When White Suffragists Campaigned Against Black Voting Rights

It was a shock to me to learn, when I was researching my new book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, that the two matriarchs of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — campaigned against black voting rights in the aftermath of the Civil War.

During the war, as the Union fought the Southern declaration of secession, they volunteered for humanitarian efforts on the home front, supporting the North and temporarily putting aside their efforts to win rights for women. Anthony did not want to stop lobbying for women’s right to vote just because the nation was at war, but Stanton convinced her, sure that their patriotism would be rewarded afterward.

She was wrong.

Nearly 200,000 African-American men served as soldiers or sailors for the Union military. After the war, Republicans sought to honor their service by enacting the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment that promised equal protection of the law (and whose “equal protection clause” has been the basis of so much successful reform litigation ever since) and the Fifteenth Amendment that promised voting rights to African-American men.

With female activists furious that they had been omitted from this great record of constitutional reform, Wendell Phillips, known for his eloquence as abolitionism’s “Golden Trumpet,” drew a distinction between the two great reform movements of the antebellum era. This was “the Negro’s hour,” he explained, a time when the sacrifices of blacks in both slavery and war had earned them the right to march first into the polls. For women there would be a Sixteenth Amendment. “Causes have their crises,” said Phillips. “That of the negro has come; that of the woman’s rights movement has not yet come.”

But Stanton was not willing to wait. Appealing to race and class, she campaigned against the Fifteenth Amendment that guaranteed the voting rights of black men. She criticized Republicans for ignoring the rights of fifteen million women while empowering two million black men who, she said, “do not know the difference between a Monarchy or a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book.” As Susan B. Anthony explained in a letter to the New York Times, “By the Fifteenth Amendment, the Republican Party has elevated the very last of the most ignorant and degraded classes of men to the position of master over the very first and most educated and elevated classes of women.”

This contest over the Fifteenth Amendment splintered the women’s movement into two rival organizations that crippled the cause for more than 20 years. Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell, staunch abolitionists, supported the Fifteenth Amendment. They formed the American Woman’s Suffrage Association, publishing the movement’s prominent newspaper, The Woman’s Journal. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, publishing the incendiary newspaper The Revolution, funded by their associate George Train, a businessman who disdained black voting rights.

Noting the contribution of nearly 200,000 black soldiers in the Union Army, Stanton made the case against black enfranchisement — as long as women were denied the ballot — in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on December 26, 1865.

“As self-preservation is the first law of nature, would it not be wiser to keep our lamps trimmed and burning, and when the constitutional door is open, avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the black soldier to walk in by his side and thus make the gap so wide hat no privileged class could ever again close it again the humblest citizen of the republic?”

I came across this sordid history when I was researching my book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote. I was horrified to learn that two women I respected as leaders in an important political movement for freedom had campaigned against the rights of newly-freed and marginalized black men.

But then, when the 2008 election found Hillary Clinton running against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, the issue seemed to resurface, racial undertones the subtext of the nation’s history. Now, as we celebrate Black History Month, it is sobering to recall how often the rights of women and those of African Americans have been at odds.

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