Uncovering History: Was Susan B. Anthony Racist Or Frederick Douglass Sexist?
Start writing a post
popular

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

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

26167
Uncovering History: Was Susan B. Anthony Racist Or Frederick Douglass Sexist?
Live Action Blog

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?

Report this Content
This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
Featured

Ford Cars That We Love

There's a good chance we've all driven a Ford or spent a lot of time at Ford, but what are some of the best cars they've ever made?

8909
Ford Cars That We Love
Photo by Jessy Smith on Unsplash

There are arguably few bigger automakers than Ford. They are a company that shaped the auto industry as we know it today and with a solid reputation in the industry, our wide range of Ford leases has always been a popular choice among drivers.

Keep Reading... Show less
Featured

Prose: One Call

What if you had one call, but you could not say anything other than what you were told to say? In this short excerpt, Bethany finds herself at odds with her jailers and with the one she was told to call, the one she loves. What would you do when the conversation takes a turn off script?

7881
Prose: One Call
https://unsplash.com/s/photos/jail

With each incessant numbing ring of the phone call, I could feel the betrayal coiling around me like the phone line, squeezing me tighter.

Keep Reading... Show less
Featured

'Hotel Transylvania: Transformania' Film Review

Solid animation can't raise the newest entry in Sony's colorful monster series beyond the basics

71218
'Hotel Transylvania: Transformania' Film Review
Photo Credit: Amazon Prime Video – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6suJohjIvfo

I take a slight issue with the idea that Adam Sandler didn’t have a good dramatic role until ‘Uncut Gems,’ what about ‘Hotel Transylvania’ (he says semi-seriously)?’

Keep Reading... Show less
Featured

4 Common Reasons Couples Get Divorced

Are some people just not meant to be together? Is there any way to prevent an impending divorce?

93141
4 Common Reasons Couples Get Divorced

We've all heard the statistics. Roughly 50% of married couples eventually end up divorced. This can lead to complications, problems with your children, financial issues, and no small amount of negative emotions.

Keep Reading... Show less
Featured

​Pets are Good for the Soul

Millions of Americans have found comfort in pet ownership. The media has been awash with stories about a surge in pet ownership, as Americans have taken advantage of the ability of pets to improve emotional well-being.

85545
Good for the Soul
Pets are Good for the Soul

America is going through a mental health crisis. This crisis predates the global pandemic, but has in many ways been dramatically exacerbated by it. In 2019, 19.86% of adults, or 50 million Americans, reported suffering from a mental illness. The emotional toll of the pandemic has been heavy, with over half of U.S. adults saying that they have experienced stress and worry related to Covid-19. Anxieties over work, uncertainty about the future and other triggers have intensified the mental health crisis. Millions of Americans have found comfort in pet ownership. The media has been awash with stories about a surge in pet ownership, as Americans have taken advantage of the ability of pets to improve emotional well-being.

Keep Reading... Show less
Facebook Comments