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  • White Suffragist Dis/Entitlement:The Revolution and the Rhetoric of Racism

The canonization of the US woman suffrage movement and its most famous figures reveals a paradox. While Elizabeth Cady Stanton is arguably the movement's most recognizable symbol, historians Ellen DuBois and Richard Cándida Smith have recently pointed out that "little of her writing has been easily available" and that she is "known today for only a handful of pieces" (Introduction 1). Even as Stanton is the focus of numerous biographies, documentaries, and scholarly studies, scholars simultaneously overlook her large body of work. One reason for this contradiction, as DuBois and Smith note, is that Stanton never wrote one major book that would allow future historians and critics to synthesize her contributions (1-2). Instead, much of her work ranges across speeches, pamphlets, and newspapers, and while anthologies reprint many of these pieces, these collections simply cannot represent the sheer volume and sweep of her oeuvre, which runs to thousands of pages.1 As a result, our acquaintance with Stanton's writing is rather shallow even as her identification as a symbol of US woman suffrage remains ubiquitous. One of the most canonical figures of the movement is, strangely enough, also relatively unknown.

The critical focus on racism within white suffragism mirrors this paradox. The historiography of US suffrage of the past twenty-five years documents the many forms of bigotry embedded within the movement and espoused by its central figures. Stanton in particular has been fully and frequently established as a looming figure of racism in US feminism's past.2 In a recent collection of essays on her work, historian Ann D. Gordon points out that the "luster" of the infamous cofounder of the nineteenth-century women's rights movement has been "dimming" in recent years because of the "close scrutiny" now given to the racialized rhetoric in her speeches and writing ("Stanton" 111). Study [End Page 243] after study documents Stanton's use of racial slurs, the racial constructions her thought relied on, and the bigotry behind her blind spots. As Gordon notes, her "failures are now well established" (124).

Well established, but not well understood. Works rarely explore or explicate white suffragist racism—they only confirm it. As with our acquaintance with Stanton herself, this racism is now notorious even as it remains obscure. Scholars persistently produce this racism as the reason for the so-called split within the suffrage movement over whether to support or oppose the Fifteenth Amendment and the enfranchisement of black men before women, but in doing so they make that racism into an explanation for an event, a way to understand the fissures and failures of the movement. This critical desire represents an important intervention in feminist historiography, but one of its effects is to convert white suffragist racism into a shorthand way to understand how the suffrage movement split in two in 1869. I'm suggesting that the critical tendency to always already understand this historical moment as an originary site of white feminist racism paradoxically results in the obfuscation of how that racism functioned. White suffragist writing is thus in the peculiar position of being canonized and overexposed and at the same time under-considered.3 Gordon points to this problem when she suggests that documenting Stanton's bigotry and elitism is an important task, but "[n]onetheless, the exploration of what [these things] signify needs better tools and maps than are currently in use" ("Stanton" 124).

This essay seeks to contribute to this exploration through a tracing of white suffragist writing in the short-lived periodical the Revolution. The critical paradox of Stanton's work and white suffragist racism are, I argue, bound up with the pervasive critical bypassing of this important text. Published from 1868 to 1870 in New York under the editorial leadership of Stanton and Anthony, the newspaper is the source of some of the most frequently cited and denounced writings within suffrage historiography, yet scholars have generated very little work on the journal as a text.4 I draw from this neglected body of suffragist work to call attention to the specific ways that racism functioned within white suffragist rhetoric...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 243-264
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-29
Open Access
N
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