Susan B. Anthony is a well-known Quaker suffragist. She worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton first for abolition, and then for universal suffrage. She made great strides for both causes, but in the time leading up to the Fifteenth Amendment, which enabled Black men to vote, she participated in racism as a strategy for garnering power to her cause. This paper discusses that aspect of Anthony’s career and the implications of her life for modern Quakers.
Anthony the Abolitionist
Susan B. Anthony believed in and fought for universal suffrage for her whole life. From the time she was very young, her family worked with and supported Frederick Douglass. As she grew, leaders in the abolitionist movement, including Douglass, trained her in how to organize and call people to action. She became a mighty leader in both the Anti-Slavery and Women’s Rights movements, which “grew up so closely as to be almost indistinguishable in their earlier period.”
As an abolitionist, Anthony was passionate and tireless in her efforts, even putting herself in physical danger on a number of occasions when pro-slavery activists protested her events. After the Civil War, Anthony advocated for the integration of African American people in the United States. In a speech in 1861, Anthony said, “Let us open to the colored man all our schools … Let us admit him into all our mechanic shops, stores, offices, and lucrative business avocations … let him rent such pew in the church, and occupy such seat in the theatre … Extend to him all the rights of Citizenship.”
Anthony believed so entirely in universal suffrage that she proposed the transformation of the Women’s Rights Society into the Equal Rights Association. She introduced this change with these powerful words at one of their conventions:
The duty of Congress at this moment is to declare what shall be the basis of representation in a republican form of government. There is, there can be, but one true basis, viz.: that taxation and representation must be inseparable; hence our demand must now go beyond woman – it must extend to the farthest limit of the principle of the “consent of the governed,” as the only authorized or just government. We therefore wish to broaden our woman’s rights platform. As women we can no longer claim for ourselves what we do not for others, nor can we work in two separate movements to get the ballot for the two disfranchised classes, negroes and women, since to do so must be at a double cost of time, energy and money… Therefore, that we may henceforth concentrate all our forces for the practical application of our one grand, distinctive, national idea – universal suffrage – I hope we will unanimously adopt the resolution before us, thus resolving ourselves into the American Equal Rights Association.
Her resolution was adopted. But a short time later, it became clear that there would be no true fusion of the two causes. Rather than fighting for women’s rights along with Black men’s rights, many of the male leaders alongside of whom she had been working for years began to focus their primary efforts on the voting rights of Black men. Securing the voting rights of women (of any race) became a secondary concern.
Only weeks after the historic convention, Anthony’s friends, who had vociferously supported her resolution to combine efforts to win suffrage for Black men and women of both colors, tried to persuade her that women should fight exclusively for suffrage for Black men, “leaving that of the women to come afterward, presumably twenty years later, when there would be another revision of the constitution.” Anthony was “highly indignant and declared that she would sooner cut off her right hand than ask the ballot for the black man and not for woman.”
This incident is sometimes taken out of context and used as proof of Anthony’s racism. The claim is that Anthony wanted White women and not Black men to have the vote. I have not been able to find evidence for this claim. I think that Anthony was racist in an entirely different way. Anthony chose to employ racist tactics in response to her colleagues’ claims that she should stop fighting to correct sexism.
When Congress wrote the 14th Amendment, which said that no state could infringe on the rights of citizens regardless of color, giving Black people representation in the government, they added the word “male” three times. For the first time, the Constitution gave rights to “male” citizens instead of just “citizens.”
Anthony was incensed. She felt abandoned by many of the abolitionists with whom she had worked for all those years. In the months leading up to the Fifteenth Amendment, which would extend the right to vote to more classes of citizen, Anthony found abolitionist leaders so occupied with Black men that “they had given little thought to the suffrage as related to women.” Very few Republican politicians joined in her efforts to include women as a class of citizen who could gain suffrage in the Fifteenth Amendment. They argued that Black men should vote because they were men and women shouldn’t vote simply and especially because they were women. Her friend Frederick Douglass, a longtime fearless advocate of women’s rights and suffrage, also wrote that White women were not being generous by wanting women included in suffrage with Black men.
Among the few leaders that did support the cause to extend the right to vote to women in the Fifteenth Amendment was Robert Purvis. In speeches, he said frequently that “he would rather his son never should be enfranchised than that his daughter never should be, as she bore the double disability of sex and color and, by every principle of justice, should be the first to be protected.” But most Republicans did not listen to him, either – they insisted that “women should not jeopardize the claims of the colored man by pressing their own.”
Anthony was very frustrated by this turn of events, especially because in her understanding, all of the abolitionists who abandoned women’s rights truly believed in women’s right to the vote – they just sacrificed that cause for the sake political expediency. Black men would simply get the vote more quickly if they left the women behind.
