MoboReader > Literature > Eighty Years and More; Reminiscences 1815-1897

   Chapter 3 GIRLHOOD.

Eighty Years and More; Reminiscences 1815-1897 By Elizabeth Cady Stanton Characters: 25751

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Mrs. Willard's Seminary at Troy was the fashionable school in my girlhood, and in the winter of 1830, with upward of a hundred other girls, I found myself an active participant in all the joys and sorrows of that institution. When in family council it was decided to send me to that intellectual Mecca, I did not receive the announcement with unmixed satisfaction, as I had fixed my mind on Union College. The thought of a school without boys, who had been to me such a stimulus both in study and play, seemed to my imagination dreary and profitless.

The one remarkable feature of my journey to Troy was the railroad from Schenectady to Albany, the first ever laid in this country. The manner of ascending a high hill going out of the city would now strike engineers as stupid to the last degree. The passenger cars were pulled up by a train, loaded with stones, descending the hill. The more rational way of tunneling through the hill or going around it had not yet dawned on our Dutch ancestors. At every step of my journey to Troy I felt that I was treading on my pride, and thus in a hopeless frame of mind I began my boarding-school career. I had already studied everything that was taught there except French, music, and dancing, so I devoted myself to these accomplishments. As I had a good voice I enjoyed singing, with a guitar accompaniment, and, having a good ear for time, I appreciated the harmony in music and motion and took great delight in dancing. The large house, the society of so many girls, the walks about the city, the novelty of everything made the new life more enjoyable than I had anticipated. To be sure I missed the boys, with whom I had grown up, played with for years, and later measured my intellectual powers with, but, as they became a novelty, there was new zest in occasionally seeing them. After I had been there a short time, I heard a call one day: "Heads out!" I ran with the rest and exclaimed, "What is it?" expecting to see a giraffe or some other wonder from Barnum's Museum. "Why, don't you see those boys?" said one. "Oh," I replied, "is that all? I have seen boys all my life." When visiting family friends in the city, we were in the way of making the acquaintance of their sons, and as all social relations were strictly forbidden, there was a new interest in seeing them. As they were not allowed to call upon us or write notes, unless they were brothers or cousins, we had, in time, a large number of kinsmen.

There was an intense interest to me now in writing notes, receiving calls, and joining the young men in the streets for a walk, such as I had never known when in constant association with them at school and in our daily amusements. Shut up with girls, most of them older than myself, I heard many subjects discussed of which I had never thought before, and in a manner it were better I had never heard. The healthful restraint always existing between boys and girls in conversation is apt to be relaxed with either sex alone. In all my intimate association with boys up to that period, I cannot recall one word or act for criticism, but I cannot say the same of the girls during the three years I passed at the seminary in Troy. My own experience proves to me that it is a grave mistake to send boys and girls to separate institutions of learning, especially at the most impressible age. The stimulus of sex promotes alike a healthy condition of the intellectual and the moral faculties and gives to both a development they never can acquire alone.

Mrs. Willard, having spent several months in Europe, did not return until I had been at the seminary some time. I well remember her arrival, and the joy with which she was greeted by the teachers and pupils who had known her before. She was a splendid-looking woman, then in her prime, and fully realized my idea of a queen. I doubt whether any royal personage in the Old World could have received her worshipers with more grace and dignity than did this far-famed daughter of the Republic. She was one of the remarkable women of that period, and did a great educational work for her sex. She gave free scholarships to a large number of promising girls, fitting them for teachers, with a proviso that, when the opportunity arose, they should, in turn, educate others.

I shall never forget one incident that occasioned me much unhappiness. I had written a very amusing composition, describing my room. A friend came in to see me just as I had finished it, and, as she asked me to read it to her, I did so. She enjoyed it very much and proposed an exchange. She said the rooms were all so nearly alike that, with a little alteration, she could use it. Being very susceptible to flattery, her praise of my production won a ready assent; but when I read her platitudes I was sorry I had changed, and still more so in the denouement.

