White feminism is respectable feminism. Feminism with a college degree and a mortgage. Feminism that picks up the kids from soccer practice and runs a tight ship at the office. It’s the kind of feminism you could bring home to meet your racist, capitalist, slut-shaming parents. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with going to college or buying a home or picking up the kids from their extracurriculars. The problem with white feminism is that it’s not for anyone else, by design.
In the Beginning
Seneca Falls, New York is widely considered the birthplace of feminism thanks to hosting the first women’s rights convention there in 1848. Organized by two white abolitionist women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the modest goals of the convention were for women to retain rights to property they owned before entering a marriage, the right to keep any wages they earned, and the ability to petition for custody of their children. The convention organizers presented a Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men and women” were created equal and ought to be treated equally under the law. Attendance at the convention numbered in the hundreds and while most attendees were white women, several men and African-American women were present as well. Abolitionist, writer and speaker Frederick Douglass was a strong supporter of the convention and its goals, including women’s suffrage.
The place and role of women in 19th century United States was greatly circumscribed by class and race, of course. A free black woman was not treated as the moral compass of her home the way a white woman was, but as an abomination. While white women were often bound by a kind of benevolent sexism that assumed them to weak to handle public life, black women were treated as literal beasts of burden in cotton fields and slave cabins. These different types of womanhood were best expressed by Sojourner Truth when she spoke at the Akron Convention in 1851.
That man over there say that women needs to be helped into carriages, lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?
A Tale of Two Suffrage Movements
For a time, the white women’s rights movement and the black abolition and suffrage movements had common ground and worked together to some degree. The American Equal Rights Association was founded in 1866 “to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” The anti-slavery, temperance (prohibition), and suffrage movements had many members in common and while denominational differences abounded, most professed a Christian faith. They were the “social justice warriors” of the mid to late 1800s.
They chose Kansas as their battleground because it had some of the strongest women’s rights laws in the nation in 1867, and because it had a strong anti-slavery heritage. They put forth two referendums to the (white, male) voters of Kansas, one which grant voting rights to black men and another which would grant voting rights to women. Both measures failed, and members of the AERA became divided on which voting rights should be secured first. Meanwhile, financial backing for women’s suffrage was difficult to come by as most women did not work, and those who did were often compelled by law to turn their wages over to their husbands. Susan B. Anthony solicited financing and campaign assistance from George Francis Train, an open racist who wanted suffrage for white women, but not for blacks. Train was invited to speak at AERA events hosted by Anthony and Stanton.
When the 15th amendment was proposed, this proved too much for the fracturing AERA to withstand, and it was dissolved. Two opposing women’s suffrage organizations emerged from the rubble: the National Woman Suffrage Association headed by Anthony and Stanton, which did not support passing the 15th amendment unless it also included suffrage for women and which advocated for other women’s rights causes such as easier divorce, and the American Woman Suffrage Association founded by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, which supported the 15th amendment and kept a primary focus on suffrage issues above other concerns. By 1890, twenty years after the passage of the 15th amendment granting voting rights to black men, these two organizations would merge once again into the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The NAWSA fought solely to secure the rights of white women. The group worked at first as an educational organization, informing women and men of the benefits to (white) women’s suffrage. Early attempts at a federal expansion of voting rights were unsuccessful, so they turned their efforts to securing voting rights at the state level. As they won suffrage in some states and gained political power, they once again went after the national stage. A few months prior to the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920, the group rebranded one last time to become the League of Women Voters, an organization that still exists today.
(part 2 in a follow-up post!)