Magazine article Negro History Bulletin

Nineteenth Century Woman's Rights Movement: Black and White

Magazine article Negro History Bulletin

Nineteenth Century Woman's Rights Movement: Black and White

Article excerpt

The nineteenth century movement for women's rights began, almost without a doubt, as a white middle-class movement centered in the North. Its leaders were largely from the North, more accurately from the Northeast, with a scattering towards the West, and were women who had been educated somewhat better than the ordinary woman, with some means of livelihood to enable them to enter the ranks of the suffragettes. (1) Membership in the women's organizations was largely the same, although the National Woman Suffrage Association spent some of its efforts in reaching the lower class-working woman, as well as the black woman. (2) Because some questions have been raised concerning the place of the black race in this movement, this article proposes to examine the attitudes of the white women, particularly the leaders, towards the black race in general, and toward the black woman in particular.

The most important early leaders of the women's movement were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone. Examining their attitudes does not necessarily indicate that the general membership believed and acted as they did. Yet, these three women were strong leaders and exerted great influence on the movement, at least until the 1890s. By 1890 a new generation of suffragettes came to the fore, and although all three of these women were still alive, the movement took directions different from theirs. (3) An inquiry into the attitudes toward the Negro race as a whole, in contrast to the post-1890 period when the black woman formed organizations of her own.

Prior to its small beginnings in 1848, many of those who spear-headed the women's movement had been active in the abolitionist movement of the pre-Civil War period, and continued to be so after the Seneca Falls meeting in the summer of that year. Frederick Douglass, black leader, was one of very few males who publicly supported this early movement. Immediately after the War, the American Equal Rights Association was formed to "secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the Right of Suffrage, irrespective of race, color and sex." (4) It was within this organization that the first signs of a split in the forces of woman's rights movement made itself evident, and this precisely

over the franchise for the Negro in the proposed fourteenth amendment. The presence of the word "male" in this proposed amendment, mentioned not only once, but three times, was the point of contention. The government was on the verge of giving the black man the vote and at the same time to persist in excluding the woman, white and black, from the franchise. Women leaders worked hard to achieve the exclusion of this word "male" hoping to make the amendment applicable to both the Negro and to women.

Forces divided on the issue. There were those, men and women, who thought of this as the "Negro's hour" that rather than jeopardize the chances of the black man, the women should wait. There were others who opposed the wording of the amendment, such as Lucy Stone, but should a change of this be impossible to achieve, they favored passage of the amendment for the black man. (5) Another group were die-hard irreconcilables among whom were Anthony and Stanton who could countenance nothing that excluded women from the suffrage. Strangely, these two women, who, in so many instances in their correspondence, show a real interest in the betterment of the blacks, and who were in turn much respected by the black people, felt so strongly about the rights of women at this point that their indignation was uncontrollable. Both of them articulate this strong feeling in statements that seem derogatory, (6) and therefore, have been quoted as being prejudiced towards the Negro. It is important to evaluate their remarks in their total context. These women who had worked many years with the anti-slavery cause, who had been active in the Equal Rights Association established for the rights of blacks and of women, who refused to cater to those who barred the Negro from their premises, (7) and who would in the future work many more years for the black race, (8) can scarcely be labeled (sic)" prejudiced" without careful consideration. …

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