Anthony the Racist
Anthony and her faithful partner Stanton continued fighting for all women’s right to vote, along with Black men’s right to vote. And they continued to find no support among politicians. While they were “stumping” in Kansas, a Democratic politician named George Francis Train came to Kansas and decided to back Anthony and Stanton’s work to get women the vote in that state. He brought lots of money and a substantial amount of attention – he was an outrageous personality and people came from all over to watch his antics. Anthony threw herself fully into working in partnership with him. Anthony, along with Stanton, decided that since the Republicans wouldn’t support them, they’d try to get the Democrats on their side – they needed someone with power to help them as the 15th amendment was being written. And Train was their ticket to the Democrats.
The problem was… Democrats were often racist. Train was no exception – in fact, he was extremely racist. But “for the last two weeks of the campaign, Anthony toured the state with Train, speaking on the same platform, as Train openly wielded racist arguments to support white women’s enfranchisement.” Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women who had spent their lives fighting for the freedom and rights of Black men and women lead events with Train while he made up ditties like the following:
“White women work to free the blacks from slavery
Black men to enslave the whites with political knavery,
Woman votes the black to save,
The black he votes, to make the woman slave,
Hence when blacks and “Rads” unite to enslave the whites,
’Tis time the Democrats championed woman’s rights.”
It wasn’t just that campaign in Kansas either – Train went on to fund Anthony and Stanton’s publication, the Revolution, in which the two women began to accommodate themselves to racist rhetoric and even take it up themselves to appeal to racists with political power. In their publication, they used the trope of Black men as filled with a latent desire to rape White women, and they claimed that White women voting would be better for White supremacy, suggesting that White women’s vote could outnumber votes by Black people. They also “claimed that the enfranchisement of African American men would rearrange the social hierarchy in America, placing white women beneath black men on a metaphorical ladder of political and social power.”
Stanton wrote most of the racially charged articles that are generally available, but Anthony, in addition to endorsing Stanton’s racist work, also wrote some of her own. Even while openly rejecting the idea of a race-based social hierarchy, she was not above penning racist statements when she thought it could draw Democratic support. In an open letter asking the Democrats to include women’s suffrage to its national political platform in 1868, she wrote:
“While the dominant party have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship, with the other they have dethroned FIFTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN—their own mothers and sisters, their own wives and daughters—and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood.”
After encountering the sexist arguments made by people fighting for the vote for Black men – Anthony betrayed not only Black men but also Black women by employing racist arguments of her own in her attempt to persuade those in power to include women in the Fifteenth Amendment.
Interpretation of Anthony’s Choice
The problem with Anthony’s career was not that she continued advocating for women. I think in modern society, most feminists would not be able to imagine ceasing activist work for women in order to advocate exclusively for another group of people. The problem is also not that she advocated exclusively for women – throughout her career, Anthony fought for a universal suffrage that would benefit every citizen of the United States regardless of race or sex. The problem was that, in an effort to gather power to her cause, she joined with racists, she accommodated racism, and she used racist rhetoric as a means to reach her goal.
Her focus became narrow, and her choices did a great deal of harm to her former friends and colleagues (like Douglass, whose pain is described above). She also almost completely ignored the arguments for focusing on Black men (many People of Color, men and women, believed that if Black men could vote, that would protect them against violence in the former slave states). Frances Watkins Harper is an example of a suffragist who Anthony could have engaged more fully. As a Black woman, Harper held great hope that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments could really change the country and make it safe for people with her ethnic background. So although she fully supported women’s suffrage, she joined a women’s association that “accepted black male suffrage first and then turned to working for woman suffrage next.”
The deprioritization of women’s suffrage by many abolitionists does present a problem. Frederick Douglass was the reason that women’s suffrage was even an issue at all. He alone supported Stanton’s resolution at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention (which included no black women). Douglass declared in his persuasive speech at that convention that he could not accept the right to vote if women didn’t also have the right. And because of his support, the resolution passed. But when he had his opportunity to fight for his right to vote alone – he did.
Black men and women of both colors were essentially told that they had to choose – Black men OR women. By focusing on the idea of a racial, sexual social hierarchy, Republicans and Democrats alike “depicted the enfranchisement of black men and of white women as oppositional.” Universal suffragists could have rejected that false binary and continued to fight together for truly universal suffrage. It might have been slower, but I think that strengthened solidarity would have made both causes much stronger and much more effective. As it was, Black men’s right to vote did not protect them from horrific violence at the hands of White supremacists throughout the country; and women did not succeed in winning suffrage through the Fifteenth Amendment.
