Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a monumental figure in the movement for women's rights that rocked the 19th century. She was central in igniting the movement as a main organizer of the first Women's Rights Convention (Seneca Falls, NY, 1848), and for her bold demand that woman suffrage be included in the platform. Although lesser known than her protege, Susan B. Anthony, Stanton is considered the primary philosopher and stateswoman of the 19th-century women's movement.
But this version of Stanton's legacy marginalizes the importance of her racist behavior following the Civil War, when she invoked stereotypes and myths about the innate intellectual and moral inferiority of black men. While events like the first Women's Rights Convention are defining moments in her legacy, her support of this 'big lie' comprises an equally defining moment, one that exploited racist tropes in pursuit of women's rights, contributed to splintering the suffrage movement, and accelerated the divisiveness between oppressed, disenfranchised groups. Given her towering influence and our evolving recognition of race as a critical variable in understanding United States' history, we need to be talking much more about this period of Stanton's legacy in any serious discussion of women's history.
Following the war, conflict erupted over the 15th amendment, which limited suffrage to men. Whether to support the amendment was a watershed moment in the Suffrage movement. Stanton opposed the 15th amendment "not because it does too much, but too little.'' Stanton did not oppose black male suffrage. She opposed suffrage legislation that excluded women, believing it would make "every woman the political inferior of every man". But it was not just political inferiority that Stanton feared. She believed universal male suffrage would subject women to governance by inferior men. "American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters... awake to the danger of your present position, and demand that woman, too shall be represented in the government!" Although Stanton appealed to crude stereotypes about various groups of men, it was her passionate appeal to deeply entrenched racist fears about the intellectual and moral inferiority of black men and the danger they posed to women of 'refinement' that was most harmful. "While the dominant party has with one hand lifted up two million black men...with the other, it has dethroned fifteen million white women...and cast them under the heel of the lowest order of manhood." When Stanton referred to this lowest order as 'Sambo,' Abolitionist and woman suffrage supporter Frederick Douglass, publicly rebuked her.
The use of racist stereotypes to gain support for woman suffrage persisted long after Stanton's life. Typically illustrated by the question, 'If he can vote why can't I,' alongside the image of a white woman and ape-like man, many Suffragists continued to advance this racist belief until the eventual passage of the Nineteenth amendment.
Although documented, this period of Stanton's legacy receives insufficient attention. For example, encyclopedic and biographic entries include some mention of 'controversy' about the 15th amendment, but usually ignore her rhetoric of racial inferiority or dilute it to "racially condescending language." Institutions like Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, established to commemorate the 1848 Convention and Stanton, neglects any direct discussion of this period. And many of Stanton's defenders point to her essays against 'colorphobia' and abolition work as evidence that questions about racism are unwarranted or exaggerated. But for some more recent historians who consider race critical in understanding United States history, Stanton's writings on universal suffrage and individual dignity were the antithesis of her actual behavior. In summarizing the work of these historians, Brent Staples of the New York Times describes Stanton as, "a classic liberal racist who embraced fairness in the abstract while publicly enunciating bigoted views of African-American men."
Stanton was a bold, brilliant thinker, prolific writer and major influence on the 19th century and women's history. But the ongoing tendency to obscure her racist behavior is discouraging, particularly in lieu of the Black Lives Matter movement that challenges the ways we commemorate the racism of historical figures. Casting greater light on this period of Stanton's leadership illuminates the historical narrative and is one step towards reconciling the impact of racism on women's history, and our own complicity in it. As James Baldwin described, "The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways... It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities." If we are genuinely invested in an evolving knowledge of women's history we need to ask: Why isn't Stanton's racism receiving more attention? How does the impact of her rhetoric resonate today? How can understanding Stanton's racism facilitate understanding my own?
(Article changed on Mar 21, 2022 at 3:45 PM EDT)
(Article changed on Mar 21, 2022 at 4:01 PM EDT)