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Susan Jacoby: Who really won the vote for women?

The lost history of freethought, race and a woman’s right to vote

Photo by Ingrid Laas
Susan Jacoby speaks to the audience at FFRF’s national convention in Pittsburgh in 2016.
A monument to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth was unveiled on Aug. 26 (Women’s Equality Day) in New York’s Central Park. It’s the first monument dedicated to historical women in the park’s 167-year-history.

By Susan Jacoby

Back when people were still underestimating the severity and potential duration of the coronavirus pandemic, I expected to speak in August about the role of both black women and freethinkers in the 19th and early 20th century women’s suffrage movement. This event, to have been sponsored jointly by FFRF and the Center for Inquiry, was to be held in the nation’s capital and timed to mark the 100th anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment.

Like nearly all group meetings last summer (except for those sponsored by science deniers who still consider the pandemic a hoax), the event to commemorate the suffragist movement was canceled. I am happy to have the opportunity here to deliver a portion of the speech I would have made in person. My views about relations among black women, freethinkers and white suffragists have changed as a result of the plethora of books and articles by scholars and journalists (many of them black) published during the centennial summer.

As Election Day approaches rapidly, one thing we know is that women of many colors and races will play a decisive role. A century ago, nearly everyone believed that women would vote how their husbands would vote. They were wrong. There is now a significant gender gap in which women since 1980 have been more likely to vote Democratic than men. Black women, it has turned out, are the most loyal Democratic voters. We shall see if this truism of recent history continues to hold this year.

The lost history of black woman suffragists in the 19th and early 20th centuries is particularly relevant at this time. For the most part, new publications examining the subject do an excellent job of recapturing that racial and racist history. But they are just as unenlightening as many old books by white scholars about the deep fissures over religion within the feminist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, the intersection of  race, religion and misogyny in the suffragist movement — which could be ripped from today’s headlines — offers a stellar example of the culture wars of the 19th century and demonstrates the persistence of issues that, we see again, are capable of ripping this country apart long after they have been incorrectly considered “settled.” 

To my friends in freethought, I cannot emphasize enough that some things are never settled. The rewriting of neglected history is a tricky business. As Saul Bellow once observed, “Everybody knows there is no firmness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” This is particularly true of the history of reform movements, whose chroniclers never like to acknowledge that some of their heroes had feet of clay.

Consider what Elizabeth Cady Stanton had to say in 1869 at the first meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association. This speech took place at the height of the battle over ratification of the 15th Amendment, which extended the franchise to black men and former slaves (for only a time, as it turned out) but ignored women of all races and colors. Stanton enjoined the delegates. “Think of Patrick and Sambo . . . and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for Lucretia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose and Anna E. Dickinson.”

Mott, a devout and liberal Quaker, organized the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, generally considered the kickoff of the 19th-century feminist movement, with Stanton. Rose was born into a Jewish family in Poland, emigrated and rejected religious Judaism, and became one of the few feminists in the United States to advocate for atheism. Dickinson was the first woman to deliver a speech before Congress. My guess is that unless you are a scholar with a special interest in women’s history, Stanton is the only one of these names you recognize.

Stanton’s remarks, which were both racist and anti-immigrant — although suffragists and abolitionists had long been allied — are a permanent blot on her moral record (a generalization that also applied to male abolitionists who were willing to sacrifice women in order to obtain passage of the 15th Amendment).

Wording of amendments

First, let us consider the precise wording of both the 15th and 19th amendments. The latter states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” Power “to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” is reserved for Congress. Nearly identical language was used in 1870 in the 15th amendment, which specified that the right to vote for males could not be abridged due to race, color or previous condition of servitude. That injunction too was to be enforced by Congress. We know the story of everything Congress failed to do in the former Confederate states after Reconstruction ended. Everything — from the terror imposed by the Ku Klux Klan to literacy tests and poll taxes — was used to deny recently enfranchised slaves the right to vote.

Many of the new histories of suffrage take earlier accounts to task for their implication — or outright claim — that the 19th Amendment “guaranteed women the right to vote.”

But the nearly identical language of both amendments underlines the impossibility of guaranteeing any right that Congress is unwilling to enforce. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which finally took on the night riders and the South’s systematic legal attempts to limit the black franchise, could not possibly have been “guaranteed” by either the 15th or 19th amendments. Black women (and men) could vote in Chicago when I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, but they had little chance of doing so in Georgia or Mississippi. You might as well blame Frederick Douglass for supporting the 15th Amendment because it did not anticipate the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, you might as well blame legislators who enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 for failing to anticipate the ingenious voter suppression techniques being used today.

What Stanton can and should be blamed for is her turn to nativism and racism at the time of the 15th Amendment debate. And the next generation of suffragists — the ones who won the battle over the 19th amendment — can and should be blamed for marginalizing black suffragists and demanding (though not successfully) that they march in the back of parades in a separate section.

The historian Martha S. Jones, in her recently published Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, takes special note of women, like the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who disregarded white organizers’ demands that she march at the back of the Illinois delegation during the first national woman suffrage parade in Washington in 1913. Wells-Barnett was one of my heroes long before I knew she had anything to do with the suffragist movement, because her landmark 1892 book Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases was taught in a journalism class at Michigan State University in 1964.  (This was long before feminist history was taught in either high school or college. Had Wells-Barnett been “only” a suffragist, I never would have heard of her.)

