The Once and Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A Blog: The Rise & Early Transformations of the Suffrage Movement

Week 4

The rise of an independent woman suffrage movement is a fascinating story of transformation of the anti-slavery movement and the ensuing conflict within interlinked social movements over priorities, values, and strategies, all conditioned by national and regional politics and the rise of the American party system. Today we went back to the anti-slavery movement to chart an overview of women’s involvement and the impact of the movement on women, then focused on the rise and transformation of the woman suffrage movement up its break-up and dormancy beginning around 1870.

We began by looking again at the anti-slavery movement, picking out high-level themes from our discussion of Zaeske’s Signatures of Citizenship that would help us enter our discussion of the rise of the woman suffrage movement. We discussed four questions:

  • How did women, especially white women in the North, get involved in the anti-slavery movement? Why did male leaders welcome their involvement, but not include them in leadership?
  • What was the path they took from considering slavery as a moral issue to developing a more political consciousness about slavery? How did these different frameworks shape how they understood what they were doing in their antislavery work, and how did that relate to their understandings of appropriate women’s roles?
  • Practicalities: What were their experiences? What skills and resources did it take? Imagine women in this era of a restricted woman’s sphere reaching out to ask people for signatures on petitions, explaining the issue to them.
  • What were the impacts of involvement in the antislavery movement on their own political identity, sense of citizenship, understanding of their relationship to the ideas of the American Revolution and American political values?

This week’s discussion launched from our reading of Faye E. Dudden, Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Both women’s history and African American history are often treated as though they are sui generis; they stand outside of “normal” history and considerations, and they are only about itself – African American history is about African Americans; women’s history is about women. In contrast, I believe it is important to understand the social movements we are discussing as cases to further our understanding of core aspects of the history of American democracy; to place them in a broader historical context; and to study them through a framework of what social scientists have learned about the dynamics of social movements. I therefore proceeded with a brief lecture on the nature of social movements, in light of which we will proceed to examine the rise and transformations of the woman suffrage movement.

My lecture emphasized 4 points and their implications. (1) Groups and individuals who have the power and resources to use conventional political structures and processes do not launch social movements. (2) Social movements usually take off because of some precipitating event – especially an event that politicizes what was not previously understood as political, and that creates a motivation for different groups and organizations to work together over shared concerns. (3) Social movements are not single, particular organizations. Social movements contain and link together different organization as well as people who are not members of particular organizations. (4) Finally, and most important, social movements are coalitions of groups and individuals with overlapping but different issues, priorities, and approaches to action.

The nature of social movements as coalitions almost always means they are fundamentally fragile, always threatened by the centrifugal forces of their differences in a context of limited power and resources. It is useful to analyze the different groups and organizations within a social movement in terms of:

  • Shared vs different social bases, including those deriving from geographic location
  • Shared vs different specific issue concerns;
  • Shared vs different priorities, even where they share issue concerns;
  • Shared vs different preferred strategies/tactics

Given this, it is amazing, frankly, when social movements rise and become sustainable for a significant period of time.

Social movements cannot be understood out of context, especially contextual features that change over time. These changes, in turn, may heighten the significance of what is different across coalition partners, as compared with what is shared. Stressors such as insufficient resources or other crises may create the need for creating sharper priorities for the use of available resources or reconsidering their repertoire of strategies and tactics increase the potential for combustion of the coalition.

How, then, can we apply this framework to the antislavery and woman suffrage movements? What examples could we see in the 1830s – 1870 period?  The students readily found many examples in discussion, and led them to a very nuanced discussion of critical periods in this history, especially with respect to the 1840 split in the abolition movement and the conflicts within the antislavery/woman suffrage alliance and the woman suffrage movement itself.

One important implication of the idea of a social movement as a coalition is that the common tendency to define the woman suffrage movement in terms of a single organization – the NWSA and its leaders (Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) or even the NWSA and the AWSA is wrong. It is especially misleading in discussions of African American women in the woman suffrage movement, by defining their organizations as somehow outside of or different from the woman suffrage movement. A social movement considered as a coalition involves groups and individuals who may work together explicitly, or may work together in parallel.

Thus, in terms of race and the woman suffrage movement, we will examine where we find race integrated groups, organizations, and actions and where we find race segregated groups, organizations, and actions. We will look at where there are conflicts along race lines within the woman suffrage and antislavery movements.  And we will consider the variety of orientations intersectionally across race and gender in issues, priorities, and actions.

Before we turned to specifics of the woman suffrage movement history we considered a couple of other framing problems and concerns:

We have to be very careful about certain critical core terms, all of which are used or interpreted with different meanings at different times, making all the difference in the world in discussions of the politics of rights and citizenship:

  • “Man.” When does this mean male? Or human? Or a citizen? Or a male citizen?
  • “Women,” “Woman suffrage,” “Woman suffrage movement.” Does this mean all or any woman>? Some women only? Which women?
  • “Universal suffrage.” This is sometimes meant to refer to all adults, sometimes all male adults, sometimes all white male adults.
  • “White,” “Black,” “Negro.” Depending on context, these terms referred to race, sometimes to race and gender.

