind large enough to grasp the immensity that women's rights addressed, Stanton developed a devotion to equality uniquely American in character.

Born in 1815 into a conservative family of privilege, Stanton was radicalized by her experience in the abolitionist movement. Attending the first international conference on slavery in London in 1840, she found herself amazed when the conference officials refused to seat her because of her sex. At that moment she realized that "In the eyes of the world I was not as I was in my own eyes, I was only a woman." At the same moment she saw what it meant for the American republic to have failed to deliver on its fundamental promise of equality for all. In her last public address, "The Solitude of Self," (delivered in 1892), she argued for women's political equality on the grounds that loneliness is the human condition, and that each citizen therefore needs the tools to fight alone for his or her interests.

Vivian Gornick first encountered "The Solitude of Self" thirty years ago. Of that moment Gornick writes, "I hardly knew who Stanton was, much less what this speech meant in her life, or in our history, but it I can still remember thinking with excitement and gratitude, as I read these words for the first time, eighty years after they were written, 'We are beginning where she left off.'" In The Solitude of Self, Gornick provides a lucid portrait of the social and political atmospheres of the nineteenth century and demonstrates why feminism as a liberation movement has flourished in American as nowhere else.


Praise for The Solitude of Self

"What a potent book this is! What a boon to be reminded that politics, like art, demands bold thought and unceasing imagination."—Margo Jefferson, The New York Times

"Deeply thoughtful . . . A more complex, considered portrait than anyone else could [write]."—Kate Bolick, The Boston Sunday Globe

"Although Gornick tells the story of Stanton's life—and does so in a manner that is compelling, dramatic, and illuminating—her book is not primarily a biography, but a meditation on the meaning of Stanton's life . . . The Solitude of Self is not only fascinating but also genuinely enjoyable."—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Occasionally a marvelous writer turns her attention to a subject who suits her perfectly . . . Gornick almost seems to be remembering a friend, a soulmate, or even a lover. She has given us not only an appreciation of Stanton's passion for justice but also the story of her own deep intellectual and political attraction to Stanton . . . The book virtually sparks with electricity."—Linda Gordon, The Women's Review of Books

"The real story of this illuminating study is not only that of a brave American's fight for equality of the sexes, but of the human yearning to be truly free, and of the lonely, fearful struggle with society, and even with oneself, that such a noble goal entails."—Ronald Steel, author of In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy

"Gornick's gorgeous prose brings alive the magnificent Elizabeth Cady Stanton in all her brilliance, complexity, and prescient understanding of the centrality of the 'woman question' to American democracy. This is a book for all who care about feminism, and also for those who care about the country itself, its deepest and finest aspirations."—Christine Stansell, author of American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century

"Wow. Not only does Vivian Gornick transform Elizabeth Cady Stanton from a name in a Women's Studies class into a flesh-and-blood lady, she convinced me that feminism itself is as American as apple pie."—Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future

"There's a curious excitement that moves through Vivian Gornick's thoughts about Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 'Suffrage,' she writes, 'was the university in which [Stanton's] feeling intelligence was now enrolled.' And one suspects it's Gornick's too. Not the movement for the vote, but the deeper wrestling with the obstacles to equality; religion, for example, and the solitude of the self. These were Stanton's contributions to radical feminism, and Gornick rescues them from that brilliant nineteenth-century oratory."—Carol Brightman, author of Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World

"In this vivid triumph of biography and cultural criticism, Vivian Gornick discovers at the root of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's polemic a sustaining and deeply American philosophy of the self. Leading us into the thinking of this great feminist, Gornick offers a way to embrace the solitude that is, for every thinking human being, the fiercest attachment of all."—Honor Moore, author of The White Blackbird

"In heartfelt and toughminded prose, Vivian Gornick illuminates the fearless intellect of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first American feminist to grasp the essential truth that an independent woman must free herself from worship of all man-made institutions—including those purporting to speak for God. We all stand today on the shoulders of this giant."—Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

"In this wonderful biographical essay, Vivian Gornick notes that Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir each distilled her passion and philosophy into one major book about and for women. But their nineteenth-century peer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose medium was the political speech, wrote no single beacon text, no summa. So Gornick has done it for her. Better late than never—although in the on-going story of feminism this 'essence of Stanton' is, in fact, alas, early."—Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, author of Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World

"A powerful meditation that is all at once informative and moving."—Martin Duberman, author of Paul Robeson: A Biography

"Without the inimitable Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the voice of 19th-century feminists would have been much less forceful."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Vivian Gornick

  • Vivian Gornick's books include Approaching Eye Level, The End of The Novel of Love, and The Situation and The Story. She lives in New York City.

  • Vivian Gornick Mitchell Bach