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Post-Civil War & Reconstruction

Democrats, Republicans create breach

Women's rights & Black liberation, part 5

By Leslie Feinberg

In the late 1860s, the Democratic and Republican parties--acting on behalf of differing economic interests--tried to drive a deep wedge between the struggles for Black liberation and women's suffrage.

The "hard-cop, soft-cop" roles of today's Republicans and Democrats were reversed in that era. In "Market Elections--How Demo cracy Serves the Rich," Vince Copeland explains that the Republican Party of the Northern industrialists and bankers had been the organizer of the Civil War and the leading advocate of abolishing slavery. "Its smaller radical wing in Congress identified itself to a great extent with the Black masses, fighting hard but unsuccessfully for the division of the plantations into free farms for the oppressed," he writes.

"The Democratic Party, on the other hand, had been the party of reaction, the party of the slaveholders, and even in the North was generally their ally," Copeland concludes.

The Republicans, eager to gain ascendancy by winning Black voters, backed a 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to extend suffrage to Black men, but not to women. The Southern former slave-owners, fearing the numerical and political strength of the Black vote, offered white women the right to suffrage.

Black leaders like Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Frederick Douglass--who had worked hard for decades to expand the rights of all women--called on white women leaders to support the 15th Amendment as a first step toward putting African Americans on an equal political status with whites in a period of violent lynch-law repression.

In this decisive moment, two currents emerged among white women struggling for suffrage.

Several of the most prominent, well-to-do white suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton--those most recalled and honored today on minted coins and postage stamps and March television programming--actively opposed the 15th Amendment. They resorted to white supremacist arguments, which can easily be found in the historic record.

Anthony actually campaigned against the 15th Amendment with Democratic Party backing.

Standing tall for Black-white unity

But many, many white women who had been steeled in the struggle against the patriarchs of property and power to win Black liberation and women's rights did stand tall for unity.

Abby Kelly Foster, an Irish-American leader of the early women's rights movement, took on Stanton on the question of Black men: "Have we any true sense of justice? Are we not dead to the sentiment of humanity if we shall wish to postpone his security against present woes and future enslavement till woman shall obtain political rights?"

Frances Dana Gage also took on Anthony and Stanton. The three were considered the triumvirate of white leaders for woman's rights. "Could I with breath defeat the 15th Amendment, I would not do it," she wrote. "It is my earnest wish that the 15th Amendment may be ratified."

Mary Ashton Livermore refused to publish in her newspaper articles that Stanton and Anthony wrote calling for opposition to the 15th Amendment.

After attending woman's rights conferences in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas and Wis con sin, Livermore wrote in language that is moving, but dated: "The Western women moving for woman's enfranchisement do not oppose the 15th Amendment. We have never heard it opposed at a Western women's meeting, in a single instance. Western women comprehend that humanity is one-- that the colored man cannot be elevated without, at the same time, uplifting the colored woman--and they see clearly that through the gap in the fence made by the colored man, as he passes over into citizenship, all American women will pass to the same destination."

Lucy Stone, who had bitterly opposed Douglass on this question earlier, also came over to support the 15th Amendment. Stone introduced a resolution declaring women's support for the amendment at a Woman's Rights Convention held in Chicago in September 1869, asserting, "We rejoice in every extension of suffrage."

When the resolution passed with only two dissenting votes she observed that this consensus was "an accurate expression of the feeling of the woman's suffrage advocates in regard to the 15th Amendment. Not one in a thousand of them is opposed to it. On the contrary, they know that Negro men, and all women, suffer a grievous, common wrong; and are glad when either class, or individuals of either class, can escape from it. Let the friends of both causes cheerfully give each other credit for real facts. Each bitterly needs all the help of the other."

When the 15th Amendment was adopted into the Constitution on March 30, 1870, even amidst the cheers of victory Frederick Douglass rallied for a campaign to win a new amendment that would extend suffrage to all women.

Douglass praised Victoria Claflin Woodhull for the support she'd given the struggle to get the amendment passed.

In May 1872, Woodhull was nominated for president of the United States by the Equal Rights party, a split-off of the socialist International Work ingmen's Association. At her suggestion, Frederick Douglass was nominated to run for vice-president on the same ticket.

Historian Philip S. Foner wrote that, "Victoria Woodhull felt that woman suffragists in the Stanton-Anthony camp had been wrong in splitting with Douglass, whom she admired and respected, and that the movement would be benefited by reuniting the woman's struggle with the Negro's cause."

Unholy alliance between masters

But those who struggled for Black freedom and women's rights--and all who fought for economic and social justice--came up against a formidable new enemy alliance.

The former Southern slave-owners, desperate to unleash all-out counter-revolution to overturn Black Reconstruction, found a class ally in the Northern capitalists.

Once capital was free to expand westward, the monarchs of money formed a partnership with the old kings of cotton, helping them swindle freed slaves out of the promise of "40 acres and a mule."

In 1877 the Northern capitalist class withdrew its federal troops from the South--the last time in this country's pre-imperialist history that the military could have played a progressive role.

The Emancipation Proclamation, inked on Jan. 1, 1863, had mandated that the U.S. government-and the entire military--must maintain the freedom of former slaves, and "will do no acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." And the proclamation also specifically spelled out the right of African Americans to self-defense against violence.

But the 1877 Compromise left the largely unarmed former slaves defenseless.

The political harbinger of this treachery was the Tilden-Hayes betrayal of 1876--a vote-switching election rigged particularly against Black voters. It was the political handshake of the Republicans with the Dixiecrat Southern landowners.

Copeland stresses, "Both Republican and Democratic parties were, from then on, the exclusive parties of U.S. big business with no other significance (besides the enrichment of professional bourgeois politicians) than to continue the rule of big business with one or another reformist or reactionary method."

Capitalism was rapidly reaching a new stage of development, one that would leave its impact on all movements for social and economic equality.

Next: Rise of Rambo.

Reprinted from the April 15, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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