“The Solitude of Self” seems to be a curious title for a book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a woman known for her dedication to women’s suffrage, who forged strong friendships with other leaders of the time, and who always seemed to have a house full of children and visitors. But author Vivian Gornick explains that Stanton came to realize later in life that each person is alone and that we each maintain our prejudices and difficulties seeing others as being as “real” as ourselves. Ultimately, then, we define ourselves as solitary beings, rather than cohesive groups. According to Gornick, Stanton argues that society and religion teach that “Silence is most becoming a woman.” It is this enforced silence that alienates people, furthering their solitude. The implications for our future situation are clear, but must be gleaned by the reader.
Gornick’s writing is succinct and brilliant, pulling together relevant excerpts from Stanton’s own writings and letters among friends to give us an understanding of the complicated political situation of the time. There are plausible explanations as to why Stanton’s speeches were so long (sometimes two hours!) and why she spoke out for so many different aspects of women’s lives, such as against long skirts and hair, and for the right to divorce. “Social freedom lies at the bottom of it all.” Most importantly, though, Stanton realized that any advances granted individually would be seen as “favors” and could be taken away by the government, unless women had the right to vote and a say in such legislation.
While it is clear that Gornick fully admires and appreciates Stanton, the latter is not portrayed as an angel. Gornick discloses that Stanton, a brilliant writer and orator, had her own blind spots. African-Americans were fighting for the vote during this same time period, and the two groups often pitted themselves against each other rather than working together for equality for all. These kinds of divisions still exist among civil rights groups today, and we realize the prevalence of “the solitude of self” even in activism. Gornick’s book is profound reading for anyone who wonders why social progress is such slow and tedious work.