Hard Times In the Sisterhood
Stuck between a woman and a black candidate
By: Linda K Monk
It’s getting rough in the sisterhood these days, trying to choose between the first female and the first black president of the United States. I feel a cognitive dissonance about whom to support—especially during Black History Month, which is also the birth month of Frederick Douglass.
I am starting to feel a lot like Lucy Stone, the most famous feminist you’ve never heard of. If you think the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is tough today, you should have been there for the smack-down between Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the most celebrated advocate of women’s suffrage, over the 15th Amendment. And Lucy Stone paid the price.
During the 19th century, Stone was hands-down the most famous advocate for women’s equality. She was the first woman to be paid to speak on behalf of abolition, to convene a national convention on women’s rights (Seneca Falls was a regional event in New York), and to keep her maiden name when married. An unmatched orator during an age when few could read or write, Stone’s eloquence led one newspaper to offer a reward for the man who would marry her and “with a kiss stop up the mouth of Lucy Stone.”
But Stone sided with Frederick Douglass, another supporter of women’s suffrage, after the 15th Amendment was proposed – giving black men, but not women of any color, the right to vote.
Initially, Stone had signed on with Stanton in a petition to Congress in 1866 asking that women be given the vote along with men of color. Douglass and Republican leaders in Congress believed the amendment would be defeated if women were added. Some even argued that a 16th Amendment securing the vote for women would be more likely if black men could vote first. Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted that such amendments be offered together, with support on one being conditioned to support on the other, but to no avail.
Lucy Stone acquiesced. “It is the Negro’s hour,” she said. Perhaps her long employ in the cause of abolition influenced her decision. Perhaps it was her shrewd political skills. But the dissent over the 15th Amendment broke apart the longtime coalition between the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.
Add to that Stanton’s intemperate remarks about white women now being governed by immigrants and black men, and women’s suffrage was portrayed as yet another face of racism. The 15th Amendment also split the women’s movement, and as a result Stanton’s seminal history of women’s suffrage minimized Stone’s pivotal role.
After two decades, the women’s suffrage movement unified again, but it took 50 years between the 15th and 19th Amendments for women to be full citizens under the Constitution. And even when the 19th Amendment was ratified, some states challenged it in court as an inherently “unconstitutional” amendment because it interfered in domestic relations that had always been part of state powers. Fortunately, that attempt failed, but it is a historical reminder of how far states were willing to go to keep women from the ballot. One could argue that Jim Crow laws and lynching were a similar, but more successful and deadly, challenge to the voting rights of African- Americans.
What’s the message for women today? We’ve been here before, and the danger is not in disagreement but in schism. The generation of women who were at the front lines of penetrating the work force and fighting for equal pay are understandably impatient for a woman president: If not Hillary Clinton, who? But younger women, for whom working was not an issue, assume equality. They ask: Why Clinton?
Caught between these two generations, I can only hope Democrats remember that we can be proud of a woman who runs for president without agreeing that she would make the best president. Isn’t that what women have always said we wanted?