Those selected to prepare compositions read them before the whole school. My friend's was received with great laughter and applause. The one I read not only fell flat, but nearly prostrated me also. As soon as I had finished, one of the young ladies left the room and, returning in a few moments with her composition book, laid it before the teacher who presided that day, showing her the same composition I had just read. I was called up at once to explain, but was so amazed and confounded that I could not speak, and I looked the personification of guilt. I saw at a glance the contemptible position I occupied and felt as if the last day had come, that I stood before the judgment seat and had heard the awful sentence pronounced, "Depart ye wicked into everlasting punishment." How I escaped from that scene to my own room I do not know. I was too wretched for tears. I sat alone for a long time when a gentle tap announced my betrayer. She put her arms around me affectionately and kissed me again and again.

"Oh!" she said, "you are a hero. You went through that trying ordeal like a soldier. I was so afraid, when you were pressed with questions, that the whole truth would come out and I be forced to stand in your place. I am not so brave as you; I could not endure it. Now that you are through it and know how bitter a trial it is, promise that you will save me from the same experience. You are so good and noble I know you will not betray me."

In this supreme moment of misery and disgrace, her loving words and warm embrace were like balm to my bruised soul and I readily promised all she asked. The girl had penetrated the weak point in my character. I loved flattery. Through that means she got my composition in the first place, pledged me to silence in the second place, and so confused my moral perceptions that I really thought it praiseworthy to shelter her from what I had suffered. However, without betrayal on my part, the trick came to light through the very means she took to make concealment sure. After compositions were read they were handed over to a certain teacher for criticism. Miss -- had copied mine, and returned to me the original. I had not copied hers, so the two were in the same handwriting-one with my name outside and one with Miss --'s.

As I stood well in school, both for scholarship and behavior, my sudden fall from grace occasioned no end of discussion. So, as soon as the teacher discovered the two compositions in Miss --'s writing, she came to me to inquire how I got one of Miss --'s compositions. She said, "Where is yours that you wrote for that day?"

Taking it from my portfolio, I replied, "Here it is."

She then asked, "Did you copy it from her book?"

I replied, "No; I wrote it myself."

"Then why did you not read your own?"

"We agreed to change," said I.

"Did you know that Miss -- had copied that from the book of another young lady?"

"No, not until I was accused of doing it myself before the whole school."

"Why did you not defend yourself on the spot?"

"I could not speak, neither did I know what to say."

"Why have you allowed yourself to remain in such a false position for a whole week?"

"I do not know."

"Suppose I had not found this out, did you intend to keep silent?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Did Miss -- ask you to do so?"


I had been a great favorite with this teacher, but she was so disgusted with my stupidity, as she called my timidity, that she said:

"Really, my child, you have not acted in this matter as if you had ordinary common sense."

So little do grown people, in familiar surroundings, appreciate the confusion of a child's faculties, under new and trying experiences. When poor Miss --'s turn came to stand up before the whole school and take the burden on her own shoulders she had so cunningly laid on mine, I readily shed the tears for her I could not summon for myself. This was my first sad lesson in human duplicity.

This episode, unfortunately, destroyed in a measure my confidence in my companions and made me suspicious even of those who came to me with appreciative words. Up to this time I had accepted all things as they seemed on the surface. Now I began to wonder what lay behind the visible conditions about me. Perhaps the experience was beneficial, as it is quite necessary for a young girl, thrown wholly on herself for the first time among strangers, to learn caution in all she says and does. The atmosphere of home life, where all disguises and pretensions are thrown off, is quite different from a large school of girls, with the petty jealousies and antagonisms that arise in daily competition in their dress, studies, accomplishments, and amusements.

The next happening in Troy that seriously influenced my character was the advent of the Rev. Charles G. Finney, a pulpit orator, who, as a terrifier of human souls, proved himself the equal of Savonarola. He held a protracted meeting in the Rev. Dr. Beaman's church, which many of my schoolmates attended. The result of six weeks of untiring effort on the part of Mr. Finney and his confreres was one of those intense revival seasons that swept over the city and through the seminary like an epidemic, attacking in its worst form the most susceptible. Owing to my gloomy Calvinistic training in the old Scotch Presbyterian church, and my vivid imagination, I was one of the first victims. We attended all the public services, beside the daily prayer and experience meetings held in the seminary. Our studies, for the time, held a subordinate place to the more important duty of saving our souls.

