COMMENT © 2023 The Rhetoric Society of America
Jessica Enoch’s “Suffrage Statuary and Commemorative Accountability” (RSQ 53.2) – Published on line 11 jul 2023
Myriam Miedzian and Gary Ferdman
Jessica Enoch criticizes the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument in New York City’s Central Park for celebrating “cross-racial alliance building while silencing indications of suffrage racism” (3). The statue “does so without inviting present and future audiences to reckon with or become accountable to the racism that propelled the work of [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton, [Susan B.] Anthony, and many other white suffragists” (12).
Enoch takes rampant racism existing and defining the woman suffrage movement as a given but nowhere does she substantiate that allegation. She provides quotes taken out of context but scant evidence, citing statue critics like New York Times columnists Brent Staples and Ginia Belafonte who buy into the white suffragists = racists paradigm. She highlights the focus on suffrage racism in Johns Hopkins University Professor Martha Jones’s Op-Ed and her book Vanguard. She omits academics and journalists like Bernadette Cahill, Elizabeth Cobbs, Suzanne Lebsock, Myriam Miedzian, Lynn Sherr, and Marjorie Sproul Wheeler, who challenge the built on racism thesis.
Enoch indicates that Staples’s and Jones’s evidence includes the erasure of Black suffragists from suffrage historiography. Staples repeats the myth that Stanton and Anthony rendered Black suffragists nearly invisible in The History of Woman Suffrage. Both were major contributors to the first three of six volumes; Anthony to the fourth.
Volumes I, II, and III have 85 references to Black women suffragists. Sojourner Truth is mentioned 50 times, Frances E. W. Harper 16, female Forten-Purvis family members 15. Volume IV has dozens of references to the contributions of Black women suffragists, including Mary Church Terrell, California organizer Naomi Anderson, and Harriet Tubman who was honored at two major suffrage events.
The Revolution, Stanton and Anthony’s publication, ran numerous articles about Black women, including descriptions of their speeches at conferences and white suffragists’ reactions. A 27 May 1869 article describing Ellen Frances W. Harper’s appearance at a Brooklyn event states, “I have heard a great deal of really splendid oratory in my day, and among the best and most effective speeches I have listened to I must include this of Mrs. Harper” (329).
One of the most ardent critics of white suffragists, Rosalyn Torberg-Penn, used The Revolution and The History of Woman Suffrage to discover Black suffragists (Harley and Torberg-Penn 20; Terborg-Penn 4).
Brent Staples asserts that no Black women were invited to the 1848 Seneca Falls conference. Invitations were not issued; the conference was announced in the July 14 Seneca County Courier and held five days later. Frederick Douglass attended; he was invited by a fellow member of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Several African Americans, including at least two women, were trustees or congregants of the abolitionist Wesleyan Methodist Church where the convention was held, so it was highly likely they attended (Alexander 98).
Enoch asserts that “Stanton and Anthony were elitists” who advocated primarily for white women’s rights and “couched their claims for suffrage in anti-Black rhetoric.” Her main “proofs” are Stanton’s use of the word Sambo and Anthony saying she would cut off her right arm before supporting the vote for Black men and not for women.
They made such comments when they were enraged after betrayal by their former abolitionist colleagues whose sexist male leaders excluded all women by supporting the vote for Black men only and took money for their purposes that had been bequeathed to the struggle for women’s rights by two wealthy suffragents. Stanton and Anthony vented their anger by questioning not the need for Black men to have the vote but the priority of suffrage for Black men only. A typical Stanton “Sambo” quote from The Revolution: “For our part, we prefer Bridget and Dinah at the ballot-box to Patrick and Sambo, though . . . we believe in equal rights to all, irrespective of sex or color” (26 February 1868, 120-121).
Truth shared Stanton and Anthony’s dismay at abolitionists giving the vote to Black men but not Black women. Addressing the first annual meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867, she said, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before” (Stanton et al. 193).
Harper’s case for extending the franchise to Black women included her concern that the women of her race, although no longer sold on the auction block, are subjected to “the legal authority of ignorant and often degraded men” (Stanton et al. 834).
Stanton and Anthony were concerned that immigrant men, coming from sexist cultures, illiterate or unable to read English, and former slaves kept illiterate by their owners would be more reluctant to endorse woman’s suffrage than men who had been reading and hearing pro-suffrage arguments for years. Their concern was based on Real Politick, not racism or elitism.
