Teaching Womens Rights
From Past to Present
with Discussions and Activities
Debating Conflicting Rights, United States, 1867-69
Background: More than once, rights proclaimed by one group have come in conflict with those advocated by another. This was true in the nineteenth century when the struggle to obtain voting rights for African Americans hindered the efforts of women to achieve suffrage as well. The issue was the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guaranteed full citizenship to former slaves and free black men (ratified, July, 1868). By including the word male in the Amendment, it gave the states the right to determine who among only its male citizens of twenty-one years and over could vote. The effort to defend the voting rights of black men was raised again with debates over the Fifteenth Amendment, which directly prohibited states from depriving black men the vote (ratified in 1870) It was passed without reference to sex as a protected category.
Womens rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth were horrified. They wanted sex to be included as a protected category, along with race and color. When it became clear that that wasnt going to happen, they divided on whether to accept or reject the amendment as it was. Others, like Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Frederick Douglass, once friendly to womens rights issues, found themselves going against the idea of women achieving the vote at this time. They said that this was the negros hour. Womens suffrage had to wait its time. Members of the American Equal Rights Association then split into two separate factions, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their effort to win the vote for women became belligerent. In 1868, they accepted the help of a pro-slavery Democrat, George Train, and used his money to start a womens rights newspaper, The Revolution. The alliance with Train, plus increasingly racist remarks by Anthony, pitted blacks and women against each other at a time when each needed the others support.
The following are comments made by women and men involved in suffrage associations. The question before them was: Should they support the amendments that advanced the cause of black men but harmed the cause of women?
The Debate: Should we support the 14th & 15th Amendments which
forwards the cause of the Black man but hurts the cause of women?
Sojourner Truth (ex-slave and noted orator): First Annual Meeting of America Equal Rights Association, May 10, 1867. I am glad to see that men are getting their rights, but I want women to get theirs, and while the water is stirring I will step into the pool. Now that there is a great stir about colored mens getting their rights is the time for women to step in and have theirs. I am sometimes told that Women aint fit to vote. Why dont you know that a woman have Seven devils in her; and do you suppose a woman is fit to rule the nation? Seven devils aint no account: a man had a legion in him. [Great laughter]....and man is so selfish that he has got womens rights and is own too and yet he wont give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself....
I feel that I have right to have just as much a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great deal to get it going again.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: in The Revolution, Jan 8,1868. Republicans and abolitionists alike ignored the question [of the position of Womans Rights cause] claiming that this was the negros hour. Even Wendell Phillips told us before all Israel and the sun that fashion was more to woman than the right of suffrage...Our three most radical papers...were closed against us. We could not get an article in either...demanding the recognition of woman in the new government.....
Seeing that women of virtue, wealth and character in this country were to be made the subjects of every vicious, ignorant, degraded type of manhood, we unfurled the new banner to the breeze, immediate and unconditional enfranchisement for the women of the republic. Democrats saw the logic of our position, and echoed it...George Francis Train...labored for weeks [in Kansas], often speaking three times a day, and the result of the election was 9,000 votes for Womans Suffrage. Some deny the credit of this vote to Mr. Train, but we were on the spot and saw the wonderful power he exerted over a class of voters whom none of our other speakers could reach....
We regard the enfranchisement of woman as the most important question of the age, and we are determined to keep it before the nation, and to this end we will accept aid from any quarter, affiliate with any man, black or white, Jew or Gentile, saint or sinner, Democrat or Republican.
J. Elizabeth Jones: Letter to The Revolution, June 18, 1868. Suppose it takes a generation to settle this woman question (it will not, for the battle was half fought by the abolitionists), shall the loyal disfranchised men whose right to the ballot is already in the arena of politics be kept out of their inheritance all that time, because we are despoiled of our? Some of them are educated, wealthy, living continually the lives of noble men, shall we say to them stand back, turn again into the rugged paths of proscription? We forbid you to go higher because we cannot go? I cannot for a moment imagine you endorsing the recent repudiation of colored suffrage by Connecticut, Ohio, and those states to which it has been submitted...Womans claim to the ballot is not ripe for settlement in those states at present, there must the colored man still endure his degradation, still chafe at the tyranny and injustice of his political oppressor?
Frederick Douglas (noted African American Abolitionist): Report of American Equal Rights Association Meeting, May 14, 1868. I champion the right of the negro to vote. It is with us a matter of life and death, and therefore can not be postponed. I have always championed womens right to vote; but it will be seen that the present claim for the negro is one of the most urgent necessity. The assertion of the right of women to vote meets nothing but ridicule; there is no deep seated malignity in the hearts of the people against her; but name the right of the negro to vote, all hell is turned loose and the Ku-Klux and Regulators hunt and slay the unoffending black man. The government of this country loves women. They are the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters of our rulers; but the negro is loathed....The negro needs suffrage to protect his life and property, and to answer him respect and education. He needs it for the safety of reconstruction and the salvation of the Union; for is own elevation from the position of a drudge to that of an influential member of society.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Revolution, February, 1869. We say not another man, black or white, until woman is inside the citadel. What reason have we to suppose the African would be more just and generous than the Saxon has been?...how insulting to put every shade and type of manhood above our heads, to make laws for educated refined, wealthy women....The old anti slavery school says women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last....There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband, or brother; or any one who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she take it.
Frances Harper (black poet and abolitionist): Debate over endorsement of the Amendment at Association of Equal Rights meeting, May, 1869. When I was at Boston there were sixty women who left work because one colored woman went to gain a livelihood in their midst. If the nation could only handle one question, I would not have the black women put a single straw in the way, if only the men of the race could obtain what they wanted.
Sources: Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Womens Suffrage, vol.II, 1882 & Judith Papachristou, Women Together: A History of the Womens Movement in the United States, 1976.
- Which of these arguments people today would find offensive - or even makes you uncomfortable or angry? Why do you think they would be considered less so in the 1860s?
- Why do you think people thought that trying to attain the vote for both the African American and women at the same time would be impossible?
Debate: Large Group Activity
- After reading the pro and con arguments made by some of those involved in the debate, make a list of the arguments for supporting the Amendments guaranteeing African American men to vote. Another list, opposing the amendments.
- Different students assume the role of each of the personalities, carefully re-reading their arguments and perhaps finding out more about them. Then, stage a round table discussion or a debate, each person defending their position.
I support the 14th and 15th Amendments because...
I oppose the Amendments because...
- Find out about the following men: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass. What did each think about womens rights? Where did each stand on the issue to support the 14th and 15th Amendments?
- Read about the years following the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. To what extent did the racist statements by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton harm future relationship between African-American womens groups and white womens groups?
- Research and discuss other times and issues where the rights of one group have come into conflict with another. Consider: religious rights vs. secular rights. Privacy rights vs. public rights. Free speech rights vs. right of public sensibilities. Right to bear arms vs. public right of safety. Others?