Two Suffrage Movements
by Martha Gruening
The Crisis Vol. 4 (September 1912), pp. 245-247
This article originally appeared in the September 1912 issue of The Crisis, a journal considered one of the leading forces in the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, addressing a failure on the part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to support a resolution condemning the Southern disenfranchisement of African Americans, in law and in practice. It addresses the historical ties of the suffrage movement to the anti-slavery movement and regrets the later move away from defending racial justice.
Martha Gruening, a white woman, was a contributed to The Crisis. She worked for such causes as racial justice and peace. She served for a time as secretary to Herbert Seligmann, the director of public relations for the NAACP.
Gruening repeats the "dialect" version of Sojourner Truth's speech. Recent scholarship has disputed whether this account, written about 30 years after the speech was given, is an accurate representation of Truth's speaking style. The dialect, in particular, may have been an addition by Gage.
The woman suffrage movement in England and America really dates from the beginning of the anti-slavery struggle. It was not only contemporaneous with it, but it owes its existence in a large measure to this phase of the struggle for human rights. For it was in the abolitionist ranks that the early suffragists received their training, both as thinkers and propagandists. It was impossible for them to agitate continually for the freedom of the Negro without desiring freedom for themselves, or realizing the parallel between his situation and their own. For if the Negro was a slave the married woman of that day was no less a chattel. She was no longer openly bought and sold, but she had no more than he, a separate legal existence. If the Negro slave belonged to his master, she belonged no less, absolutely, to her husband as did her property, her earnings, and even her children. Both were disfranchised. Both were deprived of education and subject to economic disabilities which they shared with no other class. Even the constitutional right of free speech was not extended to woman when it meant public speech, as she found when she wished to join in the protest against slavery; and even among the abolitionists her presence on platforms and committees caused serious dissensions.
The most striking instance of this was offered at the World's Antislavery Convention held in London in 1840, when the credentials of the American women delegates were refused for no other reason than that they were women. They were, indeed, allowed to be present, but not to have any part in the proceedings. With this they had to be content, as their fellow delegates apparently were, the only exceptions being William Lloyd Garrison and Nathaniel Rogers, the editor of the Herald of Freedom. Of all the men present these two alone seemed to realize that a principle was at stake, and rather than compromise on a point they felt to be vital they resigned their seats in the convention, remaining merely as spectators in the gallery.
This was one of many bitter experiences that taught women the lesson of their own impotence. To many of those rejected delegates, among them Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it brought an overwhelming realization that they were still something less than human in the minds of most men and a conviction that their first duty was to free themselves from the artificial restraints imposed on them because of their sex; that then and then only they could work with men as equals. In these two women, at least, the action of the convention kindled a profound resolve to work toward this end, resulting in an agitation which culminated in the women's rights convention of 1848 and its now famous "declaration of rights." This convention held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., and attended by about 100 men and women, was denounced by the press of that date as "the most unnatural and shocking incident in the history of humanity," while the declaration excited almost universal derision. This document stated the belief of its framers in the equality of men and women and demanded for women education, the liberty of entering all trades and professions, the right to appear in public, the right to "work with men in any good cause," reminiscent of the anti-slavery convention, and, finally, the ballot.
It is significant that of all the resolutions offered at this convention this one alone was not unanimously adopted. It was finally carried by a small majority, but throughout the discussion only two of those present, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, warmly favored it. They alone at this stage seem to have grasped the fact that all rights and privileges go back to this most fundamental right. Throughout the storm of ridicule and abuse which broke out after the convention Douglass maintained his position and brilliantly defended the convention in his paper, The North Star.
The early history of the suffrage movement abounds with like incidents showing the help given to the cause by colored people.
Perhaps none is more striking than the story of Sojourner Truth at the Akron convention, quoted from the "Reminiscences of Mrs. Frances D. Gage":
The second day the work waxed warm. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Universalist ministers came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the ground of "superior intellect"; another because of the "manhood of Christ"; another gave us a theological view of the "sin of our first mother." Through all these sessions Sojourner Truth, quiet and reticent, sat crouched against the wall, on the corner of the pulpit stairs, her elbows on her knees, her chin resting on her broad, hard palms. Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said with earnestness: "Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us."