Philadelphia abolitionist leader and suffragist Robert Purvis warned Stanton and Anthony that “the great mass of Black men would give their influence like a dead weight against the equality of women”; if Black men only got the vote it would be much more difficult to extend it to all, including Black women (Dudden 93).
Purvis’s prediction was correct. Fifty years later, W.E.B. DuBois stated in the November 1917 issue of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s The Crisis that “[i]t is an unpleasant but well-known fact that, hitherto, American Negro voters have, in the majority of cases, not been favorable to women suffrage” (70). He urged Black men to vote YES for woman suffrage in New York State.
The problem is sexism, not racism. The double standard that prevailed included the sexist view that it was justifiable to sacrifice women’s suffrage—including Black women’s—to increase the chances of getting Black men the vote. Stanton, Anthony, Truth, and many other suffragists were convinced that this was the moment for women, and if it wasn’t seized it would take a very long time. As Truth put it, “I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again” (Stanton et al. 193).
The focus on a few utterances made in anger completely disregards the key roles in the abolition movement played by Stanton and Anthony. Enoch cites monument sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s artist’s statement that the three women may have been discussing abolition, but does not chronicle how important these alleged racists were to the abolition movement. Anthony’s speeches, some written by Stanton, were met with hostility; she was part of the Underground Railroad working with Harriet Tubman, and helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1864, Anthony and Stanton collected 400,000 signatures, playing a significant role in getting President Lincoln to endorse the 13th Amendment (Weiss 55).
Would a racist who cared only about upper-class white women write, “when we contrast the condition of the most fortunate women of the North with the living death colored men endure everywhere, there seems to be a selfishness in our present position. But remember, we do not speak for ourselves alone, but for all womankind. . . . for women of this oppressed race too who in slavery have known a depth of misery and degradation that no man can ever appreciate” (The Revolution, 28 January 1869, 49)?
While they had their political disagreements, Douglass never viewed Stanton and Anthony as racists. He praised Stanton for her freedom from racial prejudice, including having him and Truth as overnight houseguests, almost unheard of then even among abolitionists. Ahead of her time again, she approved of interracial marriage, including his.
Douglass was so admiring of Stanton and Anthony that he had portraits of them displayed prominently in his home. Anthony delivered a eulogy—written by her and Stanton—for Douglass at Washington’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal church.
Terrell was one of several Black women to eulogize Susan B. Anthony.
Does Enoch consider Staples and Belafonte more credible than Douglass and Terrell who understood that at a time when many if not most northern Americans were not particularly concerned with slavery or the second-class status of women, abolitionists and suffragists were to be admired, not put down because of some still shared prejudices that were universal at the time?
The repeated focus on racism in the suffragist movement goes back at least as early as the writings of Aileen S. Kraditor and Angela Davis.
They both focus on the suffrage movement’s use of racially charged rhetoric in southern states in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment, and the allegation that organizers of the 1913 Woman Suffrage parade in Washington, DC, forced all the Black women to march in the back as evidence of suffragist racism.
To create the possibility of women, including Black women winning the vote, the support of some southern states was needed to get the two-thirds votes needed in the US House and Senate, and to win passage in 36 of 48 state legislatures.
There was opposition from northern states whose pale, male, and Yale business leaders feared that women’s votes would make it harder for them to exploit the women and children working in their factories.
Black and white women would not have won the vote for decades without the nine southern senators who voted for the 19th Amendment and the legislatures of Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
Kraditor and Davis simply reject the possibility that pragmatism not racism led some suffragists to do the math and remind white southerners that their states had many more white women than Black, so it would be unlikely that women winning the vote would threaten the southern social order.
Suzanne Lebsock, analyzing the suffrage movement in Virginia, critiques Kraditor’s thesis of the pervasiveness of racism. Lebsock reminds us that “[r]esponsibility for the white supremacist dimensions of the woman suffrage debate rests squarely on the shoulders of the anti’s [anti-suffragists]” who used the threat of “social equality,” (65) linking southern suffragists to Catt and Anthony, exemplified by leaflets with quotes like this by Anthony, “...for all the higher virtues of heroism let us worship the black man at our feet” (75).
When the anti’s escalated their tactics, suffragists could “distance themselves from the aspirations of Black Virginians and hereby preserve some chance of victory or they could acknowledge the legitimate interests of Black women and doom the movement to certain failure” (Lebsock 76).
Black suffragists understood the dilemma. White suffragists asked the National Association of Colored Women, represented by Mary Church Terrell, to hold their application to join the National American Woman Suffrage Association until after the US Senate voted and “the Black women agreed to do so” (Neverdon-Morton 204).
In the critical state of Tennessee, after Black and white suffragists in Nashville had formed a close working relationship, Black leader Frankie Pierce did not join her white sisters in the gallery of the state legislative chamber during the decisive vote. She knew that, with the all-white male state legislature, her presence “could only hurt” (Weiss 244).
The pragmatism paid off. Woman suffrage was “the opening of a new chapter for African Americans” (Cahill 141) in the North. For example, Black leader Ida B. Wells working with two white allies and organized the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago enabling Black women voters to help elect the first Black US congressman in the twentieth century.
Regarding the claim that in the 1913 Suffrage parade, all Black women were forced to march in the rear, Belafonte, Davis, Kraditor, Staples, and all others who assert it, never bothered to look at Black Suffragist Carrie Clifford’s eyewitness account of the march in the NAACP’s The Crisis, April 1913: “More than forty Black women proceeded in their state delegations or with
their respective professions. Two were reported to have carried the lead banners for their sections. Twenty-five students from Delta Sigma Theta sorority from Howard University marched in cap and gown with the university women . . . ” (296).
While Alice Paul invited all suffragists to march, some organizers, concerned that many southern men would be in the crowd, feared that an integrated march would provoke violence. Some southern suffragists were concerned that marching alongside Black women would make their efforts back home more difficult. The idea that Black women walk in the back was discussed, but not enforced (Cassidy 49, 50).
Critics committed to finding racism focus on Ida Wells who was told by the head of the Illinois delegation, who was committed to Black women marching in the back, that she could not march with her colleagues. She joined the march in progress flanked by two of the white women who had defended her right to march with her delegation (The Chicago Tribune, Illinois Women Feature Parade 3).
In writing about the suffrage movement, Enoch does not provide a perceptive analysis of its seventy years of hard-won achievements for women’s rights, but focuses instead on its supposed racism. The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument is the first statue in Central Park’s over 160-year history to honor women. Instead of providing a study of how this hard- won achievement was brought about, Enoch focuses on the supposed racism of the statue and the committee responsible for it. In both cases, facts, history, and understanding of circumstances are neglected.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Alexander, Adele Logan. “Adella Hunt Logan, the Tuskegee Woman’s Club, and African Americans in the Suffrage Movement.” Votes for Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation, ed. Marjorie Sproull Wheeler, U of Tennessee P, 1995, p. 74.Cahill, Bernadette. Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party and the Vote. McFarland & Company, 2015.Cassidy, Tina. Mr. President. How Long Must We Wait? 37 Ink Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2019.The Chicago Daily Tribune, “Illinois Women Feature Parade.” March 3, 1913.Davis, Angela Y. Women Race & Class. Vintage Books, 1983.Du Bois, W. E. B., The Crisis, Volume 5, Issue 6.Dudden, Fay. Fighting Chance. Oxford UP, 2011.Harley, Sharon, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. The Afro-American Woman. 1997 ed., Black Classic P, 1978.Kraditor, Aileen S. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement 1890-1920. Anchor Books, 1971.Lebsock, Susan. “Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy: A Virginia Case Study.” Visible Women, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt and Susan Lebsock, U of Illinois P, 1993, pp. 63–100.Neverdon-Morton, Cynthia. Afro-American Women of the South. U of Tennessee P, 1989.Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Anthony, Susan B., and Gage, Matilda Joslyn, editors. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 2, Susan B. Anthony, 1861–1876.Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote. Indiana UP, 1998.Weiss, Elaine. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Viking, 2018.
About the Authors
Former Professor of Philosophy Dr. Myriam Miedzian is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link between Masculinity and Violence, and coauthor with her daughter Alisa Malinovich of Generations: A Century of Women Speak about Their Lives.
Retired not-for-profit executive Gary Ferdman worked for organizations focused on changing federal budget priorities and advancing democracy, including protecting and expanding voting rights.
Miedzian and Ferdman are the co-founders of Monumental Women.