August 19, 2020
The Suffragists were not Racists
So Cancel the Cancel Culture and Celebrate An Accusation-Free Suffrage Centennial
BY Myriam Miedzian
President Barack Obama:
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly.” “The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. “
As a result of the 1970’s women’s rights movement, Women’s History departments were introduced in universities. Black History researchers found that the role of Black women in the 19th and early 20th century suffrage movement was largely invisible. Many concluded this was due to the alleged racism of white suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Op-ed writers and journalists relying on academics have been misled. They have brought accusations of suffragist racism to millions of readers-- The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Smithsonian, and other publications, as well as radio and TV shows have featured it. And so it has become “common knowledge” that the Suffrage movement including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony was racist.
Morgan State University History Professor Rosalyn Terborg-Penn is one of the most influential historians promoting this view, In her 1998 book African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote 1850-1920, she asserted that apart from Sojourner Truth, “the words of other Black female suffragists were all but absent” from the first volume of the History of Woman Suffrage--the first three volumes were edited by Stanton and Anthony.
In keeping with this, in an April 9, 2019 Smithsonian Magazine article, Alicia Ault writes that in the History of Woman Suffrage, Stanton and Anthony “left out the contributions of African American women.”
Wrong. The first three volumes by Stanton and Anthony contain 85 references to Black suffragists. Some of their speeches are quoted extensively. Considering that Black women made up 6% of the population, this represents an impressive number.
Terborg-Penn also asserted that the 1913 Washington D.C. Suffragist parade held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration was segregated--”Black women delegates were relegated to the end of the line.”
In keeping with this, in a January 17, 2019 New York Times op-ed, Ginia Bellafonte writes that Black women “were forced by white organizers to congregate in the back during a famous women’s march, in Washington, in 1913."
Wrong again! The April 1913 issue of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, provides a detailed description of the march which includes Black women walking with their state delegations and respective professions, and Howard University women walking with the university women.
Terborg-Penn claimed that in the 20th century when Suffrage leaders were focused on getting a Suffrage Amendment passed, “Black women were virtually abandoned by white female suffragists... [who] attempted to keep black suffragists disfranchised. [sic])”
In keeping with this, in a February 2, 2019 op-ed, New York Times columnist Brent Staples writes that “as the push for white women’s rights neared its goal-- a constitutional amendment-- the movement hedged its bets by compromising with white supremacy.”
The Amendment for all women’s voting rights. could not pass without some Southern votes, but most Southern legislators were dead set against it. Suffragist leaders faced with a classical “does the end justify the means,” problem decided that it did in this case. A few went South and when confronted with the “antis” told them that women getting the vote would not alter their way of life. They also asked black suffragists to keep a low profile; while some were offended by these requests, many understood the need to do so in the South. They complied, and put off some requests until after the amendment was passed. In Tennessee, Black women made no attempt to appear in the gallery when the state legislature passed the Amendment by one vote.
How can Terborg-Penn and so many other historians be so wrong?
Going back to the 1970‘s, historians disregarded the fact that when it comes to prejudice, black women are twice cursed. In addition to racism they are the victims of sexism. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to congress, in 1968, spent fourteen years as a congresswoman and commented “I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black in politics.” She does not suggest what is now described as intersectionality-- her emphasis is clearly on gender.
Historians picked the wrong underlying variable. Before the 1970’s Black women and White women were barely recognized as part of American history. (More on this later.)
It is not uncommon, once a particular theory becomes dominant, for it to influence and even constrict later thinkers. The tendency will be to pay more attention to facts that seem to support the theory and less to those that don’t, especially when the theory is consistent with cultural and political trends. Historical context, and pragmatic concerns tend to be overlooked. Instead of going back to original texts, the writings of previous authorities often become primary sources. These tendencies, by no means limited to historians, are important in explaining the “racism dominates” views of so many historians in this field.
U.S. history is tainted by the rabid racism of prominent politicians, supreme court justices, and organizations. Stanton, Anthony, and the Suffrage movement do not belong on this list, or even in its vicinity. This is not to deny that there were racist suffragists, especially in the South. How could there not be during a deeply racist historical period. Nor is it to deny that after the Civil War, Stanton and Anthony used some racist language. But it is to deny that these characteristics were in any way universal or dominant.
STANTON, ANTHONY, AND DOUGLASS: A FIFTY-YEAR WORKING FRIENDSHIP DESPITE POLITICAL DIVIDES
Conspicuously absent from most of the assessments of Stanton and Anthony’s alleged racism, are references to their relationship with Frederick Douglass who worked with them for over fifty years. He admired them so much portraits of both hung in his home.
He strongly disagreed with their post-Civil War negative stance on black men only getting the vote, and disliked some of their verbiage including “Sambo” and “bootblack.” But unlike contemporary accusers, he distinguished between distasteful comments made in anger at what they experienced as terrible injustice, and their deep dedication to the abolitionist movement which he considered far more important.
