The saying is that politics makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes, though, it also divides coalitions, turning allies into enemies. That's what happened in the campaign for women's right to vote and for American American's right to vote.
This week marks the 93rd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which stated that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The road to that amendment was complicated, sometimes crazy and morally conflicted.
In one peculiar episode, those advocating for African American rights ended up opposing women's rights, and those advocating women's rights ended up opposing American American's. This even though, only a short time earlier, the two movements had been deeply connected, even interdependent.
How that happened:
[B]y the spring of 1866, the women’s cause, as [Elizabeth Candy] Stanton had said, was in deep water. So [Susan B.] Anthony and Stanton, along with their allies in the abolitionist movement -- including Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and the radical editor Theodore Tilton -- formed the American Equal Rights Association for white and black men and women to lobby the government for universal equal rights for all, male and female, black and white. Eloquent as ever, Douglass declared, 'The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing at any time to hold up both hands in favor of this right.'
The path to securing that right had just been made more difficult, though: the Fourteenth Amendment had introduced the category of 'male' into the Constitution, where it had never been used before. 'If that word "male" be inserted,' Stanton gloomily warned, 'it will take us at least a century to get it out.'
Why not guarantee voting rights to all adult persons -- or, better yet, to citizens? she wanted to know. 'The disfranchised all make the same demand, and the same logic and justice which secures suffrage for one class gives it to all,' Stanton explained. She and Anthony hoped to have another friend in the popular orator Anna Dickinson. Douglass credited Dickinson, along with Theodore Tilton, for articulating what would become the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing black male suffrage, and she was also praised for educating the public about it. But Dickinson linked arms with moderate Republicans, who, along with many former abolitionists, unceremoniously reminded Stanton and Anthony that this was the 'Negro’s hour.' This was the nation’s hour, Stanton replied.
Everyone walks through the door or no one walks through the door, she said. Wendell Phillips disagreed with Stanton. The spokesman for the independent voter, the disenfranchised, and the cause of black equality, Phillips was not ready to speak up for women; he reiterated that the ladies' turn would come; they just needed to wait. He did not object to the enfranchisement of women per se, he said, but he thought that campaigning for 'woman suffrage' (as it was called) undercut the case for black males. One reform at a time. Stanton was furious. 'If the two millions of southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children,' she said, 'then their emancipation is but another form of slavery.'
Horace Greeley too, once a supporter of woman suffrage, took a step back. 'The ballot and the bullet go together,' he said, waving Stanton away. 'If you vote, are you ready to fight?'
Stanton answered, 'Yes, we are ready to fight, sir, just as you did in the late war, by sending our substitutes.'
|The 14th Amendment guaranteed "equal |
protection under the law" and
extended voting rights to males over 21.
Greeley was silent but never for long. 'Public sentiment,' the editor soon explained more temperately, 'would not sustain an innovation so revolutionary and sweeping.' The Negro's hour would swiftly pass if nothing were done; Stanton should know that. Charles Sumner felt the same way. Her timing was 'most inopportune,' he coldly explained. He categorically refused to have a black male voting bill 'clogged, burdened, or embarrassed' by the likes of woman suffrage. The war had been fought for the enfranchisement of black men, not for women. True, many former slaves were women. Since making her famous speech, known popularly as 'Ain’t I a Woman?,' that marvelous orator Sojourner Truth had been the representative of all blacks and especially of women; true, there were free black women such as Frances Watkins Harper, whose speeches had kept morale high during the war. That was irrelevant now. This was the Negro’s hour, which was to say the black man’s hour, even if black women would be doubly disenfranchised.
In the spring of 1867, at the first anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association in New York City, George T. Downing, an entrepreneur and leading black activist, asked Mrs. Stanton if she really believed that black men shouldn't have the vote until women did. Everyone should have the ballot, she replied; Reconstruction without universal suffrage did not interest her. Equal rights for all. Frankly, she continued, she didn’t trust the 'colored man' to safeguard her, a woman’s, rights. 'Degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are,' she explained. 'I declare that we go into the kingdom together.'
|The 19th Amendment was ratified|
on Aug. 18, 1920.
Annoyed, Downing asked his question a different way: whether Mrs. Stanton would really reject half a good result -- the enfranchising of men regardless of color -- if women didn’t get the vote. Digging in her heels, she retorted with an argument that alienated some of her supporters, both then and now. 'The wisest order of enfranchisement is to take the educated classes first,' she said. That is, why allow uneducated men to govern women? 'Would Horace Greeley, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith or Theodore Tilton be willing to stand aside and trust their individual interests, and the whole welfare of the nation to the lowest strata of manhood?' she asked. 'If not, why ask educated women, who love their country, who desire to mould its institutions to the highest idea of justice and equality, who feel that their enfranchisement is of vital importance to this end, why ask them to stand aside while two million ignorant men are ushered into the halls of legislation?' It was not her best moment.
From the crowd, a woman's voice shouted out, 'Shame! Shame! Shame!'The entire piece by Brenda Wineapple is well worth reading, as is Wineapple's book, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877.