"A solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self." Not exactly oratory to rouse the passions of suffragettes in 1892. And indeed, when 76-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke these words to a meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association, a schismatic group (the result of a bitter feud between friends) about to reunite with Stanton and Susan Anthony's American Woman Suffrage Association, she spoke them into a stony silence. Why was the fiery leader of 40 years of movement struggle standing on an empty stage, talking about loneliness rather than solidarity?

Journalist Vivian Gornick, a feminist and activist for three decades, believes that she understands this puzzling speech late in Stanton's life. In her slim, passionate book, The Solitude Of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gornick essays a kind of dual psychological mini-biography. She places her own feminist awakening in the '70s alongside Stanton's sudden realization in 1840 that the abolition movement had no intention of allowing women, whatever their color, to be full citizens alongside the black men for whose freedom it agitated. The sense of injustice, Gornick argues, does not impel humans to action until it is felt in the body—the cold chill of anger when a woman finds that that the men looking so kindly at her truly don't see her as a human being like themselves. Gornick believes that every few decades, when the gains of civil rights movements plateau and the sense of urgency recedes, oppressed people can experience a new existential shock, feeling in a new way what's at stake in the continuing fight.

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For Stanton, that mature recognition came in the 1892 speech, an argument that full citizenship rights are imperative because, finally, we are alone in the world and must be ready to depend only on our own faculties and resources. To learn to do so, women must deny themselves the protective illusion of dependency and gain access to all the tools available for survival. Gornick makes this strange message meaningful by selecting from the ups and downs of Stanton's tempestuous, busy life to show how she realized her own essential solitude. Her book doesn't inspire; it's no Chicken Soup For The Feminist Soul. But its story of deepening, revivifying insight over two lives grounds those ideas in hard-won experience, and shows how Stanton drew a profound philosophy from her times—which have changed, but not yet enough.