Sometimes it’s easy to forget that admirable historical figures have all the flaws and prejudices that everyday people have. As painful as it can be, history should not be whitewashed. SuffragetteCity100 is committed to tell the whole story, even when it’s not pretty.
When the 14th Amendment introduced the word “male” into the Constitution (1868), it created divisions in the suffrage movement. The passage of the 15th Amendment (1870) broke it apart completely.
The 15th Amendment simply states: “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However combined with the wording of the 14th Amendment, it meant African-American men could vote, even former slaves.* Of course, Jim Crow laws made it so difficult to vote that many were still disenfranchised until the Civil Rights Movement.
The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) (Stanton/Anthony group) refused to help ratify the 15th Amendment and wanted to scrap it before it passed. The resentment of another group getting the vote first is understandable, but the things that were said were both racist and classist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the worst offender. Her attitude was that educated virtuous white women were more worthy of the vote. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the NWSA, declared “You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”
The American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA) (Stone/Blackwell/Howe group) supported the 15th believing that once African-American men had the right to vote they would help secure the vote for the women including African-American women, but there were still remarks made that were hurtful to the vision of equality. During a debate, Lucy Stone stated, “I thank God for that XV. Amendment...I will be thankful in my soul if anybody can get out of the terrible pit. But I believe that the safety of the government would be more promoted by the admission of woman as an element of restoration and harmony than the negro”
There is debate about Susan B Anthony’s statement because she uses the world “and” instead of “before,” when she said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.” Ms. Anthony’s quote could be about wanting universal suffrage, because she continued to work for racial equality in many ways but as the suffrage movement continued without victory she made racist remarks towards African-American suffragists. Frederick Douglass is sometimes labeled a sexist because he was for the 15th Amendment even though he was a huge supporter of women’s rights as well. Anything can be taken out of context and used as a weapon but it’s important to look at what was said and be willing to talk about it.
There were always women of color within the suffrage movement. (Modern historians are making huge strides in documenting people left out of the current narratives.) However, they were not seen as equals nor treated as such by the majority of white suffragists. It’s not enough to dismiss the racist remarks as being “women of their time.” True, these remarks would have not even raised an eyebrow in 1870, but blatant hypocrisies are out of line when someone is fighting for equality—and ultimately arguing over whose humanity deserves the vote first—because we are all “human.”
* Even with passage of the 15th Amendment, men of other races were still excluded from voting because of the word “citizen.” Immigrants from Asia had no pathway to citizenship but their children that were born in America were citizens and would be eligible. It would not be until repeals of several racist laws that they could be legally recognized as citizens and vote. People of Chinese heritage could become citizens in 1943 and those of Japanese heritage in 1953. Citizenship for Native Americans was recognized in 1924 but they were not allowed to vote in every state until 1962.
Recommended song: Cornflake Girl by Tori Amos https://youtu.be/mVSuSsoXABQ
*This song was written about the worst kind of betrayal. She explains how she wrote it in this interview https://youtu.be/hIEjGL-xPDE
Episode 26 Sources: