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Bob Ostertag Headshot

Is a Sad History Repeating Itself?

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The recent behavior of the Clinton campaign and its allies has disturbing parallels in the earliest days of the woman suffrage movement. Then, in the face of a short-term set-back, the most prominent woman suffrage campaigners broke with the abolitionist movement and espoused explicitly racist politics. The result was a debilitating split in the movement for woman suffrage, and a half century of defeat.

The women in question are Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Like other early women's rights advocates, Stanton and Anthony initially became politically active in the abolitionist movement, and through this activism began formulating an increasingly articulate feminist agenda (though the word "feminism" was not available to them at the time).

The civil war put women's rights on hold, as abolitionist women threw their energies into the union war effort. After the war, the question of voting rights for freed slaves moved to the top of the national agenda. Slavery was ended, but whether the freed slaves would be granted the full rights of citizens, and most particularly the right to vote, was anything but certain. To Stanton and Anthony, the debate on voting rights was an open door for a push to extend the vote to all adult citizens regardless of race or gender. They took it as given that the political coalition which had achieved abolition and was now poised to campaign for the Fourteenth Amendment would see things the same way. It was inconceivable to them that the nation might grant the vote to black men yet leave black women -- and white women -- disenfranchised.

Most abolitionist leaders, including prominent white women such as Lucy Stone, took an opposite tack, arguing that it was the "Negro's hour" and women would have to wait. In their view, while black suffrage and woman suffrage might be linked logically, the political reality was that the fight for black male suffrage would be a difficult one, and complicating the matter by raising woman suffrage would put the fruits of the tremendous sacrifices of the civil war in jeopardy. Victory for black suffrage, they argued, would open the door for women, whereas a defeat for black suffrage would close all possibility of enlarging the franchised population for years to come. Those advocating this course included movement superstars William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, both of whom had consistently been far ahead of the pack in their support of female abolitionists formulating a program for women's rights.

The issue came to a head in 1867 in Kansas, where citizens were asked to vote simultaneously on two separate constitutional amendments, one enfranchising black men, the other women. The outcome would finally decide the debate over whether the political rights of slaves would be defined as the "[male] Negro's hour" or a "more complete democracy." With so much on the line, the split between those campaigning for just one or both amendments became predictably bitter. On election day black suffrage won, while woman suffrage lost overwhelmingly.

The real political catastrophe, however, was not this set-back but the ugly politics that ensued. What had begun as a principled disagreement with reasoned arguments on both sides degenerated into a political debacle as one side in the debate refused to accept that its position would lose. Stanton and Anthony had been the most prominent woman suffrage campaigners in the Kansas election, and as they sensed victory slipping beyond their reach they tried to shore up their prospects by reaching out to racists. They developed a close relationship with a flamboyant racist named George Francis Train, who stumped for them around the state. Attacks on the intelligence of blacks were fundamental to Train's standard appeal, and he employed them as an argument for voting rights for women. The collaboration between two top woman suffragists and such a blatant racist horrified many other suffragists. Stanton and Anthony shocked their friends by refusing to budge in the face of withering criticism. "So long as opposition to slavery is the only test for your platform," Stanton angrily wrote to the abolitionists, "why should we not accept all in favor of woman suffrage to our platform and association, even though they be rabid pro-slavery?"

The following year, Stanton, Anthony and Train launched the Revolution, a newspaper which broke much new ground for women's rights in America, discussing prostitution, infanticide, sex education, cooperative housekeeping. But the paper also carried on with explicitly racist appeals to white women. "American women of wealth, education, virtue, and refinement," Stanton warned, "If you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with the low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters, ... to dictate not only the civil, but moral codes by which you shall be governed, awake to the danger of your present position."

Thus began a split in the movement for woman suffrage that would hobble the movement for 50 long years until American women finally won the right to vote in 1920. The whole sordid history is a painful chapter that causes American feminists discomfort even today. Some feminists have promoted Anthony and Stanton as historical heroines and role models, and in the 1970s Anthony became the first woman to appear on American money when the Susan B. Anthony dollar was minted. Other feminists have strongly objected, arguing that ignoring the racist legacy of these women only exacerbates the racial divisions that have plagued feminism in America.

The parallels with today are obvious. As the Clinton campaign began to feel the chances of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president slip away, the campaign has resorted to increasingly racist appeals. One wonders if, decades from now, Hillary Clinton will be a hero in the feminist pantheon or, like Stanton and Anthony, a reminder of a painful episode that future feminists will prefer to forget.

For a more detailed history of these events, see my recent book, People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements (Beacon Press, 2006)