Women’s Suffrage(s)— Part 2

In last week’s blog post, I tried, albeit superficially, to show that the century-long movement for women’s suffrage, which finally won the vote for (some) women in 1920, took place in a context and country where originally only white, Christian, property-owning, land-holding males possessed the franchise—and they weren’t particularly eager to share it with anybody who didn’t meet those identifying qualifications. The ignorance all of us—female and male, people of color and white people—have been infected with is painful and  poisonous, but lancing and draining it will also hurt, as that requires an honesty to which we apparently as yet only aspire.

Honesty means I have to start this week with two corrections.

First: last week I ended with a quote from Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who said she wore white to the State of The Union speech in honor of Alice Paul and the suffrage movement but also carried a kente cloth purse in honor of Ida B. Wells, who was excluded from it. As usual when grappling with racism and sexism, the statement is true but not the whole truth. That famous 1913 National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s procession where everyone wore white took place on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, and it certainly did perpetuate racism: black suffragists were asked to march together and—honest to god—at the back of the parade. Wells, already known as a pioneering journalist and anti-lynching crusader, had inspired the beginnings of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and established the Alpha Suffrage Club, the largest black women’s suffrage organization in Illinois, so no exclusion for her: she defiantly marched with white suffragists in the Washington DC procession. 

Second: In discussing the formerly enslaved abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, I touched on his agreement with Susan B. Anthony that both leaders would insist on enfranchisement for black men and all women together, refusing to sell out one constituency for the other. Nevertheless, Douglass  gave his blessing to the 15th Amendment, so that black men had the vote before black, white, or any women. There were heartbreaking ironies in Douglass’s friendships with Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women’s suffrage leaders, conflicting with Douglass’s use and abuse of women in his private life.

His treatment of Anna Murray, the free black woman who helped him escape slavery, married him, bore his five children, and was left at home while he traveled the country and the world, betraying her publicly with lovers, was indefensible.  Lionized by white suffragists (male and female), Douglass made speeches, wrote books, became world famous, and changed the story of his escape to better fit his own heroism. Anna did not suffer gladly his taking as lovers the trail of white women activists who mentored him, financed him, helped him establish his newspaper, paid off his mortgage, hid him during the John Brown controversy, and even moved into Anna Murray Douglass’s home at his invitation. Naturally, the women blamed and hated each other, not Frederick. But it was frequently rumored that Anna was about to divorce him, and he didn’t mince words regarding her, cruelly writing in an 1862 letter, “I am married to an old black log.” One of his white women lovers and supporters, Ottilie Assing, had been at his side for 30 years and been given to believe she would eventually become his wife, but when Anna died, he wed Helen Pitts, a white woman young enough to be his daughter.  It was Ottilie Assing who then killed herself—not , as I mistakenly wrote last week, another of his protectors and funders, Julia Griffiths. (His sole defender regarding the Pitts marriage, about which the abolition and suffrage communities both black and white were shocked and disapproving, was Elizabeth Cady Stanton–who undeniably made racist statements in another context but who does not deserve being denounced broadly by facile critics.)  For those interested in learning more, I recommend: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, by Leigh Fought, and, though a work of historical fiction, the scrupulously researched, factually solid, Douglass’ Women, by Jewel Parker Rhodes.

It’s all the more important to get our facts not just straight but to get them at all, especially at a time when politicians fail to see what’s wrong with wearing black face and the voting rights of people of color are under attack at levels of intimidation reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s.

So I urge my European American sisters (and men of conscience) to break through the historical illiteracy in which the patriarchy has deliberately raised us, to became familiar with the luminous lives and contributions of African American suffragists like Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Anna Julia Cooper and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and later on, Mary Church Terrell, and so many more. We need to revisit the life of the magnificent Harriet Tubman, called Moses because she led hundreds of enslaved people to safety; Tubman, who was a Union spy and the first African American woman to serve in the US military; Tubman, whom we know as an abolitionist but who was also a prominent voice for women’s suffrage and, herself disabled, who spoke of disabled persons’ rights at a time when that was unimaginable.

Furthermore, we all need to become historically literate about other Americans of color, who repeatedly get erased by the chiaroscuro of black-white conflict.

