What if, in the years after the Civil War, the United States Congress had heeded the advice of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and guaranteed universal suffrage as a basic condition of citizenship—for men and women—black and white? Had the democratic franchise been vastly expanded and administered by the federal government, might modern U.S. history have taken a different turn? Would the rights of all citizens have been safer, and the integrity of elections more secure? Would communities in states across the country be better protected against voter suppression today?
In her compelling new history of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement, Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, Ellen Carol DuBois asks us to ponder these provocative questions. Yet she is clear-sighted about how intractable the argument proved to be in its time, and how remote the prospect of women’s suffrage really was in a society governed by entrenched patriarchy and states’ rights.
America’s pioneers of racial and gender justice shared many common values and forged deep bonds during the 1850s. Stanton and Anthony participated as anti-slavery organizers, while Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone endured criticism for supporting the campaign for women’s rights that began at Seneca Falls—not just the right to vote, but also to own property and accumulate wealth, to access higher education and profitable employment, and to marry and divorce freely.
Such an expansive human rights vision, however, found no place in the aftermath of a bloody war to defend the union and eradicate slavery. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson, the avowed Southern Democrat who had been made vice president in a gesture of national unity, became president. The radical Republicans in Congress quickly acted to counter this existential threat by securing the electoral advantage they saw in the votes of black men that a diverse population of women would not necessarily provide.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, guaranteed birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law for all, but identified only men as voters; an explicit gender distinction entered the Constitution for the first time. Two years later, the 15th Amendment established the right to vote and banned discrimination in its exercise, but only on the basis of race. Subsequent federal efforts to enforce that right, however, were no match for the white supremacist violence that erupted across the South during the 1870s, or for the national economic turmoil that ended Republican majority control in Washington, D.C. Stanton responded to these tragic developments not with calls for movement solidarity but with something quite the opposite.
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Ms.
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Feeling deeply betrayed, she mocked former allies who privileged the “negro’s hour” and formed alliances with open proponents of racism. Enraged at the decision to enfranchise “ignorant” blacks and immigrant men but not educated white women, she shamelessly advanced racial and ethnic tropes, despairing that “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung” were making the laws that governed women. In the process she brought permanent damage to her own reputation and to the larger women’s suffrage effort, which split apart and lost ground for two generations.
In the early years of the 20th century, expanding the vote found new momentum from Progressive Era reformers demanding a more activist government that would secure the well-being of all citizens. Black women robustly supported this undertaking, even as organized suffrage remained hostage to—and some of its leaders actually invested in—the segregationist practices of the time. But as the final ratification in Tennessee in 1920 demonstrated, victory required working across geographic and philosophical divides.
The complex circumstances of the suffrage fight are difficult to disentangle and judge fairly; DuBois, an academic trailblazer in women’s history, brings vast knowledge and insight to the task. This accessible new volume provides an indispensable resource as we celebrate the women’s suffrage centennial. The what-if questions at its core also raise the stakes for new efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment and finally secure constitutional protections for women where the 14th Amendment, alas, still falls short.