This month in Suffrage History: A thank you note to Susan B. Anthony on her Birthday (February 15th) for teaching to recognize and reject the politics of divide and conquer
Recovery from the cruel sting of injustice can be slow, discouraging and agonizing, but feeling betrayed by one of your closest allies can break you. Susan B. Anthony was devastated by her dear friend Frederick Douglass whom she felt allowed himself to be used in the cruel political game of divide and conquer. The stakes were high: Following the Civil War, “reconstruction” was underway and universal suffrage for all citizens seemed within reach.
Most of the early leaders of the Suffrage Movement had worked for many, many years in the Abolition movement, hoping to set right the cruel injustice of slavery. They devoted their time and resources to a cause so deeply contentious that it threatened to destroy our country and sparked the Civil War.
Anthony and other suffragists put themselves at great risk operating stops on the underground railroad, helping enslaved people (men, women and children) to escape the horrors of slavery. The work required them to understand the legal condition of enslaved people.
The more they learned, the more they realized that the legal condition of enslaved people and the legal condition of women were eerily similar. In response, they broadened their efforts to educate, inform and draw attention to injustice, not only in slavery, but also in patriarchy.
Most of the Abolition leaders supported the women’s cause that came to be known as “equal suffrage” or “universal suffrage” (working for suffrage for all citizens) and were welcomed as friends. Frederick Douglass proved to be a staunch, dependable friend of the Woman Suffrage Movement, devoting his energy and considerable talent over and over again. The friendship between Douglass and Anthony was treasured on both sides.
They hoped and maybe even believed that a country convinced of the injustice of slavery would also see the fundamental unfairness in so much of the treatment that belittled and restricted women. But their friendship was heading for a very significant test.
By 1861 the abolitionists were within reach of their victory when tensions over whether slavery was to be tolerated anywhere in the United States and the related issue of “states rights” (the effort to empower each state to decide whether to allow slavery), boiled over into all-out war. The issues divided families, upturned economic systems, destroyed homes, families, and resources, but it also rid the US of the horrendous stain of slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln during the Civil War (1863) was a huge victory for the Abolitionists and the outcome of the Civil War (1865) gave us national abolition. Recognition of the humanity of those burdened by slavery was a critical starting point for racial equity.
But freedom alone did not bring a voice in government. After the end of the Civil War that brought abolition, the National Women’s Rights Convention created the American Equal Rights Association to ensure voting rights for all citizens, including all men and women who were former slaves. Most former abolition leaders supported that organization.
In the months and years that followed the Civil War, changes to our Constitution were made to ensure that slavery would no longer be tolerated in any State. The 13th Amendment (1867) freed both male and female enslaved people, but otherwise the rights of all women went unchanged.
Another of the Reconstruction Amendments (14th Amendment-1868) defined citizenship (all persons born or naturalized in the US) and forbid the states from interfering with citizens’ rights to due process, equal protection and the privileges and immunities granted by the Federal Constitution, It did not, however, insure all citizens could vote. In fact, other language in the Amendment was used successfully to argue that it limited voting to only male (or even only White male) citizens.
When Congress took up the 15th Amendment (1870) the politics of divide and conquer reared its ugly head and threatened to set back the universal suffrage movement for years to come. The 15th Amendment was to ensure that all of the States allowed formerly enslaved men to vote, but gave that right only to formerly enslaved Black men. It shut out all women, Black and White. To Susan B. Anthony’s great dismay, Frederick Douglass supported the 15th Amendment, taking the position that there was more need for Black men to vote than there was for women, Black or White, to vote. He actively campaigned to support the Amendment. That decision caused the long friendship of Douglass and Anthony to nearly shatter.
Anthony warned that such an Amendment would cause woman suffrage to be set back for another half century. Douglass’ decision to support an Amendment that left out Black women, in fact all women, was a huge victory for the politics of divide and conquer. Anthony felt betrayed by her friend that she trusted and admired.
The politics of divide and conquer also created a painful distance between some suffragists—some believed the 15th Amendment should be supported even though it left all women out while many believed such support would be a betrayal of the basic principle that all citizens should have a voice in government.
After the 15th Amendment passed in 1870, the campaign for women’s right to vote continued, though the friction the Amendment caused lingered. Congress tried yet another way to divide the movement for equality.
The politics of divide and conquer rose again as repeated efforts were made in Congress to narrow the proposed Woman Suffrage Amendment to cover only White women. In those days of Jim Crow and widespread segregation, a White-women-only Amendment would probably have been easier to pass and likely have passed sooner, but I am proud to report that all the major woman suffrage groups refused the lure of expediency and stood by all their sister citizens, regardless of race. That attempt to divide and conquer failed miserably.
The experience of the suffragists should teach us to beware of those who seek to divide us. We can do so much more and so much more quickly when we stick together.
Douglass and Anthony were eventually able to work together again for woman’s suffrage, and their friendship survived. She never entirely gave up on Douglass in spite of their crushing disagreement over the 15th Amendment.
The sad irony is that Anthony did not live long enough to be recognized as a citizen worthy of a vote. But her lifetime of effort did result in the most significant, far reaching social and political change in American history—more than half the citizens of our country finally got a voice in their “democratic” government in 1920, exactly 50 years after the 15th Amendment passed. Anthony whose motto was “failure is impossible” never gave up on our future. Thank you Susan B.