In the first episode of “The Fight,“ we talked about the beginnings of the women’s rights movement in the United States.
The early advocates for suffrage were also abolitionists fighting for the end of slavery. What happened next, though, changed the landscape of the suffrage movement for decades to come.
In 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the movement for women’s suffrage decided to put its work on hold.
White suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that once the Union won the war and enslaved people in the South were granted the right to vote, women would also be rewarded for their war efforts with full suffrage.
After the war, however, the Republican Party saw that if they granted women the right to vote, it might mean White women in the South, who were nearly all Democrats, might outweigh the new political power of freed Black male voters there, who would mostly vote Republican, which was the party of Abraham Lincoln.
So it was a calculated decision not to include women in the text of the 15th Amendment, which read: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
They thought it was an outrage that newly freed, uneducated Black men should be able to vote before middle-class, educated White women such as themselves.
For Black suffragists, though, the choice was clear. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper said: “When it was a question of race, I let the lesser question of sex go. But the white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position.”
For Frederick Douglass, a member of the women’s rights movement since its beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention, it was inconceivable that Black men should be denied the right to vote until White women could have it, too.
Anthony said to Douglass: “If you will not give the whole loaf of justice to the entire people, it should be given to the most intelligent and capable portion of women first.” She meant educated White women, such as herself. She also referred to Black men using a racial slur to viciously drive home her point.
Black female suffragists and Douglass, who had once enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of White suffragists such as Stanton and Anthony, felt betrayed when the White suffragists opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment.
By the 1870s, as Black men in the South began to vote and hold office — rights that would soon be stripped away by new laws — the divide in the suffrage movement was complete.
Stanton, Anthony and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, shortly after the 15th Amendment passed in Congress. Their goal was to pass another constitutional amendment, one that would enfranchise women across the whole country.
But Douglass, Harper, Sojourner Truth and the abolitionist Lucy Stone formed the American Woman Suffrage Association that same year. Their plan was to win women the right to vote state by state, because the Constitution grants states the power to control voting rights.
A few Western states granted women the right to vote, hoping to attract more women to their sparse states and to increase their national importance by increasing their number of voters. But in the East and the South, there was still a lot more work to be done to change attitudes and politics. Most people at the time still thought the idea of women voting was absurd.
In 1890, the divided women’s movement finally decided to converge as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA. It was mostly dominated by middle- and upper-class White women who were not interested in fighting to defend the rights of the newly enfranchised Black men of the South.
Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary Church Terrell helped establish the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. National and local groups of Black women saw the importance of suffrage to protecting the entire Black community.
Although not much progress had been made toward a national constitutional amendment extending the right to vote to women, groups like these laid the groundwork for the victories to come.
In the next episode of “The Fight,” we’ll see how a new generation of radical suffragists took the fight for the vote to the next level.