In 1861 Stanton-- despite her husband’s warning that she would be risking her life-- accompanied Anthony on a northern New York anti-slavery speaking tour. The danger was such that in Albany, the mayor sat on the platform with them, had police stationed all over the hall and outside the building, and with armed police, escorted them to and from their hotel
The threat of violence was not new to Anthony. Her nation-wide anti-slavery speeches were at times met by slavery supporters equipped with knives and guns.
During the Civil War, the Women’s Loyal National League, founded by Stanton and Anthony, collected close to 400,000 signed petitions to press in favor of a 13th Amendment freeing all slaves. Senator Charles Sumner, a staunch supporter, credited these petitions as the principal force behind the drive for the amendment which Lincoln approved in 1865.
On a personal level, both Douglass and abolitionist/suffragist, former slave, Sojourner Truth, had been Stanton’s house guests. In her biography, Sojourner Truth Princeton Professor Nell Irvin Painter states, “Recalling her hospitality in the days when respectable white people turned away blacks, he [Douglass] praised her for personal freedom from racial prejudice.”
The contemporary failure to acknowledge Stanton and Anthony’s deep commitment to abolitionism is typical of what President Obama warned against--the ”rush to arms against anyone who makes some mistakes while ignoring the main thrust of that person’s behavior and work.“
Ta-Nehisi Coates, expressed the same concern specifically about Stanton and Anthony. In an October 2011 Atlantic article he describes moving from accepting accusations of racism against them. to asking, how could they have gone from devoted abolitionism to racism?
To find the answer, he looked at the “unbridled sexism” abolitionist women were subjected to, including the 1840 London World Anti-Slavery Convention which a young Stanton attended. The women delegates were made to sit in the back behind a curtain. He comments, “Lady Byron ...Lucretia Mott and many remarkable women, speakers and leaders...were compelled to listen in silence to the mass of masculine platitudes on women’s sphere... Judging from my own feelings, the women on both sides of the Atlantic must have been humiliated, and chagrined.”
In conclusion, he writes, “I find myself in sympathy for both Stanton and Anthony who after devoting so much of their early lives to abolitionism, hoped for some reciprocity which did not come ... I think of Stanton and Anthony mis-stepping, but always pushing, always agitating, always expanding.” He concluded “I don’t need my personal pantheon to be clean. But I need it to be filled with warriors.”
Few historians share Coates’s empathy for the humiliations and injustices Stanton and Anthony suffered. As a result, the reputations of these two extraordinary women who worked together for fifty years to free the slaves and free all women from the “serfdom” to which second class citizenship condemned them, are sullied.
MANY ACCUSATIONS; LITTLE UNDERSTANDING OR EMPATHY
Shortly before the Civil War, two wealthy businessmen gave bequests for women’s suffrage and abolishing slavery. In 1865 at the war’s end, the bequest executor abolitionist Wendell Philips decided to keep virtually all the funds for black male suffrage. Philips told Stanton and Anthony they should defer to black males whose chances of getting the vote would be harmed if women asked for it simultaneously. (Isn’t it common bargaining strategy to start asking for more, in this case universal suffrage and settling for less, black male suffrage only?) He also insisted that “women were not ready for the vote.”
How could Stanton and Anthony not feel deeply disappointed and irate?
This male abolitionist behavior has rarely if ever led to accusations of sexism. In keeping with the focus on racism, in her recent book The Woman’s Hour Elaine Weiss suggests that Stanton and Anthony’s racist pronouncements led Phillips to withdraw the funds!
Stanton’s “vile elitism and racism” is allegedly exemplified in her statement, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”
Ta Nehisi Coates understood the “humiliation and chagrin” that the women experienced at the sexist London Anti-Slavery conference, Isn’t it just as understandable that Stanton and Anthony experienced as humiliating and deeply unjust that recent male immigrants-- many didn’t understand or speak English-- and former slaves kept illiterate by their masters would have voting rights, but women wouldn’t?
But for Pennsylvania State Professor Lori Ginzburg, author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Patrick and Sambo statement is “ugly... and unforgivable.”
In her book, Suffrage U.C.L.A Professor Ellen Dubois suggests these comments were so racist and elitist they left a taint on Stanton’s legacy “which equaled and at times overshadowed “ her extraordinary understanding and leadership. This, in spite of Dubois’s recognition that Stanton often followed her “racist, elitist” speeches by affirming that “suffrage is a natural, inalienable right” belonging to all citizens, black, white, male, female.
Clearly the first comments expressed anger; while the second affirmed deep convictions. Critics eager to prove racism, focus primarily on the angry utterances, and give short shrift to those advocating universal suffrage.
An examination of The Revolution archives does not substantiate the accusation that it frequently contained accusations of black on white rape.
