The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: Women’s Political Activism during the “Woman Suffrage” Era

Week 5

This week we continued with the topic from last week – the rise and transformation of woman suffrage movement – then turned to a discussion of some of the varieties of ways women were active in and had influence on politics (other than suffrage activism) from the Civil War up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Using our reading of Faye Dudden’s Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America and a  Suffrage Timeline detailed of the major events of the rise and transformation of the woman suffrage movement, we sought to understand it within a framework of understanding coalition politics in context, as discussed last week.

We began by outlining a set of questions that would frame our year-by year (1833-1870) discussion:

  • How did a social movement seeking woman suffrage arise?

The woman suffrage movement arose largely from within the antislavery movement. Our discussion ranged around the evidence we found last week of how many women’s experiences within the antislavery movement gave them new skills and experiences, shifted their understandings of their potential political and social roles, and gave them an increasing awareness of the limitations they faced because of gender limitations and discrimination by law and social norms and within the antislavery movement and organizations. Their primary support in the early days was from within the antislavery movement, even when they were excluded from membership in some of it and from leadership in most of it. Important parts of the women’s rights/ woman suffrage movement was so much a part of the antislavery movement that in its earliest days, with considerable disagreement among women about what women’s rights they should pursue and how, the major point of agreement within the women’s rights movement was the need for abolition of slavery.

  • How and why did it become an independent movement?

The question here is how did the women’s rights/ woman suffrage movement transform itself from being essentially a part of the antislavery movement to becoming its own movement. For the answer to this we look deeply at the political turmoil surrounding the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Kansas campaign, and the campaigns in New York and Washington, D.C. Ultimately, of course, women realize that in their struggle for women rights, especially the vote, no one is going to fight for them the way they will themselves. Even if they remain in coalition with the post-emancipation antislavery movement (as most woman suffrage advocates did in this period, although in different ways), like other political organizations they could not just depend on another movement or a particular political party, but had to establish their own organizations and develop their strategies and tactics.  We tracked this in detail, examining especially the roles of both sexism (on the part of both men and women in different ways) and racism (on the part of many of the white antislavery and woman’s suffrage leaders) in these dynamics.

  • How does our understanding of the dynamics of coalitions apply to this process?

It is difficult to understand the politics of this period without understanding both the antislavery movement and the women’s rights/woman suffrage movement as coalition within themselves and across. We compared the 1840 split within the abolition movement and the fissures and ultimately breaks of the 1850s-1860s that occurred in the history of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the American Equal Rights Association, and the ultimate formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. All of these are much more complicated than often pictured.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the coalitional aspects of these movements is the degree to which both the deep sexism and racism of the period, and of so many of these actors created the dynamics of fissure and breakup while at the same time many of the leaders struggled nevertheless to continue to work in some form of coalition.

  • What contextual factors shaped the rise and transformation?

We looked at the impact of changing technology, regional differences, religion, but most of all the rise of the Republican vs Democratic party system and the special relationship between the Republican party and the antislavery movement. As party competition became more important, and linked especially to the struggles over rights for African American men, much of the situation these movements faced and their opportunities came from the actions of political parties and party leaders whose stance toward these movements came from their interest in winning elections. Increasingly political parties became more crucial in the coalitional aspect of suffrage expansion, and even some of the internal dynamics of the movements.

  • Were women selfish to demand rights for themselves?

Perhaps an odd question, but one of the age-old expectations of women is that their lives are devoted to the service of others, that is they take care of themselves, ever put themselves first, they are being selfish. So in principle, was it selfish for women to want rights for themselves?

  • Women were told to “wait their turn.” When did folks decide it was “women’s turn?”

The tactical and strategic issues in the period of struggles over the 14th and 15th Amendments, then what many woman suffrage leaders hoped would be the 16th Amendment, plus the struggles in the Kansas, New York, and Washington, DC campaigns came to a head in the conflict between on the one hand, some of the woman suffrage leaders, who believed that Reconstruction would be deep and wide, completing the ideals of the American Revolution by incorporating African Americans and women into full citizenship and who believed that strengthening the coalition of continued emancipation for African Americans and the rights of women would be strategically and tactically most effective, and on the other hand, the leaders who thought that increasing rights for African American men was much more important, more likely, and that keeping women’s rights in the picture would weaken the effort and lead to its defeat.