  • Have you ever heard of Mable Ping-Hua Lee? Born in Guangzhou, China in 1896, she came to New York with her family in 1905 and, by the time she was 16, was a well-known activist in the women’s suffrage movement. Lee, on horseback, led the 1913 suffrage march. Her 1914 essay, “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” declared “the extension of democracy … is  a hallmark of feminism,” and her speech “The Submerged Half,” urging the Chinese community to promote girls’ education and women’s civic participation was covered in the New York Times. She fought for and witnessed the passage of the 19th Amendmen. But Mabel Lee herself could not benefit from it, because the 1882 Federal Chinese Exclusion Act would not be lifted until 1943, with the Magnuson Act.
  • Did you know that Texas, which held the greatest concentration of Latinx peoples, by 1923 had codified  all-white primaries for the Democratic Party? Nonwhites couldn’t participate in the party’s primaries, which effectively decided the general elections’ outcomes because of the Democratic Party’s then-dominance in the state. It wasn’t until 1954 that Earl Warren’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled the 14th Amendment equal protection clause went beyond black and white citizens to include other ethnicities.  
  • Did you realize that suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her major 1893 work, Women, Church, and State, declared that her model for a just society was the Haudenosaunee Native matrilineal, matrifocal one? (“Haudenosaunee” denoted the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, later joined by the Tuscarora). Gage wrote,  “Under their women, the science of government reached the highest form known to the world.” Yet today, in some parts of this, their own country, Native Americans are kept from voting. 

A friendly warning: as you begin to learn the history you’ve been robbed of, you risk getting very, very angry. Then you get angrier still, all over again, when we blame each other rather than those white, Christian, property-owning, land-holding men who set us against one another. (They’re still around; have you noticed who holds power?) They’re relying on our ignorance and our horizontal hostility. 

But women are, after all, just people—and we’re different, and we make different choices. Some of the suffragist and women’s rights activists of color, like Anna Julia Cooper,  chose to put their main energy into the struggle against racism—but  they were also suffragists. Others, like St. Pierre Ruffin, amazingly balanced both, cofounding the American Woman Suffrage Association and being Vice President of the National Association of Colored Women. Flash forward: in a 1972 BBC interview, the great US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said, “Being black is definitely a handicap in the United States because racism has been inherent in our institutions.” Then she added, of her own experience,” I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black.” Have we forgotten a woman’s right to choose?

White suffragists, obviously, were unburdened by such conflicting priorities. Most of them already activists for years in the abolition movement, they likely assumed (naïvely and conveniently)  that they weren’t racists. The late 18th and early 19th centuries in this country were hardly periods of nuance about the pernicious subtleties of racism; those involved in that struggle were busy trying to break free from the hideous, blatant reality of institutionalized enslavement, followed by its murderous and soul-debilitating aftermath.

And sexism? Misogyny penetrating all aspects of society the way we begin to comprehend it does today? Such awareness barely existed; many suffragists thought the vote would cure society’s ills. “Manhood suffrage” was sometimes used interchangeably with “universal suffrage.” But some women’s rights leaders glimpsed the pervasiveness of sexism, and in her Seneca Falls speech and the Declaration,  Elizabeth Cady Stanton named the rights to education, employment, divorce, legal agency, and freedom of movement as goals beyond suffrage. She denounced the legal doctrine of coverture, under which married women could not hold any property once they had husbands, and she risked mentioning theretofore unnameable domestic violence. Stanton even dared name religion in general and Christianity specifically as primary oppressors of women—for which she was attacked from virtually all quarters. 

These were fallible people, filled with contradictions, though we view them now as historical figures and want to infuse them retroactively with perfection. But every one of them was just trying to do the best she could. 

The white women had more privilege, yes–although it was a mere fraction of white men’s. Those women were trying to learn how to exercise that privilege positively, as in their abolition and suffrage struggles—but yes, sometimes that privilege surfaced negatively, in racism. No other ethnic group in this country, each with a past scarred by hardship and grief, has the history endured by Africans brought here in slavery. Yet black men fighting for suffrage had more privilege than black women suffragists, who in turn had more privilege than Chinese or Mexican women who spoke no English.

 If we continue to rank human suffering competitively, we will die from losing, or else die from boredom. It’s long, long past time to scrape off paralyzing guilt, bitter cross accusations, and rusted defensiveness—and get to work.

 “Women’s Suffrage(s) Part 3” will conclude this meditation next week.