Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 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.
When I used to teach the Psychology of Women course, I always showed this fabulous documentary by Ken Burns 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.
The function of freedom is to free somebody else.
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 women’s suffrage. Neither was ever able to vote legally (Anthony did vote once but was soon arrested for it). Both women 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 the coming spring will see sprout and 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?
The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
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.” For example, I was talking with a neighbor at a Halloween party. That happened to be the day when the Earth’s human population reached 7 billion and, as a result, the topic of overpopulation came up. I mentioned how bad it is for the Earth’s environment to be so people-heavy and that eventually it will negatively impact the human race. My neighbor said, “Well, 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 (and believe me, I could provide many others), I was flabbergasted at not only the lack of care for others but 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.
An individual has not started living until he [sic] can rise above the narrow confines of his [sic] individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
Martin Luther King Jr.
As a psychologist, it is my job to care about other people. If I didn’t, then I could just say, “Snap out of it!” and go on my merry way. Instead, I work hard to help others heal and to teach them how to make their lives better. A lot of times I do not immediately see the results I hope will occur. 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 and it is the reason why I consider my work as analogous to that of a gardener. We both plant seeds in the hope that one day they will bloom. This is especially true when I work with families. As a family psychologist, it is always my hope that teaching today’s families how to improve upon the dynamics of their family of origin will ensure that future generations will have it even better. Thus, I approach my work in a way that is similar to that of Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, who wrote, “We are looking ahead…to make sure…every decision that we make relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come…”
Thus, on a professional level, 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. However, even more than that, I find it unhealthy. Narcissism is a personality disorder which means that it is considered a severe mental illness. Other disorders, even common ones like addiction and depression, also have narcissistic components. People who suffer from addiction focus on the “high” to the exclusion of the concerns of others. And those who experience depression often get caught up their own thoughts and feelings.
Beyond actual mental illness, though, is the need for us to be connected with others. I have as my business motto, “Connection is the key” and it truly is. As I’ve said before (see “Shots Heard Round the World; Let’s Look at the Bigger Picture” and “United We Stand: The Power of Togetherness in ‘The Avengers’”) and no doubt will again, 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 women 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. That is a fitting legacy.