To state the idea of conversion and salvation as then understood, one can readily see from our present standpoint that nothing could be more puzzling and harrowing to the young mind. The revival fairly started, the most excitable were soon on the anxious seat. There we learned the total depravity of human nature and the sinner's awful danger of everlasting punishment. This was enlarged upon until the most innocent girl believed herself a monster of iniquity and felt certain of eternal damnation. Then God's hatred of sin was emphasized and his irreconcilable position toward the sinner so justified that one felt like a miserable, helpless, forsaken worm of the dust in trying to approach him, even in prayer.

Having brought you into a condition of profound humility, the only cardinal virtue for one under conviction, in the depths of your despair you were told that it required no herculean effort on your part to be transformed into an angel, to be reconciled to God, to escape endless perdition. The way to salvation was short and simple. We had naught to do but to repent and believe and give our hearts to Jesus, who was ever ready to receive them. How to do all this was the puzzling question. Talking with Dr. Finney one day, I said:

"I cannot understand what I am to do. If you should tell me to go to the top of the church steeple and jump off, I would readily do it, if thereby I could save my soul; but I do not know how to go to Jesus."

"Repent and believe," said he, "that is all you have to do to be happy here and hereafter."

"I am very sorry," I replied, "for all the evil I have done, and I believe all you tell me, and the more sincerely I believe, the more unhappy I am."

With the natural reaction from despair to hope many of us imagined ourselves converted, prayed and gave our experiences in the meetings, and at times rejoiced in the thought that we were Christians-chosen children of God-rather than sinners and outcasts.

But Dr. Finney's terrible anathemas on the depravity and deceitfulness of the human heart soon shortened our newborn hopes. His appearance in the pulpit on these memorable occasions is indelibly impressed on my mind. I can see him now, his great eyes rolling around the congregation and his arms flying about in the air like those of a windmill. One evening he described hell and the devil and the long procession of sin

ners being swept down the rapids, about to make the awful plunge into the burning depths of liquid fire below, and the rejoicing hosts in the inferno coming up to meet them with the shouts of the devils echoing through the vaulted arches. He suddenly halted, and, pointing his index finger at the supposed procession, he exclaimed:

"There, do you not see them!"

I was wrought up to such a pitch that I actually jumped up and gazed in the direction to which he pointed, while the picture glowed before my eyes and remained with me for months afterward. I cannot forbear saying that, although high respect is due to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual gifts of the venerable ex-president of Oberlin College, such preaching worked incalculable harm to the very souls he sought to save. Fear of the judgment seized my soul. Visions of the lost haunted my dreams. Mental anguish prostrated my health. Dethronement of my reason was apprehended by friends. But he was sincere, so peace to his ashes! Returning home, I often at night roused my father from his slumbers to pray for me, lest I should be cast into the bottomless pit before morning.

To change the current of my thoughts, a trip was planned to Niagara, and it was decided that the subject of religion was to be tabooed altogether. Accordingly our party, consisting of my sister, her husband, my father and myself, started in our private carriage, and for six weeks I heard nothing on the subject. About this time Gall and Spurzheim published their works on phrenology, followed by Combe's "Constitution of Man," his "Moral Philosophy," and many other liberal works, all so rational and opposed to the old theologies that they produced a profound impression on my brother-in-law's mind. As we had these books with us, reading and discussing by the way, we all became deeply interested in the new ideas. Thus, after many months of weary wandering in the intellectual labyrinth of "The Fall of Man," "Original Sin," "Total Depravity," "God's Wrath," "Satan's Triumph," "The Crucifixion," "The Atonement," and "Salvation by Faith," I found my way out of the darkness into the clear sunlight of Truth. My religious superstitions gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts, and in proportion, as I looked at everything from a new standpoint, I grew more and more happy, day by day. Thus, with a delightful journey in the month of June, an entire change in my course of reading and the current of my thoughts, my mind was restored to its normal condition. I view it as one of the greatest crimes to shadow the minds of the young with these gloomy superstitions; and with fears of the unknown and the unknowable to poison all their joy in life.

