Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

Synopsis

The advocates of woman suffrage and black suffrage came to a bitter falling-out in the midst of Reconstruction, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment because it granted the vote to black men but not to women. How did these two causes, so long allied, come to this? Based on extensive research, Fighting Chance is a major contribution to women's history and to 19th-century political history--a story of how idealists descended to racist betrayal and desperate failure.

Excerpt

She dipped her pen into a tincture of white racism and sketched a reference to a nightmarish figure, the black rapist. If the nation gives the vote to black men but not to women, she wrote, it will encourage “fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states” If the Fifteenth Amendment is passed, she warned, woman’s “degradation” will be complete and “persecutions, insults, horrors” will descend upon her. It was February 1869 and the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing the South, but the author of these words was no female Klan member. She was feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton editorializing in the Revolution, the newspaper she and Susan B. Anthony had been publishing for over a year. Stanton and Anthony repeatedly predicted rape—“fearful outrages”—and insisted that black men were their enemies, “more hostile to woman than any class of men in the country.”

A long-standing alliance, marked by incompatibility but durable nonetheless, was breaking up. How did the advocates of woman suffrage come to this? How did black rights and women’s rights, causes that had formerly collaborated, come to such a rupture? At the same time she laced her editorials with racist resentments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also wrote openly of her regret at “this antagonism with [black] men whom we respect, whose wrongs we pity, and whose hopes we would fain help them realize.” This falling-out, this “antagonism,” has been called “one of the saddest divorces in American history.” In the upshot, black men would get the vote in 1870 and women would have to wait for suffrage until fifty years later.

Looking at the question largely as a matter of personalities, or assuming that, as a practical matter, woman suffrage lay far in the future, historians have concluded that Stanton and Anthony’s racist outburst reflected their individual biases and/or political naïveté. How could they have believed they had a chance to win the vote when they had no mass movement and it would take decades more to build one? And if they had no chance to win the vote themselves, why should they have so meanly opposed black men’s voting rights, except out of . . .

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