There is only one frequently quoted article that can be interpreted as pointing to black on white rape despite the fact that it does not depict rape victims as white.
In an 1869 article Stanton wrote that “the Republican cry of ‘manhood suffrage’ creates an antagonism between black men and all women, that will culminate in fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the Southern states...”
She might have thought that by giving some voice to white legislators fears, she would encourage them to vote for suffrage which would greatly increase the white vote since there were about eight times more white than black women.
This article is disturbing, as are some other Stanton assertions -- references to the “pauperism, ignorance, and degradations” of male immigrants and freed slaves among them. The imagery in Anthony’s assertion, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” is unfortunate.
In his recent acclaimed book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Yale professor David W. Blight informs us that in the 1888 congressional election, Douglass supported a former confederate general, instead of a progressive black jurist as the Republican candidate for congress. Blight attributes this shocking decision to “an ugly rivalry.” As for Douglass’s early speeches on abolishing slavery, he apparently regularly described a drunken “Pat fresh from the Emerald Isle,” at the polls “leaning on the arms of friends, unable to stand.” Douglass “also contrasted Black people who admired modernity with uncivilized Native Americans who preferred primitive life. Blight deplores Douglass’s behavior in the 1888 election as well as his racist statements, especially those about Native Americans who were in the midst of losing battles to keep their land. But he deals with all this in passing, and this behavior in no way affects the main focus of his book which is a history of an extraordinary man who had a major positive effect on American history. Douglass’s blemishes represent short asides in the book. This is how it should be.
Why isn’t it so with Stanton and Anthony? They are extraordinary women whose writings, speeches, addresses to congress, and organizational skills played a major role in getting women the most basic rights-- to their children, to their salaries, to admittance to universities and professional schools, and to vote.? Why do a few distasteful words or sentences spoken in anger “overshadow” their life’s work? Is their an unconscious gender issue operating here?
BACK TO THE MISTAKEN ASSUMPTION
The assumption that black suffragists’ invisibility is due to white suffragist racism has got to go since both are invisible.
The real problem is sexist ignoring of women’s history. I recently examined middle and high school history books currently used in California, one of the more progressive states. Not one devoted an entire chapter to the subject of the subjugation of one half of the population, and the seventy-year struggle that won major rights for women. A page here and there was deemed sufficient.
When San Diego State University Professor of Education, Ronald Evans, asked a class of 30 students, how many had had a good amount of women’s history in High School, only two answered in the affirmative. It’s a topic that’s doesn’t get much attention in California schools, he told me. “It’s the occasional teacher who does it.”
Not much has changed since in 1909, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem (Gloria’s grandmother) chairwoman of the Committee on Education of the National Woman Suffrage Association, investigated Public School History and Civics textbooks. Her conclusion: they “did not show the slightest appreciation of the significance of the 'woman's movement... The impression conveyed by our textbooks is that this world has been made by men and for men... “
Even more disturbing, little has changed since the 1990‘s when Drs. Myra and David Sadker, authors of How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, documented the extreme absence of women from high school textbooks.
It is true that very few people have heard of Frances E. W. Harper, the 19th century black poet and ardent suffragist, but my personal experience and an informal survey I have run with respect to Elizabeth Cady Stanton reveals that only a tiny minority have heard of this leading 19th century women’s rights advocate. Sadly, her name is more familiar now as “that racist.”
Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth’s names tend to be more familiar. Anthony has a coin named after her, and six statues from coast to coast honor Truth. Nevertheless little is known about them.
In the May 2019 New York Times, columnist Brent Staples writes , the “History of Woman Suffrage... still dominates popular thinking on the early women’s rights struggle.”
My first reaction to reading this was “if only that were true.” I doubt that anyone but women’s history professors have ever heard of it.
In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Johns Hopkins History Professor, Martha S. Jones refers to “the figures of Stanton, Anthony, and Mott...memorialized in the Capitol in 1920.” She is referring to the statue donated to Congress in celebration of the 19th amendment. She assumes that since it was of white women, it was celebrated by its recipients. In fact it was of no interest to sexist congressmen, and spent 70 years in a basement broom closet. Thanks to the efforts of newly minted congresswomen, activist feminists, and descendants, the statue was brought up to the Rotunda in 1997. In 2009, Sojourner Truth’s bust was placed in the Capitol’s Executive Hall.
As Martin Luther King understood, the only way to bring about social change is through alliances between different groups of citizens.
The invisibility of all women should unite black and white feminists in working to take women’s history out of the basement and place it in the light. A powerful alliance of women across races and ethnicities could among many other important actions, apply intense pressure-- on state and local levels-- to having the 19th and early 20th century movements for women’s rights including suffrage represented in American history books, so that high school students, male and female, would become aware that women -- black and white-- make up half of our history.
Miedzian is an author and former philosophy professor.