Frederick Douglass: 'A Women's Rights Man'

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During the days of Frederick Douglass's activism, the cause of abolition was deeply entangled with the cause of "women's rights." The two movements would later split over the 15th Amendment. 


There's a lot to say on that count. Douglass strongly supported suffrage for women, but believed that white women, already, enjoyed some amount of electoral privilege through the family, something which all black people--women and men--were totally cut off from. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that one should not go without the other. White women suffragists had been avowed and crucial supporters of emancipation. Stanton, among others believed, that support had earned a united front toward suffrage.The dispute cleaved the women's suffrage movement for nearly three decades. 

I've given a very crude summary here. For something more learned, I highly recommend Paula Giddings' classic When And Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women On Race And Sex In America. 

While pleading her case, Stanton repelled old allies by using terms like "Sambo" to refer to black men. Nevertheless, Frederick Douglass, the only African-American at the Seneca Valley Convention, remembered her as a crucial influence in moving him from a narrow abolitionism toward a broader humanism.

Eloquent as ever, in the winter of his life, here he extolling Stanton and articulating her role in his own turn:

Observing woman's agency, devotion, and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called "woman's rights" and caused me to be denominated a woman's-rights man. I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing not sex nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman's exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex. 

In a conversation with Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she was yet a young lady and an earnest abolitionist, she was at the pains of setting before me in a very strong light the wrong and injustice of this exclusion. I could not meet her arguments except with the shallow plea of "custom," "natural division of duties," "indelicacy of woman's taking part in politics," the common talk of "woman's sphere," and the like, all of which that able woman, who was then no less logical than now, brushed away by those arguments which she has so often and effectively used since, and which no man has yet successfully refuted. 

If intelligence is the only true and rational basis of government, it follows that that is the best government which draws its life and power from the largest sources of wisdom, energy, and goodness at its command. The force of this reasoning would be easily comprehended and readily assented to in any case involving the employment of physical strength. We should all see the folly and madness of attempting to accomplish with a part what could only be done with the united strength of the whole.Though his folly may be less apparent, it is just as real when one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the world is excluded from any voice or vote in civil government. 


In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world. Thus far all human governments have been failures, for none have secured, except in a partial degree, the ends for which governments are instituted. War, slavery, injustice and oppression, and the idea that might makes right have been uppermost in all such governments, and the weak, for whose protection governments are ostensibly created, have had practically no rights which the strong have felt bound to respect. 

The slayers of thousands have been exalted into heroes, and the worship of mere physical force has been considered glorious. Nations have been and still are but armed camps, expending their wealth and strength and ingenuity in forging weapons of destruction against each other; and while it may not be contended that the introduction of the feminine element in government would entirely cure this tendency to exalt woman's influence over right, many reasons can be given to show that woman's influence would greatly tend to check and modify this barbarous and destructive tendency. 

At any rate, seeing that the male governments of the world have failed, it can do no harm to try the experiment of a government by man and woman united. But it is not my purpose to argue the question here, but simply to state in a brief way the ground of my espousal of the cause of woman's suffrage. I believed that the exclusion of my race from participation in government was not only a wrong, but a great mistake, because it took from that race motives for high thought and endeavor and degraded them in the eyes of the world around them. Man derives a sense of his consequence in the world not merely subjectively, but objectively. If from the cradle through life the outside world brands a class as unfit for this or that work, the character of the class will come to resemble and conform to the character described. To find valuable qualities in our fellows, such qualities must be presumed and expected. 

I would give woman a vote, give her a motive to qualify herself to vote, precisely as I insisted upon giving the colored man the right to vote; in order that she shall have the same motives for making herself a useful citizen as those in force in the case of other citizens. In a word, I have never yet been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man's right to participate in civil government which did not equally apply to the right of woman.

The more I study this book, the more I wish it were better read. The Narrative is much more famous. But Life and Times, in addition to being a beautiful work of literature, really sets out of the roots of much of 20th Century black political thought, and liberal/progressive thought, period.

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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.

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