Understanding these terms in context – as used in documents, speeches, etc. – takes great care, and makes a lot of difference.

It is also important to understand how deeply unpopular the antislavery movement and antislavery activists were, even where people did not approve of slavery itself. Participating in the movement was challenging and often dangerous, especially for women. It was dangerous for women both because the abolition movement was unpopular and because most people did not approve of women becoming active in politics.  Likewise, the woman’s rights movement and woman suffrage movement was deeply unpopular. Throughout the period we are discussing, the very idea of women voting was widely regarded as so out of the question, so unnatural, proposals for woman suffrage could be safely ignored – not even attacked. Thus, there was nothing “conservative” about being part of the abolition or woman suffrage movement, ever. The deep racism we will see in parts of the woman suffrage movement, shows that people can engage in politics that is radical on some dimensions, and retrograde in others.

I prefer that historical “names” not be abstract, but have faces. We therefore took a few minutes to look at a gallery of images of some abolition and suffrage leaders the students have read a lot about in this early period and understand them as people; in chronological order: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Josephine Griffing, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, George Francis Train.

Finally, we launched into the launch of the woman suffrage movement.  We began with a discussion of how the movement arose in the first place.

Given that the woman suffrage movement grew out of the antislavery movement, and that race issues were such an important part of the story of the rise and early transformations of the movement, I wanted the students to deal seriously and deeply with questions of sexism and racism in this period, and how they understand it. I therefore asked them to spend a few minutes thinking over the following questions. I asked them to sketch some notes on what this question brought to their mind and how they resolved it. I told them I would not ask them to share their notes, or their self-reflections:

What do you think should have been the most important priority after Emancipation:

  • Universal suffrage (meaning gender & race inclusive)
  • Black male suffrage
  • White female suffrage

When we moved to discussion, I asked them to talk about how various leaders they read about answered these questions and why.

The discussion was rich and sophisticated, opening deep consideration of the variety of ways that racism and sexism played substantial roles in both movements and their transformations. With respect to sexism, the exclusions and/or relegation of women to foot soldier positions in the antislavery movement were deep and broad – part of the 1840 split in the abolition movement was over the role of women. We thought through what it would have felt like for women who had been active in antislavery for a decade, two, or three who had grown in their political consciousness to be told to that women should wait, subordinating their aspirations to others.

We talked about the choice among most African American (and white) male antislavery activists to prioritize extending the franchise to African American men but not women. We considered again the ways in which manhood and citizenship were so fundamentally tied, so that denying men their citizenship rights is “emasculating.” What is the equivalent for women? We also focused on the sexism (as we would understand it now) among women activists themselves, who adhered to many or most of the norms of the early 19th– century sphere of women – who were reluctant to speak in public or exert leadership or engage in overt disagreement and conflict with men, accepting the norm of deferring.

With respect to the racism of many white people in the antislavery and woman suffrage movement, we began by probing how it could be that someone would devote years, even decades to risky behavior fighting the existence of slavery, yet be manifestly (to our eyes) racist. (We compared the idea of men who respect many women, would be against many forms of gender discrimination, and yet be manifestly – to our eyes – sexist.) We explored the racist statements of Stanton and others – their timing, the text, the situation to understand the workings of the racism in the movement.

Contrary to many claims today, their point was not that the priority should be to enfranchise white women first. It was to say that it made no sense to them that inferior (i.e. uneducated, illiterate, etc.) mostly non-white but also white men (“Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung….” making laws for us.) The formulation they used was usually to say that not one more man of those categories should be granted the vote before women were – women who included so many more deserving citizens.”

We also explored some of the reasons why many white antislavery activists limited their understanding of the goals of that movement to ending slavery, while African American and many white antislavery activists saw a much broader emancipation agenda that would fight for equal rights.  It was clear to everyone in class that this analysis does not make the racism (or ethnocentrism, or class priority views) “better” or less vile. But it is important to understand the dynamics of both the sexism and racism that were so fundamental to these movements.

Earlier we talked about the importance of context: All of this was conditioned also by some critical things going on in the larger political system – most especially, (1) sectionalism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; and (2) the rise of the American party system. For reasons we have read about, it is not possible to understand the politics of the social movements we are discussing without understanding the movements’ ties to the Republican party, and the way both the Republican and Democratic parties used and played the movements, exacerbating the divides and conflicts within them.

We ended the class with a return to the politics of coalition, including bringing it down to the personal human level in the relationships among Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, so full of conflicts over these questions, but also so linked in coalition and even friendship throughout their lives.  How does that happen?

Next week we will track in detail the particulars of the rise and early transformation of the woman suffrage movement, then explore the wide range of ways that women were active in politics throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries up to the 19th Amendment. It is crucial that we understand that the suffrage movement was far from the only political game in town for women and politics.

The slides for this class are here: PO50519thAMRiseofSuffMovePPT

A detailed timeline of the period we are discussing, which will also be the basis for some of next week’s work, is here: Suffrage Timeline detailed

The full set of blogs for each week of the Centennial course is here: