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

By Louise Michele Newman | Go to book overview

2
The Making of a White Female Citizenry
Suffragism, Antisuffragism, and Race

We can not make [white] men see that [white] women feel the humiliation of their petty distinctions of sex, precisely as the black man feels those of color. It is no palliation of our wrongs to say that we are not socially ostracised as he [the black man] is, so long as we are politically ostracised as he is not.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "The Degradation of Disfranchisement" ( 1891)

IN THE 1870s, 1880s, AND 1890s, white suffragists used theories of evolution to support a new rationale for their own enfranchisement, one that depended on redefining what it meant to be a white female citizen. The new definitions made use of older beliefs in white women's moral superiority but also drew on a growing conviction that white women's special racial qualities were needed to counteract the influence of the immigrant and African American men who had just been enfranchised. As government representatives, ministers, and church groups discussed how to make citizens out of so-called primitives, white suffragists conceptualized a special role for themselves in assimilating nonwhite peoples into U.S. civilization and made this point one of their primary rationales for their own inclusion in the franchise.

Older notions of patriarchal citizenship, stemming from classical republicanism and Lockean individualism, emphasized the necessity of citizens bearing arms in defense of the republic. Since "woman" was presumed to lack the intellectual and physical strength required to defend herself or her country, white women could not make headway within this framework in convincing men that they should be granted the franchise. Throughout the nineteenth century, white women's relation to politics was supposed to remain indirect, mediated through the family, via their relation to husbands, fathers, and sons. Moreover, the maintenance of their specific forms of moral virtue--purity, piety, empathy, and spirituality--depended on their staying outside existing political institutions and structures. White women were expected to remain in the domestic sphere and to exert their moral influence from within the home through their roles as wives and mothers. 1

In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, this constellation of beliefs was challenged on several fronts. First, black men were legally admitted to the fran-

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