White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

By Louise Michele Newman | Go to book overview

Introduction Woman's Rights, Race, and Imperialism

If rethinking the historical contours of Western racial [and feminist] discourse matters as a political project, it is not as a manifestation of an other truth that has previously been denied, but as a vehicle for shifting the frame of reference in such a way that the present can emerge as somehow less familiar, less natural in its categories, its political delineations and its epistemological foundations.

Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies ( 1995)

IN THE SPRING OF 1888, the renowned suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton ( 1815-1902), at age seventy-three, presided over an international gathering of women. The meeting was held in part to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first organized meeting of woman's rights activists in the United States. This was a joyous occasion, a time of celebration and renewed commitment, an opportunity for younger members to pay tribute to older pioneers. Lucy Stone ( 1818-1893), Susan B. Anthony ( 1820-1906), and Julia Ward Howe ( 1819-1910) all occupied places of honor on the stage. Alongside them sat Frederick Douglass, famous ex-slave, abolitionist, and elder statesman, a longstanding supporter of woman's rights. Invited by Anthony to say a few words, Douglass expressed his pleasure at seeing Stanton chair such an extraordinary gathering, alluding to how great a change in public reception had occurred since the 1848 convention. Then Anthony singled out of the audience a black Philadelphian, Robert Purvis, for special mention: "Let us hear from the one man who was willing to wait without a vote for twenty years, if need be, that his wife and daughter might vote with him." 1

Anthony was acknowledging the support that these prominent black men, Douglass and Purvis, had lent to the woman's movement over the past three decades. Yet her words of welcome and praise also concealed mixed feelings about the way in which woman's rights had become subordinated to civil rights in this era. The issue to which Anthony referred when she spoke of Purvis as "the one man who was willing to wait" was Purvis's opposition, some twenty years earlier, to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. These amendments had recognized freed male slaves as citizens and provided sanctions against states that excluded African American men from the franchise. But they had made no such provisions for the suffrage of black or white

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