Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Solitude of Self: Speech to the House Judiciary Committee (18 February 1892)

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

Many historians and scholars of rhetoric consider Stanton’s “Solitude of Self” her most important speech—a rhetorical masterpiece that articulated a vision of modern feminism, emphasizing women’s intellectual independence and spiritual sovereignty. Stanton stood with Susan B. Anthony as the preeminent leaders of a nationwide movement for women’s right to vote, but she was also at the forefront of a broader ideological movement focused on intellectual equality and self-fulfillment. Stanton’s speech marked an important moment in the history of the women’s movement, initiating a more radical era in the feminist quest for equality.

Stanton’s speech is considered a rhetorical masterpiece and part of the canon of “great speeches” in the history of the women’s movement. In addition to being popular at its time, it continues to be studied by scholars today. Many still consider Stanton the founding mother of modern feminism, but in recent years, she and other leaders of the suffrage movement have come under scrutiny for privileging white women over women over color. Some black feminist scholars have argued that, for Stanton, not all women were created equal.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • At the time of this speech, Stanton had grown frustrated with the mainstream women’s movement’s growing conservatism and narrow focus on the vote. Her frustration, as well as her evolving feminist agenda, were reflected in the themes of this speech. In addition, her frustration may be evident in the tone of the speech, which some have characterized as bleak and more philosophical than pragmatic. Stanton’s advancing age also may account for some of her shift toward more spiritual and intellectual matters, including her search for what she had earlier called a “nobler type of womanhood.”

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • In her speech, Stanton delivered a powerful statement about the need for women to attain self-sovereignty and their full human potential instead of limiting their ambitions, politically and personally. She argued for a more expansive vision of female emancipation—one that went well beyond the vote to imagine a world with complete equality and more independent and self-sufficient women.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text.

  • Stanton made repeated use of the phrase “solitude of self” throughout her speech. This was a time of division within the suffrage movement, and perhaps she herself felt somewhat isolated. She felt that the movement had grown “dull,” and since suffrage was no longer a radical idea, she set out to imagine the next stage in the evolution of women’s rights. The “solitude of self” referred to the idea that, in the final analysis, all women—indeed, all humans—had to take personal responsibility for their own lives. This “personal responsibility” for “her own individual life” was not only the “strongest reason” for giving women the vote, but also for allowing women the educational opportunities necessary to develop their own talents and intellectual resources.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Have students watch the 3-minute excerpt “A Great Partnership” from the Ken Burns documentary on suffragists, “Not For Ourselves Alone” here: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/not-for-ourselves-alone/video/. Despite the positive and upbeat tone of the video, these women were actually quite radical. Even Stanton’s own husband, the abolitionist Henry Brewster Stanton, disagreed with the idea of woman suffrage. Have students discuss in table groups the following questions:
      1. Why were the suffragists considered “radical” in their own time? Was it because of their ideas? Their language? Their methods of protest?
      2. Is it inevitable that social movements include both radical and moderate factions? Is that a problem for social movements? Or can that be a good thing?
      3. How might factionalism be a problem for a social movement? And how might it be good or healthy for movements to have both moderate and radical elements?
      4. Can you think of contemporary movements that have been labeled radical? Do you think that in 100 years that those movements will still be considered radical?
  • Students can find many brief biographies of Stanton Although detailed scholarly biographies have portrayed Stanton as a complex person, with both good and bad qualities, and both successes and failures in life, most of these shorter online biographies are celebratory.  Have students read the brief biography of Stanton on the website of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, here: https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/elizabeth-cady-stanton/.Then have them reflect on how the site portrays her childhood, education, and later career. What, out of all the significant events of her life, does this biography highlight? What does it suggest were her most significant contributions or accomplishments? In what ways does it portray her as exceptional or even heroic?
  • Throughout her career, and especially toward the end of her life, Stanton argued that young women needed positive role models and that they should remember their “” Have students reflect on what Stanton meant by a “foremother.” Then have them write a short, free-write essay about who they consider to be their “foremothers” today and why. Do they think it important to remember our foremothers, regardless of the student’s gender? After writing, have the students share their writing with a classmate and discuss the similarities and differences between their views on foremothers.
  • As a class, discuss how the issues facing nineteenth-century feminists differ from those that contemporary feminists emphasize today. Of course, women now have the right to vote, but do modern feminists still debate issues relating to voting?  Do they discuss and debate other issues that Stanton raised in the “Solitude of Self?” When they do discuss similar issues, like educational opportunities for women, how are today’s concerns similar or different from Stanton’s concerns?
  • Have students discuss and debate this question: Is it possible to be both an abolitionist and advocate for women’s equality and still hold racist views? How so? How did the abolition of slavery fail to fulfill the promise of freedom for people of color (both men and women)? For background reading, direct students to this article from NPRhttps://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137681070/for-stanton-all-women-were-not-created-equal. If they have access through a subscription or their library, they also might read this article from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/28/opinion/sunday/suffrage-movement-racism-black-women.html.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • House Judiciary Committee [para 1]: A committee of the House of Representatives that oversees the administration of justice in federal courts.
  • Herbert Spencer, Frederic Hamilton, and Grant Allen [para 5]: Male thinkers and philosophers active in the 1800s and 1900s.
  • Nihilist [para 19]: A believer in nihilism, a philosophy that holds “that human values are baseless, that life is meaningless, that knowledge is impossible ” (Wikipedia 2021).
  • Self-sovereignty [para 22]: The right and ability to be the exclusive authority over one’s own body and mind.
  • Garden of Gethsemane [para 24]: The location of Jesus’s torment the night before his crucifixion, according to the New Testament

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-Reading, Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures, and Initiate Reading

  • Students will complete pre-reading activities of teacher’s or student’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • Students will read paragraphs 1-7.
  • Students will discuss feminism and how its central ideas evolved and continue to evolve.

