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Uncovering History: Was Susan B. Anthony Racist Or Frederick Douglass Sexist?

Not quite — but this 19th century debate is still relevant today.

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Everyone knows about Susan B. Anthony’s lifelong work as a suffragist of the women’s rights movement and Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery before becoming a leading abolitionist. But have you heard their lesser-known story of friendship, betrayal, and reconciliation? Trust me, this is not a soap opera, but some really great history that is still relevant today.

Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass met in Rochester through the abolitionist community. Pioneers of equal rights, they quickly became friends, united in the anti-slavery and pro-suffrage movements. Many of Anthony’s early speeches condemned slavery and any sort of racial prejudice; she even postponed her suffrage work mid-Civil War to focus on abolition, which was a more pressing issue. Douglass was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, once remarking that “there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion.” He was also the only African American at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first woman's rights convention at the beginning of the suffrage movement — a convention which, ironically, Anthony did not attend.

So how did such a strong friendship revert to disagreements and accusations of racism or sexism? One major cause was to blame: the Fifteenth Amendment. When slavery was abolished in 1865, former slaves became another group of disenfranchised people who also did not have the vote. Thus the Fifteenth Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote--but only African American men. Douglass and other abolitionists dubbed this time period the “Negro’s hour,” claiming that any suffrage progress was better than none at all, and if black men got the vote first, so be it. Anthony was furious. She wanted universal suffrage for everyone, regardless of race or sex. If women, both black and white, were excluded, she did not want the amendment passed.

Their disagreements came to a head at an 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, where Anthony and Douglass got into a heated debate about the Fifteenth Amendment. They each argued how the lack of suffrage placed them in danger in different ways--African Americans because they were persecuted for their race and women because they were male property, and were controlled financially and politically. After the argument, still conflicted over the amendment yet determined to achieve women’s suffrage, Anthony and her supporters walked out of the meeting and formed a new organization called the National Woman Suffrage Association.

So Susan was racist for not wanting black men to get the right to vote, and Frederick was sexist for wanting women to sit back and wait their turn for suffrage? Well, not quite. There are two problems with this assumption. First, Anthony never stopped advocating for racial justice. Even after the 15th Amendment passed and only black men were given the right to vote, she delivered countless speeches about eradicating racist prejudices throughout the country (which of course did not disappear with the granting of suffrage). She condemned everything from lynchings in the South, to Northern women who claimed they were not prejudiced but really had racist viewpoints or savior complexes in daily life, to the plight of black women who faced the double-edged sword of race and sex. And Douglass did not stop advocating for women’s rights; he supported women’s suffrage until his death. Anthony and Douglass remained friends for years to come, and she even delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

At the crux of the matter, they both had the same principles and goals regarding equal rights. They cannot be faulted when the system was against them and government and society did not recognize either group as complete citizens. They were debating a question with no right answer — whose humanity should be recognized first?

The second problem with these accusations is that it is dangerous to impose a modern lens on history. We cannot use our current knowledge and foresight to impose labels or project agendas on historical figures. This kind of hindsight bias ignores the state of the nation when Anthony and Douglass were debating the Fifteenth Amendment, a time during which neither had equal rights and the words “racist” and “sexist” were not even used. The nineteenth century also lacked an understanding of intersectionality, the idea that oppressions intersect in different ways depending on race, gender, and class. Of course, just because the terminology did not exist does not make it right, but we cannot impose all of our hindsight bias on them.

Looking at the present day, there is no way around it — Anthony and Douglass’ debate is still relevant now. Instead of looking back, we should look forward and consider how their work still resonates today. While all citizens may have suffrage, that does not mean everyone is treated equally or that racial prejudice has been eradicated. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However, we now have tools at our disposal--an understanding of intersectionality, a wealth of sources and perspectives accessible online, and the ability to connect with others worldwide. Anthony and Douglass had an excuse. What is ours?

Just your typical sarcastic, feminist, tap-dancing bibliophile.

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