This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) reportedly was wrecked by disagreements over the 14th Amendment and the question of whether to support the proposed 15th Amendment which would enfranchise Black American males while avoiding the question of woman suffrage.
Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were at one time part of the AERA, a group they formed with Frederick Douglass and other in 1866, according to history.com.
The organization’s goal was to win voting rights “for both women and African Americans,” Lisa Tetrault, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told history.com.
“There’s tension from the very beginning over the priority of those two demands,” she said. “Black women fall out of this equation.”
In America, both the women’s rights movement and the Black rights movement had their roots in the abolitionist organizations of the early 1800s, and they shared many members, goals, and methods. Despite these early commonalities, though, in the latter half of the century the two movements faced each other as adversaries, Whitney Hampson, a junior history major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the white paper, “On Account of Color or Sex: A Historical Examination of the Split between Black Rights and Women’s Rights in the American Equal Rights Association, 1866-1869.”
Throughout the antebellum and Civil War years, the movements had cultivated increasingly divergent goals and tactics, particularly in regards to the issues of suffrage, Hampson wrote
By the late 1860s, the leaders of the two movements disagreed completely on the relationship between their movement and the existing political structure, particularly the Republican Party. They also held divergent opinions on why either women or Black people needed to vote and when enfranchisement should occur. By the end of the decade, they would not even acknowledge the legitimacy of each other’s goals, Hampson continued.
“Although the conflict was played out in many forums, it is most clear in the proceedings of the AERA,” she wrote. “This organization, designed to combine the resources and energy of the Black and women’s suffrage movements, held three annual conferences after its initial meeting in 1866.
“These meetings forced the leaders of the two movements to articulate their goals and means by which they were to achieve those goals. Eventually, the two movements had no choice but to confront the reality of the growing rift between them,” Hampson stated.
It was on the convention floor in 1867 and 1868 that the conflict over the Republican Party and the urgency of suffrage became clear, and the debate at the group’s final meeting in 1869 revealed that these fundamental disagreements had destroyed desire for cooperation and even respect between the two movements, Hampson concluded.
“The collapse of the AERA is often viewed as a symbol of the split between women’s suffragists and Black suffragists,” she wrote.
After only three years, the AERA dissolved over heated fights about whether to support the 15th Amendment, with which Black men won the right to vote (in the South, this victory would be short-lived), according to history.com.
At a pivotal convention in May 1869, Douglass argued that the AERA should support the amendment while continuing to fight for women’s suffrage. Stanton not only disagreed, but also gave an address filled with racist stereotypes about the male immigrants and male former slaves whom the amendment would enfranchise.
“Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for … Susan B. Anthony,” she said at the convention. “[The amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”
Neither Anthony nor Stanton lived to see the passing of the 19th Amendment, but it was no secret that the two never worked to secure voting rights for Black women. When women of color such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper sought assistance from white suffrage groups, they were turned down.
“They say basically, ‘Help us, we still can’t vote,’” Tetrault told history.com. “And those organizations basically say, ‘That’s a race question, it doesn’t concern us.’”