Day 2: Continue Reading & Discussion Questions

  • Students will read paragraphs 8-23.
  • Students will discuss and answer guiding questions.
  • Students will analyze how Stanton set the mood of the speech and how that mood matched the purpose of the occasion.

Day 3: Finish Reading & Assessing/Concluding/Summing Up

  • Students will read paragraphs 24-33.
  • Students will complete post-reading activities of their or teacher’s choice.
  • Students will debrief using various civic building activities related to the women’s movement.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraphs 1 and 2: Discuss with students the opening of Stanton’s speech. Who was the audience? What did Stanton say she would and would not be talking about in this speech? How did this introduction foreshadow the scope of her speech? How did she affirm the consistency of her views with republican ideals? How did the imagery of Robinson Crusoe help identify her purpose and contribute to the tone of the speech?
  • Paragraphs 3-6: Stanton argued that men who write about the “woman’s sphere” focus on only their “incidental relations,” such as mother, wife, sister, and daughter, rather than their full range of “rights and duties” as individuals and citizens. They thereby restrict the education and training of women in ways that limit their development. She pointed out that the same logic did not apply to men; they would never think of limiting the men’s “sphere” in similar fashion. How was that a double-standard according to Stanton? What do you think Stanton meant in urging the “complete development” of every person’s “faculties as an individual?”
  • Paragraphs 7-8: Here Stanton began to develop her argument for “giving women all the opportunities for higher education,” so that they might be freed from “all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, [and] superstition.” Only when a woman was freed from “the crippling influences of fear” could she assume responsibility for “her own individual life.” What types of fear do you think Stanton was talking about? How did this discussion reflect Stanton’s evolving concern with a broader array of issues beyond the vote? How did it foreshadow a more radical and modern feminism? Try to unpack Stanton’s phrase “birthright to self-sovereignty” and its relationship to the text as a whole. How did Stanton’s analogy to sailing a ship help advance her arguments about “the voyage of life?”
  • Paragraphs 9-14: In paragraph 9, Stanton introduced the phrase “solitude of self.” What do you suppose Stanton meant by this phrase? Do students agree that we all enter the world and walk through life with this type of solitude? Stanton went on to employ a more critical tone, questioning the legitimacy of a system that denied women “political equality.” What else did Stanton declare harmful to women, and what sorts of examples or analogies did she use to support her point? What purpose did referencing Shakespeare’s Titus and Andronicus serve? Stanton again used the phrase “solitude of self” to conclude paragraph 14. By this point in the speech, do you think Stanton had made clear what she meant by the phrase? Why or why not?
  • Paragraphs 15-18: The themes of personal responsibility and self-actualization were infused throughout her speech. What did Stanton argue was necessary for women to fulfill their responsibilities? How did this contrast with how men likely viewed women’s responsibilities at that time? What did Stanton say was the fate of women who were not able to access “collegiate education” and “liberal training?” What did she mean by talking about “the solitude of the weak and the ignorant,” and how did that differ from the more “respectable” solitude she mentioned in the last sentence of paragraph 18? How did she talk about women aging in this section, as she moved from talking about the “young wife and mother” to old age, when “the pleasures of youth have passed?”
  • Paragraphs 19-25: What was the point Stanton hoped to make by recounting her meeting with Prince Krapotkin? What do students think it means to become “acquainted with [oneself] and [one’s] own resources?” Stanton referenced her own biblical studies for a similar purpose: to illustrate how even Jesus, during his last days of earth, “felt the awful solitude of self.” By mentioning these two male figures, in addition to the examples of females she uses throughout the speech, Stanton showed how relevant her argument was to men and women alike. Her lesson was universal: whether man or woman, “we must depend on ourselves, the dictates of wisdom point to complete individual development.” The difference, of course, was that women were restrained by law and custom from developing all of their faculties—mental  and physical.
  • Paragraphs 26-33: As she began to conclude her speech, Stanton talked specifically about the injustice of excluding women from higher education and observed that women have made significant contributions to many fields, from art and music to the various sciences, despite those educational barriers. She then tells two stories about her own experiences—one on a ship and the other on a mountain. What was the point of these examples? How did they help explain what she meant by the “solitude of self?”

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Throughout her career, Stanton defined feminism in many different ways. How would you define feminism today? What do contemporary feminist activists advocate? Would you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
  • The “Solitude of Self” was delivered to two very different audiences: the House Judiciary Committee and a women’s rights convention. Which audience do you think would have reacted most positively to the speech? Why? What are some of the pitfalls of delivering the same speech to different audiences?
  • How would you characterize the tone of Stanton’s “Solitude of Self?” Does it seem to you dark and foreboding, with its emphasis on the ultimate loneliness and isolation of each individual?  Or do you sense that it is forward-looking and optimistic, envisioning a new era of complete female equality and enlightenment?  Also, does the speech strike you as “radical,” as some at the time thought?  Was her focus on individualism in the women’s movement a step backwards or a step forwards in your opinion? Explain.
  • Find a speech by a contemporary feminist activist. Research the activist’s background and reputation. What specific issues does the activist address? How is she viewed by others in the movement and by the mainstream media? If Stanton were alive today, do you think she would be an ally of this contemporary feminist?  What ideas in the speech do you think Stanton would endorse or dispute?