The Unfinished Business of Women’s Suffrage

Historians in the News
tags: voting rights, womens history, felony disenfranchisement

Years before the Nineteenth Amendment would be ratified, Elizabeth Cady Stanton devised a history of women’s suffrage. In her telling, the movement traces its origins to a convention, which she convened, in a small town in upstate New York. Stanton fixed the origin of women’s suffrage there and then, as historian Lisa Tetrault methodically recounts in The Myth of Seneca Falls, to elevate herself as a rightful movement leader, and along with it, her possession of the correct strategy. She accomplished this rewriting of history with her own History of Woman Suffrage, co-authored with Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Their History opens: “The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history,” the “universal degradation of woman in all periods and nations.” This volume, published less than two decades after Emancipation, sees slavery as a “universal” condition, one Stanton and Anthony can claim, along with the freedom that follows. Their appeal—that suffrage can remedy some shared female condition—submerges Black women, their experiences of chattel slavery, and their own movement strategies.

This is no universal suffrage. “Stanton and Anthony’s continued faith in educated suffrage,” Tetrault writes, revealed “deep-seated prejudices expressed far too widely and far too often to be explained as mere demagoguery. They spared no ink in presenting them.” At an 1869 women’s rights convention, in her keynote address, Stanton made her case for suffrage with a string of racist epithets. “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who can not read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling-book, making laws for Lucretia Mott.”

What Stanton leaves out of the volume are those women who challenged her on those same stages. At a convention Stanton and Anthony had called three years earlier, the anti-slavery lecturer and poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper had implored the women to recognize both their distinct subordination and their shared paths to freedom. Winning the right to vote would not be a universal salve for Black women. “You white women speak here of rights,” she said. “I speak of wrongs.” 

Harper posed a question then that remains unresolved: Will white women stand with Black women for their rights not only against male domination but also against white supremacy? Or is white women’s solidarity conditional, offered only so long as white women can claim innocence of their complicity in white supremacy? By excluding Black women’s more expansive struggle for the vote and freedom from racial terror, they asserted that “educated, white, middle-class women could, and should, speak for all women,” as Tetrault writes. Not coincidentally, they also believed suffrage itself should be reserved for the educated, disenfranchising the same women—Black women, poor women, immigrant women—they claimed the right to speak for.

Read entire article at The New Republic

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