21 August 2011

Suffrage and Race

Over at Daily Kos, Denise Oliver Velez has posted a helpful overview of the complex history of civil rights struggles in the U.S., particularly the 19th century.
Just as the abolition movement spawned a struggle for women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement was the impetus for both second wave feminism and LGBT rights, the historical role of black women in the context of the suffrage movement is a key to understanding the founding of black women's clubs, sororities and political organizations. That history also explains the roots of the racial contradictions of second and third wave feminism and the development of black feminism.
She goes on to discuss the rift between Frederick Douglass and some of the most prominent white women's suffrage activists after black men were enfranchised, as well as some of the later conflicts and complexities -- a history that had some eerie resonances during the 2008 election (for a good account of which, see Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women [a book far better than its hyperbolic subtitle might suggest]).

I was particularly interested to discover, via Velez, a review by Rebecca Edwards of the PBS documentary Not for Ourselves Alone in The Journal for Multimedia History. In the Feminism in America course that I sometimes teach, I use a few of the resources and documents from the program's website, but not the documentary itself because of exactly the limitations Edwards points to -- the oversimplification of complex and contradictory historical figures. The history is more interesting than Not for Ourselves Alone shows.

Over the past couple of decades, a lot of good work has been done to add complexity and nuance to our view of the struggle for suffrage. I'm particularly fond not only of the book Velez draws a lot of information from, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote by Roselyn Terborg-Penn, but also such books as White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States by Louise Michele Newman (pretty academic and bit tough going at times, but worth the effort -- I don't know of another book that shows the connections between racism and imperialism in the suffrage struggle so well), Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves by Deborah Gray White (among other virtues, this provides plenty of challenge to the naive view that black women somehow all have the same opinions about everything), Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith (spiritualism, free love, utopia, drugs, internecine struggles -- this book has it all!), Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings (a comprehensive biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, which is to say: a really fascinating book), and Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland by Linda J. Lumsden (Lumsden is particularly good on contradictions of class in Milholland's life, and it's a fascinating life). That list is just some favorites I could think of off the top of my head, and it's not at all comprehensive, but just glancing at any of those will show that suffrage in the U.S. is an amazingly rich history -- and Denise Oliver Velez's post does a fine job of showing some of that richness.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Wiebe's excellent Self-Rule talks about some of these issues as well. He makes the point that from the very beginning there were severe cleavages across class, race, and gender lines.

    Someone like Jane Addams, who worked closely with the lower classes, was very much the exception rather than the rule.

    NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt cultivated a moderate image and focused exclusively on rights to the exclusion of race and class, one of the reasons why Alice Paul founded the smaller, more radical NWP. Catt as well as union organizer Samuel Gompers, both pacifists, ended up supporting World War I.

    Which is not to disparage anyone, just to say that the story is very complex and the tensions often surprising.

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