Anthony’s choice to fight sexism, particularly as suffered by White women, rather than to resist both racism against Black people and sexism against all women, was repeated by many White feminists throughout the Suffragist Movement. White suffragists did things like making Black women march in the back of a parade. They also ignored the causes taken up by Black women activists. Ida B. Wells had to go to England to find a White Quaker woman, Catherine Impey, who would listen to and support her protest against the prolific lynching, primarily of Black men, that was happening in the Southern United States.
By the 1890s, Black suffragists like Wells and Harper were forming their own organizations after being pushed out of their positions in the original, integrated organizations. White women continued to make accommodations for racist members, at the expense of their Black members, so in the last 20 years before the enactment of the Nineteenth amendment, there was very little interracial cooperation among suffragists.
That division had tragic consequences. Black women got the vote with White women – but – they were not protected from racist laws meant to suppress the votes of Black people. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, most White women suffragists did not continue fighting to actually enable Black women to use their right to vote. Black women, fighting mostly alone, only won the necessary protections from racist laws that excluded them from their rightful franchise with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For 45 years, the Black community continued to suffer horrific injustice as year after year, they were prevented from exercising their right to vote to make political changes. And the entire country suffered as we deprived ourselves of the full volume of Black voices and political contributions.
It is the shame of White suffragists that they chose to garner political power by abandoning Black suffragists, thus rendering themselves unable to hear the needs of the Black community – unable to fight for an amendment that would have been actually usable by Black women.
The racism of Susan B. Anthony is that she chose women over Black people – sexism over racism – a choice made possible only because she believed in a false dichotomy that resulted in the exclusion of those who suffered at the axis of both forms of oppression (namely Black women). She chose to do whatever she had to do to develop solidarity with people in power – instead of remaining in solidarity with oppressed people. She oppressed people in order to (try to) get what she wanted.
Implications of Anthony’s Example
Quakers continue to be overrepresented among Christians that engage in social justice work. As we do this, we must be aware of the story of Susan B. Anthony. We must maintain solidarity with people who are oppressed and marginalized, even if it means taking more time to get what we are fighting for. That is what Jesus did. He walked this earth as a relatively marginalized person, announcing the coming of the Reign of Love. Jesus did not seek to curry favor with powerful people to accomplish what he wanted to as quickly as possible. Indeed, we are 2,000 years after his life, and we are still working to realize the justice and freedom he declared. Despite the slowness of making changes through solidarity with oppressed people, that’s what Jesus did. The only way he used the power and influence he did have was to lift others up.
The Quaker testimony of equality is that there is that of God in everyone. As we fight for our various causes – justice for immigrants and asylum seekers, equal rights for women, Black Lives Matter, equal rights for LGBT+ people, protections for animals or the environment, human rights for enslaved people who mine minerals for phone batteries or harvest cacao for our chocolate bars – whatever areas of justice work we are called to labor for – we must never betray our values for political expediency. More importantly, we must never betray or abandon our brothers and sisters, who bear the image of God in them.
Anthony was oppressed as a woman, but privileged as a White person. And rather than use the power that her Whiteness gave her to lift up Black people (women and men), she used it to gather more power to her own cause and to oppress Black people. She did not follow the lead of her Black colleagues. She used her privilege, instead, to try to change the world from the top down by seeking alliances with powerful people, rather than maintaining solidarity with the oppressed and recognizing them as her leaders.
We must use the areas in which we are privileged to lift up people who are oppressed in those areas. We must watch out for the areas of our privilege – we can seldom be good leaders in those areas. So we have to take special care to listen well to people who are marginalized in the areas of our privilege and use our power only to lift them up and follow their lead, like Catherine Impey did in her work with Ida B. Wells. People who are oppressed in a particular area are the ones who know what needs to happen to bring justice – that’s who we need to follow.
Early in her work, Susan B. Anthony had an impressive background as an advocate for Black people. Of all the people of her time, the fact that she later threw herself headlong into racism is, to put it mildly, disappointing. And her example can serve as a valuable warning: None of us is exempt. We all have the capacity to lean into our privilege and oppress other people. We must check ourselves always for logs in our eyes. We must be willing to follow, even as we lead. We must be patient. Breaking chains and freeing ourselves and others from oppression is long, slow work. We must be faithful to our co-workers. We must love each other above all else – even above our own immediate freedom.
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Nikki Holland is studying for a Master of Divinity degree at Earlham School of Religion. She is a founding member of a Quaker house church where she lives in Merida, Mexico. She has recently been appointed the Director of Belize Friends Ministries, and she’s eager to start that job in July of 2019. She loves God, her family, and the beach.