Encapsulated by Wendell Phillips’ claim that this was “the Negro’s hour” (by which he meant black men), and the cutting off of the funds and newspaper coverage on which the woman suffrage movement had depended, the woman’s suffrage advocates were cut out on the premise that their turn would come later. But as voting rights for African American men spread, in the South during Reconstruction, and in other locations, African American women, along with all other women, were left behind, left to fight in independent woman suffrage movements.

In our walk through the early woman suffrage movement timeline we also devoted attention to a number of other major questions. One of the most important was the nature of the sexism, racism, and ethnic slurs (the latter in the Frederick Douglass’ expression at outrage in the defeat of black suffrage in New York) in the various turns of the movements and the role they played. (“drunken Irishmen and ignorant Dutchmen,…the tools of the negro-hating Democracy of this city, many of whom would sell their votes for a glass of whiskey.”) Those who are familiar with the racist views and expressions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in particular have often interpreted her arguments (and Anthony’s) to say that they believed that white women should be given the right to vote before any African Americans.

In actually reading those statements and the events, it seems more accurate to conclude something else: They remained, almost consistently throughout this period, advocates of voting rights for African Americans and women, noting that extension of the right to vote on the basis of race did nothing for African American women – a point that both Josephine Griffing and Sojourner Truth also made. Their argument was that they could not understand the argument for extending the right to vote to African American men (or other ethnic/racial minority men) before any women. They were opposed to the dominant legislative views – and views of many antislavery movement leaders – that the vote should be extended to men first. Their stated rationales, of course, were based in appalling racist views and rhetoric.

We also explored the rationale offered by Frederick Douglass for prioritizing black men, that “With us the matter is a question of life and death.” “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; … then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” As some women pointed out, the same was true of black women, to which Douglass responded that that was because of their race, not sex.  The complication is that, as many scholars have pointed out, race violence is also gendered, and black women remained subject to sexualized race violence.

But also, in the 19th century, few people would recognize, and even fewer would speak of the prevalence of privatized violence against women, sanctioned for so long within the family by laws that tolerated domestic abuse and would not recognize rape within marriage. Woman’s rights advocate did fight for some legal changes to protect women, but some woman suffrage advocates may well have recognized what feminists would be likely to understand in our day: those without political rights and power are subject to violence by those with political rights and power.

In the end, we cannot know whether a strong coalition would have had any impact positive or negative on the expansion of rights at that time. But we do know the opportunity for woman suffrage, if it had existed, was gone by 1870. The 15th Amendment and the expansion of the vote for African American men did nothing for African American women. And once Reconstruction was finished, in the 1870s, and Jim Crow roared in full force, the 15th Amendment also did nothing for African American men in the former Confederacy.

We then turned to the topic scheduled for this week: Women’s political activism from the 1870s until ratification of the 19th Amendment. The point was to emphasize two major themes. First, the woman suffrage movement was not the only game in town with respect to women’s political activism. Second, it is important to explore how women, with their expanding education, roles, and political consciousness, could engage in politics and have an impact despite lacking the right to vote.

I assigned a list of 14 different books and articles considering different groups, activities, periods, etc – from which they were each supposed to pick a book or small handful of articles and be prepared to discuss them and teach others what they learned in class. I like this mode of teaching – taking an underlying theme or problem, and letting them pick their specific readings according to their interests.

We began with an in-depth discussion of Estelle Freedman’s classic “Separation as strategy,” to consider the benefits and drawbacks of women’s separate organizing, and at different period of history. I shared with them the context in which Freedman wrote this piece, in the 1970s, and what was going on then. The discussion was excellent, and they were able to apply it to the other articles they read, and back to our work on the suffrage movement.

We then considered some different pieces on the women’s club movement, including those that considered differences between women’s clubs and work both in white and in black communities. We turned from that to some pieces on Ida B. Wells, focusing especially on her anti-lynching campaign and the work she did in transatlantic activism. As always, and still astounding to me every time, most of the students did not know about the anti-lynching campaign or Wells’ leadership and activities.

We ran out of time (no surprise), so next week we will begin by completing our tour through work on women’s activism, then move on to the state-by-state suffrage campaigns.

The slides from this week are here. PO59519AMENDPOLITICALACTIVISMPPT

The entire blog is available here: