By Abayomi Azikiwe
Since the mid-19th century there has been a periodic interrelationship between the movements for African emancipation and women’s liberation.
Of course, these convergences have not been without serious contradictions, particularly in light of the historic racial and class divisions which became characteristic of United States society as a whole.
Quite similar to aspects of the labor movement which sought to exclude African people from whatever advancements were made in regard to better salaries and working conditions, some sections of the white-dominated women’s suffrage movement sought to align themselves on the basis of race while relegating African-American women and men to the doldrums of lower caste status through a permanent state of second-class citizenship.
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 proclaimed that “all men were created equal,” therefore excluding women. African people were not considered full human beings and consequently unworthy of equal treatment before the law, let alone the right to self-determination and independence from national oppression.
Ironically, in many ways, the origins of the women’s suffrage movement were spawned by abolitionism, the struggle to eliminate the legal basis for the enslavement of African people. Nonetheless, the question as to whether European-American women were prepared to take a principled stand against racism and in favor of the liberation of African people remained elusive.
During the 1830s, the abolitionist movement in the U.S. included the pivotal participation of women, who often campaigned against slavery. At this time, even white women were considered subordinate to their men and were even prohibited from speaking publicly.
In 1833, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS) was formed with the participation of both African and European American women. The organization was established because the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) led by William Lloyd Garrison did not allow women to hold full membership.
Although it appears as if the majority of members of the PFASS were white, Black women played an important role in creating the organization and shaping its political character, which was oftentimes more militant than other anti-slavery efforts. Free African women such as Margaretta Forten, Grace Bustill Douglass and Amy Hester Reckless were involved in not only petitioning and speaking out against the horrors of African enslavement, they also assisted in the founding of the Female Literary Society (FLS), which emphasized education, the archiving of literature and mutual aid for escaped slaves.
These events among women in various states of the Northeast, South and Midwest regions of the country created the conditions for the convening of the First Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in May of 1837. The gathering was attended by 175 delegates representing twenty different female anti-slavery groupings from ten states. Many of these women had origins in the Quaker faith, where elements of the religious grouping had opposed slavery.
A European-American woman Mary S. Parker served as the President of the gathering. Other leading women who attended the Convention went on to be prominent members of the Women’s suffrage movement. These included Lucretia Mott, Angelina Emily Grimke, Sarah Moore Grimke and Lydia Maria Child. The delegates spanned from free African women to the wives and daughters of slaveholders, as well as participants from working class and poor backgrounds. The meeting was the first to discuss in detail both the abolition of African enslavement along with the rights of women.
After a series of gatherings of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women and its male counterpart, the British abolitionist movement called for the holding of a World Anti-Slavery Convention in June of 1840 in London. Differences emerged over whether women would be able to participate fully in the meeting. Even within the U.S. abolitionist movement divisions between Garrison, who was in favor of women’s participation, and the more conservative Arthur Tappan, in opposition, arose.
Yet, several prominent women in the abolitionist movement in the U.S. attended. The first day of the convention was preoccupied with the question of whether women could speak at the gathering. Eventually it was decided that women would not be allowed to speak or vote while they were relegated to a separate section of the hall. The aftermath of the London convention would prompt figures such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to work towards the convening of women’s rights conferences.
Women’s suffrage, African-American enfranchisement and the 15th Amendment
By 1848, some of these women had come together for what is considered in the official historiography as the first gender equality conference in Seneca Falls, New York. Nonetheless, there were other major events which preceded and followed the Seneca Falls gathering.
After the Civil War (1861 to 1865), there was a major rift in the women’s movement with the formation of two separate organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), both founded in 1869. These two groups emerged after a split in the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) over the question of whether to support the 15th Amendment to the Constitution ostensibly guaranteeing the right to vote for African American men, while denying access to women of any race.
The NWSA, largely led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, refused to support the 15th Amendment if another measure was not introduced and approved guaranteeing suffrage for women. Opposition to the 15th Amendment led Stanton and Anthony to seek support from the previously pro-slavery Democratic Party. In Kansas during a campaign to secure women’s suffrage, they coalesced with George Francis Train, a railroad magnate who spoke openly about his beliefs that African Americans were inferior, saying that it would be an outrage for Blacks to gain the franchise prior to European American women. Train would finance some of the work of Stanton and Anthony during the late 1860s and early 1870s causing much consternation among African Americans and supporters of the 15th Amendment.
Its rival, the AWSA, included both women and men within its ranks. The founders were activists such as Lucy Stone and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, an African-American woman intellectual from Boston. AWSA advanced the notion that if African-American men were granted due process and the right to the ballot it would open the way for universal suffrage.
After the passage and ratification of the 15th Amendment from 1869 to 1870, African-American men were able to hold public office in greater numbers. However, after the Hayes-Tillman Compromise of 1876, federal support for Reconstruction was ended. In the successive decades of the 19th century, African Americans were systematically driven from public office while segregation laws were enshrined in state constitutions amid the rise of lynching and other forms of racialized terror.
This rift in the European-American women’s movement would remain until the conclusion of the 19th century, when there was a renewed thrust towards universal suffrage resulting in the merging of the two factions creating the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Voting rights were granted to women in several states prior to the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
The legacy of gender equality and African-American liberation in the 20th century
Despite the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, most African Americans living in the South were still denied the right to vote. In addition to the denial of the franchise, Jim Crow laws remained largely in effect until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, gender, religion and national origin.
Racist violence was rampant in the North, South and other regions of the U.S. It would take a series of legal challenges and a mass movement to win equal rights for African Americans by the conclusion of the 1960s. The 1965 Voting Rights Act provided opportunities for African Americans to vote in the South, leading to the increase in the number of Black elected officials throughout the country.
After the advent of the African American-led Civil Rights and Black Power campaigns between the 1950s through the 1970s, the women’s movement experienced a revival. However, divisions remained over race and class with white women advancing in some sectors of the labor market due to the continuing national oppression of African Americans and other people of color.
Lessons from the 19th century anti-slavery and women’s movements portend much for the ongoing problems of race and gender in the present period. Until the basis for inequality is eliminated, these contradictions can easily be utilized by the capitalist ruling class in the U.S. as a mechanism to foster divisions among the working class and nationally oppressed.