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What you should do is to say to outsiders that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our Association than an atheist. When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself shall not stand upon it.

Susan B. Anthony at The annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C, January, 1896

Speaking to a resolution put forward at the 28th annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1896, American suffragist Susan B. Anthony called on those present to remember ‘the right to individual opinion of every member’. The resolution at hand was to state that the NAWSA had ‘no official connection with the so-called ‘Woman’s Bible’’: a work written by American suffragist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of women, which sought to examine the Bible and its ramifications for women. Stanton had concluded that ‘the Bible in its teachings degrades women from Genesis to Revelation,’ and that if the Darwinian theory was accepted instead of the biblical account of creation, ‘we can exonerate the snake, emancipate the woman, and reconstruct a more rational religion for the nineteenth century’. These were sentiments which underpinned the humanism of many fellow freethinking feminists, but scandalised many other women, who saw any challenge to religious ideas as harmful to the suffragist cause.

Anthony, though, was firm in her defence of Stanton’s right to question the Bible, asking: ‘Who can tell now whether Mrs. Stanton’s commentaries may not prove a great help to woman’s emancipation from old superstitions that have barred her way?’ Cautioning against censorship, Anthony pleaded that the assembled not cast ‘a vote of censure upon a woman… who has stood for half a century the acknowledged leader of progressive thought and demand in regard to all matters pertaining to the absolute freedom of women’. Nevertheless, the resolution was adopted 53-41.

Considered a ‘founding mother’ of the American women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a close friend of Moncure Conway (who delivered her funeral oration) and spoke more than once before ethical societies in London. In 1883, she had addressed South Place on the question ‘What has Christianity done for Woman?’. Recalling conversations with Stanton and Anthony on matters of religion and women’s rights, Conway described the pair as ‘equally freethinking’. This inkstand was used by Anthony during her time publishing women’s rights weekly The Revolution between 1868–1872. As well as a symbol of the vital importance of the written word to activists for human rights – and for humanism – it is a reminder of the international networks and close correspondence between freethinkers in the UK, US, and across the world.

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