The Great Schism

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From their onsets, suffragists and abolitionists shared many of the same values, so what caused the movements to split apart?

SBAnthony.jpg

Susan B. Anthony (Wikimedia Commons)

The reformer mind was accustomed to dealing in abstractions, not specifics. -- Christine Stansell, The Feminist Promise

In those circles where radicals and progressives debate the history of their various struggles, the late 19th-century split between the nascent feminist and early civil rights movement is much mourned. Briefly, abolition was the primary cause of Northern reformers in the years leading up to the Civil War. The women's rights advocates who would push for suffrage, from Seneca Valley on, generally started out as abolitionists and temperance activists. It is not to say that Woman's Rights -- as was the phrase of the day -- was not on the table. But the abomination of slavery, especially in the wake of the Civil War, tended to blot out all other causes.

After the War, with abolition achieved, the movement turned to broadening the franchise. It was generally agreed. among the reformers, that universal emancipation -- for black men and all women -- was the ideal. But the old abolitionists split on the matter of timetables. On one side you had activists like Julia Ward Howe, Antoinette Brown, Lucy Stone and ultimately Frederick Douglass, who favored the enfranchisement of black men as a first step. On the other side stood Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who argued that the incrementalism was bankrupt and that the franchise should be expanded to include black men as well as black and white women. 

The subsequent fight destroyed the old antebellum alliance and eventually sent both movements into a (short) dark age. Anthony and Stanton, the leaders of the revolution, would eventually make common cause Southern racists. Meanwhile, the reformers would soon find that, in the Deep South, the constitutional assurance for black men meant nothing in the face of white terror. Black leaders like Booker T. Washington would eventually go so far as to effectively surrender all claim to the franchise. (At least temporarily.)

The Great Schism has echoed down through the ages, and it haunts any talk of gender and race on the left. Not to put my commenters on blast, but here is a typical rendering:

It's one of the great embarrassments of first-wave American feminism that so many supporters of women's suffrage turned against the 15th amendment, using the grossest racial politics, too. I've never felt the same way about Susan B Anthony since I learned of her opposition to black suffrage. 

That's basically the rendition I was treated to in college debates under the flag pole, or on the steps of Douglass where nascent leftists, like yours truly, deployed arcane formulas to determine who had the most privilege, who could pile up the most layers of jeopardy. The sense was that if one could be born a half-Native American, half-African-American lesbian, who'd done a bid on the reservation, or in the projects, some mystical ascension awaited.
But I digress.

As it happens, our great creation myth did not match the history. From Stansell's The Feminist Promise:

The break has long been described as between a group committed to the freedpeople's cause and a racist, all-white Stanton-Anthony faction, but the judgment is facile and ignores the facts.

For sure, Stansell has a critique. She does not shirk from outlining the racism which plagued the movement from the postbellum years on.The pattern begins in the years right after the War with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony campaiging for women's suffrage with the scandalous George Train, under the slogan "Woman first and negro last." Stanton dubbed Train, "the most wonderful man of the century," and frustrated by the stonewalling of women's suffrage began a a long pattern of justifying women's rights through bigotry:

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, or Webster's spelling book, making laws for Lydia Marie Child, Lucretia Mott or Fanny Kemble.

It got worse. By the dawn of of the 20th century, Anthony and Stanton were openly courting avowed white supremacists like Belle Kearney. 1903 found the old stalwart abolitionist, Anthony, in New Orleans at the National Association of Women's Suffrage Association's convention, enduring a rousing rendition of Dixie, and tolerating Kearney's "semi-barbaric denunciations of blacks." 

By that point, some of the most ardent suffrage activists were outright racists like Rebecca Felton, who fervently supported lynching, and Kate Gordon who eventually abandoned the suffrage movement because a national amendment would threaten white supremacy. "State sovereignty and white supremacy are inextricably linked," said Gordon. Kearney argued that "the enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy."

By 1915 (after Anthony's death) NAWSA, founded by an abolitionist, friends of Frederick Douglass had thoroughly absorbed the rhetoric of white supremacists:

In Germany, German men governed German women; in France, French men did the same, "but in this country, American women are governed by every kind of man under the light of the sun," complained Anna Howard Shaw, successor to Anthony as NAWSA president.

How did a movement once rooted in the principles of abolition come to be associated with white nationalists?