After the restraints of childhood at home and in school, what a period of irrepressible joy and freedom comes to us in girlhood with the first taste of liberty. Then is our individuality in a measure recognized and our feelings and opinions consulted; then we decide where and when we will come and go, what we will eat, drink, wear, and do. To suit one's own fancy in clothes, to buy what one likes, and wear what one chooses is a great privilege to most young people. To go out at pleasure, to walk, to ride, to drive, with no one to say us nay or question our right to liberty, this is indeed like a birth into a new world of happiness and freedom. This is the period, too, when the emotions rule us, and we idealize everything in life; when love and hope make the present an ecstasy and the future bright with anticipation.

Then comes that dream of bliss that for weeks and months throws a halo of glory round the most ordinary characters in every-day life, holding the strongest and most common-sense young men and women in a thraldom from which few mortals escape. The period when love, in soft silver tones, whispers his first words of adoration, painting our graces and virtues day by day in living colors in poetry and prose, stealthily punctuated ever and anon with a kiss or fond embrace. What dignity it adds to a young girl's estimate of herself when some strong man makes her feel that in her hands rest his future peace and happiness! Though these seasons of intoxication may come once to all, yet they are seldom repeated. How often in after life we long for one more such rapturous dream of bliss, one more season of supreme human love and passion!

After leaving school, until my marriage, I had the most pleasant years of my girlhood. With frequent visits to a large circle of friends and relatives in various towns and cities, the monotony of home life was sufficiently broken to make our simple country pleasures always delightful and enjoyable. An entirely new life now opened to me. The old bondage of fear of the visible and the invisible was broken and, no longer subject to absolute authority, I rejoiced in the dawn of a new day of freedom in thought and action.

My brother-in-law, Edward Bayard, ten years my senior, was an inestimable blessing to me at this time, especially as my mind was just then opening to the consideration of all the varied problems of life. To me and my sisters he was a companion in all our amusements, a teacher in the higher departments of knowledge, and a counselor in all our youthful trials and disappointments. He was of a metaphysical turn of mind, and in the pursuit of truth was in no way trammeled by popular superstitions. He took nothing for granted and, like Socrates, went about asking questions. Nothing pleased him more than to get a bevy of bright young girls about him and teach them how to think clearly and reason logically.

One great advantage of the years my sisters and myself spent at the Troy Seminary was the large number of pleasant acquaintances we made there, many of which ripened into lifelong friendships. From time to time many of our classmates visited us, and all alike enjoyed the intellectual fencing in which my brother-in-law drilled them. He discoursed with us on law, philosophy, political economy, history, and poetry, and together we read novels without number. The long winter evenings thus passed pleasantly, Mr. Bayard alternately talking and reading aloud Scott, Bulwer, James, Cooper, and Dickens, whose works were just then coming out in numbers from week to week, always leaving us in suspense at the most critical point of the story. Our readings were varied with recitations, music, dancing, and games.

As we all enjoyed brisk exercise, even with the thermometer below zero, we took long walks and sleighrides during the day, and thus the winter months glided quickly by, while the glorious summer on those blue hills was a period of unmixed enjoyment. At this season we arose at five in the morning for a long ride on horseback through the beautiful Mohawk Valley and over the surrounding hills. Every road and lane in that region was as familiar to us and our ponies, as were the trees to the squirrels we frightened as we cantered by their favorite resorts.

Part of the time Margaret Christie, a young girl of Scotch descent, was a member of our family circle. She taught us French, music, and dancing. Our days were too short for all we had to do, for our time was not wholly given to pleasure. We were required to keep our rooms in order, mend and make our clothes, and do our own ironing. The latter was one of my mother's politic requirements, to make our laundry lists as short as possible.

