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Votes for All Women?

Not all women felt welcome in the suffrage movement led by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Stanton and Anthony were active abolitionists but opposed the Fifteenth Amendment if it would enfranchise only African American men and not women. After its ratification in 1870, they were committed to obtaining a woman suffrage amendment. This determination led them and their successors to focus their organizations on voting rights instead of more expansive women’s rights. It also led them to collaborate with people who did not believe that voting rights should extend to men and women of all races. Their speeches and writing of this time invoked race, class, education, and nativism as arguments for woman suffrage.

The Rhetoric of Suffrage

The earliest arguments in favor of woman suffrage used familiar philosophical language such as “self-evident” truths and “inalienable rights.” For Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffrage should be “universal” based on citizens’ education. Her objection to “ignorant” voters in the abstract translated into attacks on immigrants and African Americans. Stanton’s claims periodically degenerated into racial epithets. Decades later, as victory edged closer, suffrage leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt made their case with less philosophy and more pragmatism. In order to win over the remaining states—particularly southern states, in any way necessary—they invoked arguments that would, if successful, deprive minorities, including women of color, of voting rights as well as other rights.

“If the South really wants White Supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”

Carrie Chapman Catt, 1917

“The old anti-slavery school say women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first.”

Susan B. Anthony, 1869

“A wise selfishness would teach us to make the wrongs of all mankind our own, for the race[s] are so bound together that we must rise or fall as one.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1868

“The speediest way to educate the people is to give them the ballot…”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1868

“Let us try to get nearer together and to understand each other’s ideas on the race question and solve it together.”

Carrie Chapman Catt, 1903

“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1866

“[W]hen the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman, the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.”

Nannie Helen Burroughs, 1915

Suffrage Won, But Damage Done

The words and calls for exclusion had consequences. African American women in particular felt betrayed and vulnerable. After 1920, white former suffragists’ refusal to assist African American women being denied the vote bred distrust that still lingers.

Were racist tactics reflections of the personal beliefs of leading white suffragists? Or did they justify these strategies as a means of gaining support to enfranchise a majority, but not all, of American women? These questions do not matter in the end. The arguments and actions they embraced are remembered alongside the victory they won. The memories of the suffrage movement can be both inspirational and disappointing as battles over diversity continue to mark the struggles for women’s rights.