Chapter Two: Right Is of No Sex: Reframing the Debate through the Rights of Women
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59 2 Right Is of No Sex Reframing the Debate through the Rights of Women Of the many resolutions adopted during the September 1848 National Convention of Colored Freedmen, none was more novel than that which called for women’s ‘‘equal’’ participation in the proceedings.∞ During three days of deliberations in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates considered a dizzying array of issues, including the upcoming presidential election, armed opposition to slavery, the defense of fugitives, temperance, patronage of the black press, and the dignity of labor. Late in the final day, Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany petitioned for women to be ‘‘speaking and voting as men did.’’≤ When met with defeat in committee, an undeterred Delany brought the issue before the full assembly. An animated exchange ensued as men on both sides of the resolution spoke out. Douglass then called upon a woman, Rebecca Sanford, to make the case for ‘‘the rights of woman.’’ Sanford, a white woman and Quaker from Ann Arbor, Michigan, began by endorsing the convention’s objectives: ‘‘God speed you in your e√orts . . . stop not; shirk not; look not back, till you have justly secured an unqualified citizenship of the United States.’’≥ She continued, advocating for the rights to which she believed women aspired: ‘‘True, we ask for the Elective Franchise; for right of property in the marriage covenant, whether earned or bequeathed. True, we pray to co-operate in making the laws we obey.’’ In a closing attempt to garner sympathy for her position, Sanford set forth a complex claim: ‘‘There are duties around us, and we weep at our inability.’’ This formulation mobilized domesticity’s tearful womanhood in service of the rights-bearing and duty-bound female activist. Sanford’sspeechappearstohavehadthedesirede√ect.Initswake,theonly remaining objection was hardly that. Ohio representatives Charles Langston and William Howard Day argued that the Douglass-Delany proposal was 60 Right Is of No Sex redundant. The convention had already passed a resolution making ‘‘all colored persons present, delegates to this Convention.’’ As ‘‘they considered women persons,’’ the two reasoned, they saw no need for further measures— women were already full members of the convention. With this, the delegates endorsed a final resolution that read, ‘‘We fully believe in the equality of the sexes, therefore, Resolved, That we hereby invite females hereafter to take part in our deliberations.’’∂ The minutes report that this outcome was met with an outburst. ‘‘Three cheers for woman’s rights’’ rang from the convention floor.∑ Such a seemingly out of place episode in antebellum African American history has long given historians pause.∏ This chapter’s discussion lifts the debate over women at the Cleveland convention out of the realm of the novel and resituates it as a reflection of the many streams of influence that were shaping African American public culture during the 1840s. Female influence was giving way to women’s rights in black activist circles, a shift that opened a door to a rethinking of the gendered character of fraternal orders, churches, and political organizations. Key in this moment was a new understanding about the underpinnings of inequality. Prejudice grounded in sex was no less arbitrary than that grounded in color, activists argued, with both African Americans and women subject to ‘‘despotic acts of legislation and false judicature ,’’ as Martin Delany put it.π Nearly all black activists were confronting the woman question. In churches, despite elaborate e√orts to keep women silent, cross-gender alliances put the licensing of female preachers on the agenda. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, black students learned lessons in women’s capacities and their claims as rights-bearing individuals. In antislavery circles, many men forged longstanding working relationships with women who increasingly held leadership positions and contributed to the success of abolitionism. These alliances brought African American activists to the earliest women’s conventions in Seneca Falls and Rochester, where black women were likely spectators and black men provided support and leadership. By the fall of 1848, these in- fluences were coming together to define the contours of a movement for women’s rights among African Americans. In fraternal orders, women took the podium, claiming authority over their long-standing fund-raising work. In doing so they provoked proscriptive admonitions aimed at resisting any claims the women might make for rights. In church conferences, women called upon those men with a demonstrated commitment to women’s rights to press forward on claims for women’s religious authority. In black antislavery Right Is of No...