I think one way of looking at this -- among many others -- is to not look at the movement post-1865, but post-1835, when abolitionist women, like Anthony and Stanton, were subject to unbridled sexism among their allies and enemies alike. In antebellum America, for a woman to speak before a promiscuous audience--that is to say an audience of mixed-gender--was to invite charges of prostitution. To travel, unescorted, as some reformers did was to increase the risk of accusation. To take these actions in opposition to the Southern Slave Society--an ostensibly divine institution deeply entwined with theories of family--and "Woman's Rights" was nigh blasphemous. And the penalties for doing such were not theoretical:

...the spread of women's rights thought fueled anti-abolitionist fires. Sexual imagery conflated the two causes: It was "old maids" and "nigger-lovers" who made up the female societies. Rhetorical violence in newspapers and pamphlets fed mob violence....Women were not exempt.  In 1835 in Boston, a crowd of several thousand threatened members of the BFASS [Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society] who were thought to be hiding a visiting British abolitionist in there meeting rooms...

Afterward, Maria Weston Chapman, a leading member....could not walk in the streets of her own city without passerby and shop clerks hurling abuse at her. The Boston women noted acidly the double standard that divided acceptable female behavior from activity that as reviled. They were all involved in several reform causes...."No one said then, 'women had better stay home.'" Doing the same thing on behalf of the slaves, though, was another matter bringing threats bordering on lethal.

Stansell doesn't say this, but I have to believe that the prospect of rape often hung in the background.

Nor were threats of sexism strictly the province of the foes of women abolitionists. Sarah Grimke -- who credited abolition with helping awaken her to the persistent oppression of women -- was denounced by her abolitionist allies for daring to publicly raise the cause of women's rights alongside abolition. After thugs in Philadelphia broke up a meeting of one of the Anti-Slavery Societies, The Colored American (a black newspaper) took the opportunity to warn black women in the abolitionist movement away from the Grimkes, and toward the work of hearth and home:

Colored females from education, are more especially deficient in fulfilling their appropriate duties, and in redeeming the character and carrying forward the interests of their oppressed and injured people. As wives, as mothers and as daughters, they are too inert not sufficiently self-sacrificing.

In 1840, the World Anti-Slavery Convention -- the first of its kind -- refused to seat the eight American women delegates. Evidently this humiliation was insufficient. The conveners then made the women observe the deliberations from behind a curtain. Elizabeth Cady Stanton--barely 25--was there, and as was her wont, fuming righteously:

When we consider that Lady Byron, Anna Jameson, Mary Howitt, Mrs. Hugo Reid, Elizabeth Fry, Amelia Opie, Ann Green Phillips, Lucretia Mott, and many remarkable women, speakers and leaders in the Society of Friends, were all compelled to listen in silence to the masculine platitudes on woman's sphere, one may form some idea of the indignation of unprejudiced friends...

Judging from my own feelings, the women on both sides of the Atlantic must have been humiliated and chagrined, except as these feelings were outweighed by contempt for the shallow reasoning of their opponents, and their comical pose and gestures in some of the intensely earnest flights of their imagination.

What do we make of all of this? Stansell argues that the two tragically misread the politics of the day:

Why did the suffragists lose women's suffrage? The question has dominated scholarship about the postwar years? But one can also ask, really, why did they ever think they could win. From any angle the prospect was faint.

Whereas black male suffrage had actual political support, women's suffrage did not.From the Republican Party view, black male suffrage was a singular boon--a weapon which advantaged the loyalist, and hurt the defeated Confederates. The math of women's suffrage--which would double the black vote and the Southern white vote--was decidedly different.

And yet, I find myself in sympathy both Stanton and Anthony. They were not latter day Geraldine Ferraros, or white supremacists like Kearney or Felton. On the contrary, the two spent much of their early careers very much devoted to the cause of black people, and took their share of abuse for it. When the goal -- abolition -- was achieved, they hoped for some reciprocity. It did not come. "When I think of all the wrongs that been heaped upon womankind, " wrote Stanton. "I am ashamed that I am not forever in a condition of chronic wrath."

Frankly, given the sort of gender bigotry that women abolitionist faced, I'm a little surprised that more didn't take the absolutist path. I also don't think too much should be made of associations. They offer context, but they aren't the story. There's also the model of Frederick Douglass, who after splitting bitterly with Stanton and Anthony reconciled with them both, singling out Stanton, in particular, for making him a "Woman's Rights Man." The day Douglass died, he attended a suffrage conference where he was saluted by Anthony and her compatriots.

And finally there is my own personal bias. The other day I was reading over Robert E. Lee's famous quote about slavery...

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

...and I found myself filled with rage and contempt. It is moral cowardice, a willingness to not merely abide by a great evil -- but to actually profit from it -- that really grates.

I think of Lee utterly quitting on the great moral question of his day, and still enjoying a place of honor in this country, and I am baffled. Then I think of Stanton and Anthony, misstepping, but always pushing, always agitating, always expanding, and I feel a strong kinship. I don't need my personal pantheon to be clean. But I need it to be filled with warriors.

As always, I invite the professionals to fill in the gaps here -- both in terms of actual facts and context.  


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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