In August, many newspapers were inspired by the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate to mention the role of black sororities, such as Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha (Harris’s sorority at Howard University) in defying white organizers who were fearful that a visible, integrated presence in marches by black women would wreck their chances of getting the amendment ratified in any southern state.

Three phases

There are essentially three phases to the suffragist movement in the United States. The first extends, roughly, from the 1840s to the Civil War, when women’s suffrage (and women’s rights in general) took a decided back seat to abolitionism as the major cause of all reformers. The second phase, from the end of the Civil War to the early 20th century, involved struggles between women over how best to gain general public support — meaning male and conservative female support — for their cause.  The presence of many female freethinkers, who included both Anthony and Stanton, in the feminist movement was downgraded. Anthony’s view was that an alliance with Christian suffragists — such as the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — was essential to the suffragist cause. She also urged Stanton not to publish her book, The Woman’s Bible, which included long essays by Stanton herself and other female biblical scholars. These essays mocked the Christian bible’s denigration of women, and Stanton rejected Anthony’s advice that it was unwise to arouse religious opposition.

The Woman’s Bible was a huge bestseller, but it also got Stanton written out of the women’s movement for at least 80 years. The suffrage amendment, which Stanton had been the first to propose, was named after Anthony. As recently as 1977, when runners carried a torch from Seneca Falls to Houston to celebrate International Women’s Year, Stanton was an unperson. A grandniece of Anthony (who never married) was sitting on the dais, but no descendant of Stanton (who had a great many, since she was a mother of seven) was invited. That’s what you get for challenging religious orthodoxy.

Religious differences, as well as racial prejudice, may have played a significant role in the obliteration of so many black women from histories of the suffragist movement. Many black female orators and reformers got their start in black churches, which were a foreign country to most whites. Jones, for example, begins her general history of black woman suffrage not with the Seneca Falls convention but in 1819, when Jarena Lee was the first woman authorized to preach by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. But Lee lived in Philadelphia. How were women of her generation to know what enslaved women or men in the South (or, for that matter, in New York, which did not abolish slavery until 1827) had to say about human rights?  In fact, they could say nothing — regardless of what they might think — beyond a whisper to another enslaved friend.

The religious origins of black Americans’ strong commitment to human rights would have put off a great many of the women at Seneca Falls, who were secret, Enlightenment-influenced freethinkers, even though they refused to admit to their heresy by the end of the 19th century. There were black women in the North who were also influenced by the Enlightenment (and, yes, Stanton, who could read the Declaration of Independence), but it is safe to assume that few of them were on social terms with the upper class white women who formed the core of the nascent feminist movement.

Another problem is the lack of written records about pre-Civil War feminist discourse in general. Frederick Douglass, an outspoken supporter of women’s rights as well as abolitionism, is the only African-American of either sex whose presence was reported at the Seneca Falls convention. But that doesn’t mean he was the only black American there. It means only that Douglass’ place as one of the greatest Americans in history was ensured partly by his own talent for self-promotion. That is not a criticism but a truth about nearly everyone considered great by history.   

Oratory of Truth

The vital role of written records is underlined by the life and oratory of Sojourner Truth, who would certainly have been known to her contemporaries in both the suffragist and the abolitionist movements. Her presence is not recorded at Seneca Falls, but she certainly should have been invited. She was born into slavery to a Dutch-American owner in New York and ran away when her master refused to free her after the state prohibited slavery in 1827. She became a traveling preacher affiliated with no single church and became involved in both the abolitionist and feminist movements. Her most famous speech is known as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” address, as Martin Luther King’s most famous piece of oratory is known as his “I Have a Dream” speech.  

The address was made in 1851 in Akron, Ohio, at a women’s rights convention. “Well, children,” she began, “where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon . . .

“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could hear me! An ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash, as well! And ain’t I a woman?”

She went on to single out a man who was apparently a member of the clergy. “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.”

The phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” does not appear in a version published soon afterward in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by the Rev. Marius Robinson. But the speech reached a wider audience in 1863 when it was edited and published by Frances Gage — a feminist reformer who later became particularly outspoken in her support for voting rights for all  women, including blacks. The “Ain’t I a woman?” phrase is included in Gage’s version. Various historical sources invite readers to compare the versions and makeup their own minds. My mind tells me that the repetition of certain key phrases is very much a part of traditional black American oratory, inspired by speech proceeding from the Black church.

Sojourner Truth, and the black women who came after her and fought for suffrage, was a proponent of human rights as we understand them today. It’s too bad that she and Anthony never (as far as we know) met. They would have had plenty to learn from each other. Who knows? Anthony might have been moved to erase the blot from her freethought record.  Might have. That is always the problem with long-suppressed history. We can never truly know.

We can only try to understand in a way that makes it possible, if not easy, to move forward in a way that enshrines reason and rejects prejudice and superstition. Very recently, I spoke with a white man who said that he no longer has a chance if he is competing for anything with a woman of any color or with a black man. “Boo-hoo,” I said to him. And ain’t I a woman?

Susan Jacoby, an FFRF honorary director, is author of Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism.