- Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America
For Americans interested in the expansion of democracy, it seemed anything was possible after the Civil War. Slavery had been abolished. Disparate factions in the Republican coalition were converging around the belief that freedmen must vote. For woman suffrage activists, it was the perfect moment to demand that women, too, be allowed to express their views at the ballot box.
Fighting Chance captures the sense of open-endedness that so many radical reformers felt in this era. Faye Dudden follows woman suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as they fought to make politicians take their arguments seriously, emphasizing both the difficulties they faced and the reasons they believed they might prevail. This book not only provides a detailed and well-written account of an important episode in the history of radical politics. It also explains, more convincingly and evenhandedly than any previous scholarship, how Stanton and Anthony could have advocated both universal suffrage (regardless of race or sex) and racist visions of the body politic.
It is well known that in the postwar years Stanton often expressed disgust that black men could vote while white women could not. She readily [End Page 627] adopted cultural stereotypes about an array of racial and ethnic “others,” but her remarks about black men’s ignorance and violent tendencies were most unseemly because of her abolitionist background and because it was widely known that white southerners were responding to black men’s enfranchisement with murderous attacks on black communities.
Historians have struggled to understand this phase of Stanton and Anthony’s activism. Some have downplayed their turn to racism, arguing that they didn’t actually believe what they were saying or diminishing its importance relative to the women’s other achievements. Others have plumbed the sources of Stanton’s racial thought or elevated different, less tainted women heroines. A few have argued that the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement was fundamentally and inescapably racist.
For Dudden, there is no excusing or minimizing the woman suffrage leaders’ racism. Indeed, one of this book’s great virtues is that it demonstrates that from the 1850s onward, Stanton established a pattern of appealing both to the principle of universal suffrage and to less lofty stereotypes about black men’s vulgarity and white women’s virtue. Many of the men in Stanton’s life were lawyers, Dudden points out, and Stanton, like a lawyer, often chose to offer a range of arguments in hope that one would stick. Dudden emphasizes the consequences of this strategy over time, drawing attention to how Stanton and Anthony’s frequent recourse to racist language drove away black men and women who might have been allies and complicated their legacy as leaders of a movement to expand democracy.
Yet this book is about far more than political rhetoric. Dudden reminds readers that social movements require not just “arguments” but also “resources and political opportunity,” and she underscores the woman suffrage activists’ pragmatic quest for a winning combination of all three. Witnessing how slavery’s abolition forced the question of African Americans’ civil rights to the forefront of national politics, Stanton and Anthony envisioned a movement for “equal suffrage” for men and women of all races. Yet they encountered opposition from Wendell Phillips, a white abolitionist leader who controlled the distribution of money from two trusts established to finance progressive causes. Phillips declared that it was “the Negro’s hour” and asked activists to drop all demands for women’s enfranchisement. Then and later, Dudden shows, Phillips withheld funds that would have allowed Stanton and Anthony to pay for speakers and promotional materials for their universal suffrage campaign.
Phillips was probably right to worry that a campaign for universal voting rights would be less successful than one focused only on black men’s [End Page 628] suffrage. Still, Dudden conveys just how frustrating the situation became for Stanton and Anthony. They were told to wait...