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  • "The White Women All Go for Sex":Frances Harper on Suffrage, Citizenship, and the Reconstruction South
  • C. C. O'Brien (bio)

For a brief period immediately after the Civil War, American reformers optimistically imagined a reconstructed republic that would incorporate woman suffrage and abolitionist interests. An 1865 pamphlet entitled "Equal Rights Convention for New York State" conveys this optimism nobly, imagining reforms in the state that would elevate national politics. It endorses "the right of suffrage to all citizens, without distinction of race or sex" and envisions the "reconstruction of this Union [as] a broader, deeper work than the restoration of the rebel States. It is the lifting of the entire nation into the practical realization of our Republican Idea" ("Equal Rights" n. pag.). Below this appeal to make New York a "genuine republic," the pamphlet also advertises a group of convention speakers—including Henry Blackwell, Frederick Douglass, Frances Watkins Harper, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—all of whom represent the permutations of race and gender that would constitute New York's new citizens ("Equal Rights" n. pag.). By the end of the decade, however, the colorful optimism of this noble consensus would fade; men and women, black and white, would excoriate one another's views on race, gender, and class in debates over the Fifteenth Amendment. While the list of speakers at the Equal Rights Convention depicted a unified front, signs of disillusionment quickly appeared. For example, Frances Harper's 1866 speech "We Are All Bound Up Together" declared: "I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America" (qtd. in Sklar 196).

The debate grew even uglier at the 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, often called the "great schism" in the woman suffrage movement. 1 Woman suffrage clashed with the interests of black suffrage as a cohort of reformers who had previously collaborated fought bitter public battles over whether black men should attain voting rights before women. The animosity caused a split in racial and gender reform interests that left black women like Harper at the intersection of a divided community. Harper's somewhat infamous statement at the convention, that "when it was a question of race she let the lesser question of sex go," seems to make a transparent choice of racial loyalty over her commitment to woman suffrage ("Annual Meeting" 247). If her comment was accurately recorded—which is not certain—it seems to conflict with the more balanced arguments for black women's rights in her letters, speeches, and fiction. These sources tell us a great deal more about Harper's views during this critical historical moment than a brief AERA transcript can, and they also shed light on her distinct vision of political activism. Harper's AERA comment named two major points—race and sex—that coincide with two major problems she had with the AERA: first, it reveals her frustration with the sexual politics that white women engaged to attack the Fifteenth Amendment and that anti-reformers had used persistently to deny African American citizenship; second, it indicates that, although both African Americans and women were under scrutiny as potential citizens, women's rights offered her nothing if they did not acknowledge her rights as a black woman. [End Page 605]

While one might infer that Harper's "lesser question of sex" merely refers to gender and woman suffrage, the tone of the debate over the Fifteenth Amendment and the novel that Harper was writing in 1869, Minnie's Sacrifice, indicate that this question of sex also had to do with sexuality. Sexual politics, in this context, had much to do with stereotypes about sexual behavior rather than the mere difference between men and women. Stanton and Paulina Davis, for example, insisted that the Fifteenth Amendment would place them in sexual jeopardy at the hands of black "tyrants" ("Annual Meeting" 247). Davis even implied that enfranchised black men would use their political power to pursue helpless white women, arguing, "that sort of men should not have the makings of the laws...