There were very few in those days who dared "speak in meeting," and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the gallery and the sneerers in the pews were hugely enjoying the discomfiture as they supposed of the "strong minded." Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity and the atmosphere betokened a storm, when slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth. "Don't let her speak," gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation, both above and below, as I announced "Sojourner Truth" and begged the audience to keep silence for a few minutes. At her first words there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, not loud, but which reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.
"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I reckon dat 'twixt de Niggers in de Souf and de women in de Norf, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' about?
"Dat man ober darsays dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages or ober mud puddles, or gibs me de best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm" (and she bared her tremendous arm showing her great muscular power). "I have ploughed, I have planted and gathered into barns and noone could head me -- and ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man -when I could get it -- and bear de lash as well, and ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern and seen most of dem sold off into slavery, and when I cried out in my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me; and ain't I a woman?
" Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head. What dey call it?" ("Intellect," someone whispered.) "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do with Nigger's rights or women's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?" (And she sent a keen glance at the minister who made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.)
"Den dat man ober dar, he say women can't have as much right as men 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?" (Rolling thunder couldn't have stilled the crowd as did those deep wonderful tones as she stood with outstretched arms and eyes of fire.) "Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothin' to do with him!" What a rebuke that was to the little man!
Lastly she took up the defense of Mother Eve, eliciting almost deafening applause at every word, and finally returned to her corner, leaving many of us with streaming eyes and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty, turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never seen anything like the magical influence which turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration.
If such incidents have been less frequent in recent years it is not because the profound and close connection between the Negro and women movements no longer exists. The parallel between their respective situations is as clear to-day as it was in 1848, but it is too frequently ignored by the reformers on both sides. Both have made some progress toward complete emancipation, the gains of women in the direction of enfranchisement being seemingly the more lasting. Both, however, are still very largely disfranchised, and subject to those peculiar educational, legal and economic discriminations that are the natural results of disfranchisement. And finally, both are being brought with every onward step nearer to the identical temptation -- to sacrifice the principle of true democracy to the winning of a single skirmish. So when one sees a national body of suffragists refusing to pass a universal suffrage resolution, one is compelled to wonder at the logic of those who, knowing so well what disfranchisement means, would allow it to be inflicted on others. "Let us not confuse the issue," these suffragists plead, some in good faith. Yet the confusion, if any, exists only in their minds. Here are not two distinct issues at stake, but merely the vital principle of democracy. Others insist that the granting of the ballot to women must precede all other reforms because "women have waited long enough" and recall the fact that women were forced to stand aside and see Negro men enfranchised at the close of the Civil War. This is undoubtedly true and was quite justly a source of bitter disappointment to the suffrage leaders of that day -a disappointment we should not underestimate -- but merely to reverse the principles in an unjust occurrence is not to work justice. It is strange to see so many suffragists who point with pride to the action of Garrison in withdrawing from the anti-slavery convention, blind to the larger significance of that action. Stranger still to see them following, not Garrison's lead, but that of the convention in their attitude toward colored people, and forgetting that no cause is great to the exclusion of every other. This Robert Purvis, a noted colored leader, understood, as is shown by his noble reply to the suffragists' appeal: "I cannot agree that this or any hour is specially the Negro's. I am an anti-slavery man. With what grace could I ask the women of this country to labor for my enfranchisement and at the same time be unwilling to put forth a hand to remove the tyranny in some respects greater to which they are exposed?" This is what all suffragists must understand, whatever their sex or color -- that all the disfranchised of the earth have a common cause.
Also on this site:
- Suffering Suffragettes
In June, 1912, The Crisis published an article by editor W.E.B. Du Bois critiquing the National American Woman Suffrage Association for failing to condemn the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South.
- Harlem Renaissance Women: Dreaming in Color
From roots to neglect to re-discovery, a review of the Harlem Renaissance and the incredible women who helped make it possible.
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Part of a collection of etexts on women's history produced by Jone Johnson Lewis. Editing and formatting © 1999-2010 Jone Johnson Lewis.