Debby Applegate: Two Can Make History

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Debby Applegate is the author of “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.”]

OVER the last few months, the contest between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination has been compared to the bitter feud between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, two of the most famous progressive reformers of the 19th century.

They had been colleagues and friends through two decades of public service — Douglass, the former slave who gained international fame as a writer, editor and activist, and Stanton, who began her career by organizing the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. They had worked closely together on a variety of social reform issues, particularly abolition.

But in 1869, Douglass and Stanton were torn apart by the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, which stipulated that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Gender remained a perfectly legal reason to keep someone off the voter rolls.

During the Civil War, many women, including Stanton, had willingly put aside the fight for women’s rights to campaign for the emancipation of the slaves. After the war, they had even stood by patiently when, in 1866, Congress passed the 14th Amendment, defining citizens specifically and solely as “male” — the first use of the word “male” in the Constitution. The politicians soothed the women’s rights advocates by assuring them their turn would come soon.

But in 1869, when outraged women demanded to know why they were not included in the right to vote, they were informed by their allies in Congress that public opinion left room for just one minority group to make it through the door of suffrage and that this was “the Negro’s hour.”

Stanton felt shocked and betrayed that, once again, women were being left behind while black men advanced. When Douglass reluctantly supported the 15th Amendment as written, Stanton responded with a series of furious attacks, ridiculing the idea of giving the vote to the “lower orders” of men, including blacks, Irish, Germans and Chinese, while native white women were denied it. Her campaign to reject the amendment created a bitter schism in the long alliance of abolitionists and suffragists, and within the suffrage movement.

Now that Senator Obama has nearly clinched the nomination, this historical analogy is being used to support a variety of points: that in the “oppression sweepstakes” women always “lose” to blacks, that when thwarted in their ambitions, white women will resort to angry racism, that liberal coalitions are mere screens for self-interested identity politics that fracture whenever real power is at stake. But the analogy is flawed and so are the lessons we’ve been drawing from it....

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