Suffering for Suffrage: Racism in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Historically, women have been excluded from the many liberties men have arranged for themselves. From the disregarding of women from being considered ‘Elect’ during the Puritan era, to the modern instances of women lacking equal compensation. According to Charlotte Gilman, even religion, the woman’s help, was ‘tainted’ and injured by coming through the minds of men alone (Gilman, p. 370). Men have molded American society to exclusively adhere to their personal desires.

In spite of the many disenfranchisements, some women however, refused to passively submit to such conditions. They knew that the only way to influence change was suffrage. The first women\'s rights meeting in the United States held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, itself followed several decades of a quietly-emerging egalitarian spirit among women. This was the birth of women’s suffrage.

Throughout the long road of suffrage there was somewhat confusion about what political focus will be granted the most attention. White women wanted equal rights and slavery abolished, but, they didn’t want to be equal to Blacks, even after the Civil War. If they were granted their citizenship rights would this mean that Black women were to be granted those rights as well? When it appeared that white men might grant black men the right to vote while leaving white women disenfranchised, white women suffragists did not respond as a group by demanding that all women and men deserved the right to vote (Hooks, Bell p. 127). In order to maintain their political autonomy and protect their personal missions of gaining equality amongst themselves, many of the white women suffragist used what appeared at the time as racial discrimination to keep Black women at a distance to get white men to address their agendas. According to Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and ardent feminist, the women’s movement was supposed to remain distant and excluded from the blacks’ struggle for civil rights. She goes further to explain that feminists could not assume the ideologies in black power would work for them. “Our tactics and strategy, above all, our ideology must be firmly based in the historical, biological, economic, and psychological reality of our two-sexed world, which is not the same as the black reality, (Freidan, pg. 467).” This doesn’t quite disprove or prove that there was racism within the women’s movement; however, it does give another view of the white women’s decision to exclude black women from their agenda and focus on liberating themselves.

Attempting to understand Freidman’s position of women’s rights movements being exclusively focused on white women, there is conflict in her argument when she wanted to have sex discrimination laws added to the Civil Rights Act. If she didn’t feel that the blacks’ struggle for civil rights was a good method for women to use in earning their rights, how is the Civil Rights legislation different? Maybe wanting sex added to the Civil Rights Act Freidan’s way of saying that her view of why women suffrage should be separate from the black movements wasn’t influenced by racism but based solely on the speed of progress.

Ardent white women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had never before argued for women’s rights on a racially imperialistic platform expressed outrage that inferior Blacks should be granted the vote while “superior” white women remained disenfranchised (Hooks, Bell p.127) Stanton argued:

“If Saxon men have legislated thus for their own mothers, wives and daughters, what can we hope for at the hands of Chinese, Indians, and Africans? ... I protest against the enfranchisement of another man of any race or clime until the daughters of Jefferson, Hancock, and Adams are crowned with their rights (Hooks, Bell p. 127).”

To black women the issue is not whether white women are more or less racist than white men, but that they are racist (Hooks, Bell p.125). Racism has significantly undermined feminist organizing over the past two centuries. Despite the fact that campaigns for women’s rights in the United States have been initiated by women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and that various women’s organizations have fervently struggled against racist hierarchies and institutions, racism has persisted both within and beyond the movement (Grant, Parker).

Although the case is popularly assumed to