Ironing on hot days in summer was a sore trial to all of us; but Miss Christie, being of an inventive turn of mind, soon taught us a short way out of it. She folded and smoothed her undergarments with her hands and then sat on them for a specified time. We all followed her example and thus utilized the hours devoted to our French lessons and, while reading "Corinne" and "Télémaque," in this primitive style we ironed our clothes. But for dresses, collars and cuffs, and pocket handkerchiefs, we were compelled to wield the hot iron, hence with these articles we used all due economy, and my mother's object was thus accomplished.

As I had become sufficiently philosophical to talk over my religious experiences calmly with my classmates who had been with me through the Finney revival meetings, we all came to the same conclusion-that we had passed through no remarkable change and that we had not been born again, as they say, for we found our tastes and enjoyments the same as ever. My brother-in-law explained to us the nature of the delusion we had all experienced, the physical conditions, the mental processes, the church machinery by which such excitements are worked up, and the impositions to which credulous minds are necessarily subjected. As we had all been through that period of depression and humiliation, and had been oppressed at times with the feeling that all our professions were arrant hypocrisy and that our last state was worse than our first, he helped us to understand these workings of the human mind and reconciled us to the more rational condition in which we now found ourselves. He never grew weary of expounding principles to us and dissipating the fogs and mists that gather over young minds educated in an atmosphere of superstition.

We had a constant source of amusement and vexation in the students in my father's office. A succession of them was always coming fresh from college and full of conceit. Aching to try their powers of debate on graduates from the Troy Seminary, they politely questioned all our theories and assertions. However, with my brother-in-law's training in analysis and logic, we were a match for any of them. Nothing pleased me better than a long argument with them on woman's equality, which I tried to prove by a diligent study of the books they read and the games they played. I confess that I did not study so much for a love of the truth or my own development, in these days, as to make those young men recognize my equality. I soon noticed that, after losing a few games of chess, my opponent talked less of masculine superiority. Sister Madge would occasionally rush to the defense with an emphatic "Fudge for these laws, all made by men! I'll never obey one of them. And as to the students with their impertinent talk of superiority, all they need is such a shaking up as I gave the most disagreeable one yesterday. I invited him to take a ride on horseback. He accepted promptly, and said he would be most happy to go. Accordingly I told Peter to saddle the toughest-mouthed, hardest-trotting carriage horse in the stable. Mounted on my swift pony, I took a ten-mile canter as fast as I could go, with that superior being at my heels calling, as he found breath, for me to stop, which I did at last and left him in the hands of Peter, half dead at his hotel, where he will be laid out, with all his marvelous masculine virtues, for a week at least. Now do not waste your arguments on these prigs from Union College. Take each, in turn, the ten-miles' circuit on 'Old Boney' and they'll have no breath left to prate of woman's inferiority. You might argue with them all day, and you could not make them feel so small as I made that popinjay feel in one hour. I knew 'Old Boney' would keep up with me, if he died for it, and that my escort could neither stop nor dismount, except by throwing himself from the saddle."

"Oh, Madge!" I exclaimed; "what will you say when he meets you again?"

"If he complains, I will say 'the next time you ride see that you have a curb bit before starting.' Surely, a man ought to know what is necessary to manage a horse, and not expect a woman to tell him."

Our lives were still further varied and intensified by the usual number of flirtations, so called, more or less lasting or evanescent, from all of which I emerged, as from my religious experiences, in a more rational frame of mind. We had been too much in the society of boys and young gentlemen, and knew too well their real character, to idealize the sex in general. In addition to our own observations, we had the advantage of our brother-in-law's wisdom. Wishing to save us as long as possible from all matrimonial entanglements, he was continually unveiling those with whom he associated, and so critically portraying their intellectual and moral condition that it was quite impossible, in our most worshipful moods, to make gods of any of the sons of Adam.

However, in spite of all our own experiences and of all the warning words of wisdom from those who had seen life in its many phases, we entered the charmed circle at last, all but one marrying into the legal profession, with its odious statute laws and infamous decisions. And this, after reading Blackstone, Kent, and Story, and thoroughly understanding the status of the wife under the old common law of England, which was in force at that time in most of the States of the Union.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top