Akron Law professor publishes book on women’s rights pioneer
Legal News Reporter
Published: March 3, 2017
Tracy Thomas was watching a Ken Burns documentary about Susan B. Anthony one night about 12 years ago when she heard him mention Elizabeth Cady Stanton in passing.
Thomas, director of the Center for Constitutional Law at the University of Akron, wanted to learn more about Stanton, a 19th century abolitionist.
“She was instrumental in making changes to divorce and domestic violence laws, but I wasn’t finding much online,” said Thomas. “I just started reading Stanton’s papers because I teach family law. The more I read I thought, `Someone needs to know about this.’ “
While Stanton’s contemporary, Susan B. Anthony, became focused just on women’s right to vote, Stanton became a social activist fighting for women’s issues as a whole. Her causes included parental and custody rights, property rights, employment and income rights, divorce and birth control.
“She was very much a holistic thinker – state, church and public,” Thomas said. “As the suffrage movement got more conservative, Stanton kept going. I used to call her the Oprah of Women’s Rights. Everyone knew her then. But people don’t really know her today.”
Thomas is hoping her new book, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundation of Family Law” will change that.
The book explores Stanton’s intellectual and personal contributions to family law. Thomas argues that Stanton’s positions on divorce, working mothers, domestic violence, childcare and other topics were extremely progressive for her time.
“Stanton had seven children,” Thomas said. “Her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, was an abolitionist who later became a state legislator. He was gone 10 months out of the year. He was always gone from their farm. Her own work was trying to raise the kids while trying to change the world, although she eventually hired a cook and a live-in housekeeper. She wrote important speeches while she was nursing babies. Susan B. Anthony had to baby-sit.”
Thomas became increasingly intrigued the more she read of Stanton’s writings.
“She very much illustrated feminist legal theory,” said Thomas. “Today, everything is about money and joint custody. She cared about work-life balance issues. Part of the concern is that we’re losing that message. For her, mothering was very important but she didn’t think it should define her. `Feminism’ is such a charged word, but it’s really just understanding things on a woman’s level.”
Stanton became interested in women’s causes while watching a lot of her attorney father’s cases and clients at their home.
“She didn’t like to do housework or needlepoint,” the professor said of Stanton. “As a woman, you had no rights to your personal property. Her father had money and property but her husband never did. She felt the frustrations herself and she heard the stories early. She would write how frustrating it was to stay here with the kids while her husband got to go out.”
Stanton proposed 22 different legal reforms including no-fault divorce, equal divorce, joint property rights and a woman’s rights to her own income, and all but two are laws today.
“She didn’t want people to be in marriages unless they wanted to be,” Thomas said. “She thought people should have to be 25 to get married, but that you should be at least 18. The age at the time was 13 or 14. Her reforms seemed very crazy at the time.”
Thomas has been involved with five other publishing projects, but Stanton was her first single-subject book.
A labor of love, the book took her about 10 years to write.
“I was very naïve at how much went into writing a book,” she said. “I still had my job teaching family law, and I was raising my two children. They were 4 and 1 when I started. They are now 18 and 15. But I thought, if (Stanton) could do it, I could do it.”
Thomas said she continued to work on the book on a very off and on basis, with the full support of the university. She was able to get summer research and library grants.
Ryan Vacca, interim co-dean of The University of Akron School of Law, called Thomas’ book an extraordinary effort.
“Her research on Elizabeth Cody Stanton not only shines a new light on Stanton’s historical contributions to women’s rights, but also illustrates how these contributions are still of great importance today,” Vacca said.
Thomas grew up in Columbus and graduated from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Prior to joining Akron Law in 1998, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and was a litigation attorney for Covington & Burling and Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington D.C.
Her research has been cited by the Supreme Courts of Georgia, Vermont and Washington, and the federal district courts of Nebraska.
She is also editor of the Gender & the Law Prof Blog (on Twitter @ProfTracyThomas).
A Hudson resident, she is married to Stephen Funk, a partner at Roetzel & Andress in Akron.
“I tried to write the book for an educated audience,” Thomas said. “Lawyers will appreciate it. There were no-fault divorces then and domestic violence law was not invented in the 1980s. This book taught me that history is not linear. It’s more cyclical. It’s more of an ongoing dialogue.”
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundation of Family Law” is available through NYU Press and Amazon.com.