Friday, April 14, 2006

Taking Turns

I did one more guest post on Alas. It was in response to a debate that had happened in the comments of another post. Amp said:

I’m reminded of how some suffragists objected to the idea of voting rights for Blacks (which effectively meant “Black men,” since no one in government at the time was proposing that Black women should have the vote), saying that it was women’s turn first (meaning white women).
Heart replied to Amp as follows:
Here’s what happened. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed during Reconstruction, granted full citizenship to former slaves and free black people. It also introduced the word “male” into the Constitution and left it up to the states to determine which of its male citizens who were 21 could vote. The Fifteenth Amendment said U.S. citizens could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The suffragists wanted *sex* included along with race, color and previous condition of servitude. The inclusion of the word “sex” would have meant both white women and black women would have the right to vote. Abolitionists, including their former friend and ally, Frederick Douglass, didn’t want to push for that. He thought there was more chance of the 15th Amendment passing if the word “sex” were omitted and that while women’s suffrage was important, it was more important that black men be given the vote.
And Sheezlebub replied:
While there were plenty of women in the movement who were anti-racist and pro-suffrage for all women, there were still plenty of women who did buy into racist bullshit, who scrambled to reassure southern racists that the number of White women with the vote would outnumber those odious Black men and keep White supremacy safe. Far from advocating for suffrage for all women, some White women in the movement were quite happy to exclude Black women. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton got George Francis Train to be an ally–but advocated for “educated” suffrage, which excluded Blacks as it had been illegal to teach a Black person to read or to educate them. His programe was White women and THEN black men.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association not only barred Black women from attending its Altanta conference, but allowed chapters to bar Black women from joining. That’s not indicative of fighting for the rights of all women.
Now the nearest I've found to a suffragist who said that white women should be granted the vote before black men that I've been able to find is Henry Ward Beecher, he argued: "I is more important that women should vote than that the black man should vote" (black women were another matter). I don't think it was at all common that suffragists argued that women's suffrage should be passed before black suffrage. What was common was objecting to enfranchising black men, but not women (which would mean both black women and white women).

Now, to me, this was a really interesting debate (and I'm cribbing a lot from Angela Davis's Woman, Race & Class, even though I disagree with her conclusions), and had some pretty long-standing repercussions.

Immediately after the civil war Frederick Douglass was arguing that it was more important that black men got the vote than that white or black women did. He had supported the suffrage movement, and women's rights campaigners, for quite some time, but after the Civil War argued that it was more urgent that black men get the vote than women:
When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have [the same] urgency to obtain the ballot
Many prominent women suffragists disagreed with him this is Elizabeth Cady Stanton:
The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the negro; and as long as he was lowest in the scale of being, we were willing to press his claims; but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk into the kingdom first. As self preservation is the first law of nature, woudl it not be wiser to keep our lamps trimmed and burning, and when the constitutional door is open, avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the black soldeir and walk in by his side, and thus make the gap so wide that no priviledged class could ever again close it against the humblest citizen of the republic?
This is Sojourner Truth
There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a worda bout the colored women; and if colored men get their rights,a nd not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.
But so did some black men, Charles Remond (who had a long history of fighting for women's rights) said: "In an hour like this I repudiate the idea of expediency. All I ask for myself I claim for my wife and sister."

Sheezlebub is right about the racism about the women's suffrage movement, and it got even worse once the links between women's rights and anti-slavery were broken. Here is a resolution from the National American Women's Suffrage Assocation passed in the early 1890s:
Resolved. That wihtout expressing any opinion on the proper qualifications for voting, we call attention ot the significant facts that in every State there are more women who can read and write than the whole number illeiterate male voters, morew hite women who can read and write than all negro voters; more American women who can read and write than all foreign voters; so that the enfranchisement of such women would settle the vexted question of rule by illiteracy, whether of home-grown or foreign-born production.
The reason I wanted to write about this was partly to draw a distintion between white women saying they should have the vote before black people, and saying that when the franchise is being extended to black men it should also be extended towards women. But also because I think we can learn something from this past.

Before and during the civil war the struggle for women's rights and the abolitionist struggle were intertwined. There was a lot of sexism and racism in both movements, but there were a lot of people who were working on both issues, and alliances between the two causes.

I understand why Frederick Douglass, and others, believed that the vote for black men needed to be a priority. But I also understand why this was such a breach to the solidarity that had existed between the two struggles.

What seems so sad to me, with hindsight, is that the vote didn't protect black men from everything that Frederick Douglass described, in fact black male suffrage in the South didn't last very long.

So what do other people think, in what circumstances is a win more important than solidarity with another struggle? Under what circumstances is it OK to tell another struggle that your struggle is more important?

Also posted on Alas

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