Suffragettes as ethnological Patriarchs

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, key figures in the US women’s suffrage movement

In the wake of the US civil war, the women’s suffrage movement shifted into a new paradigm. With the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, those fighting for white women’s suffrage considered a new perceived threat to white womanhood: the free black man. Today, leading suffragist figures are commonly praised as progressive heroes. The oversimplified conception of suffragettes as women who sought liberation from men ignores the crucial role of white supremacy in the issue of suffrage, and how such racism was deployed in pro-suffrage writings to make the case for white women’s voting rights in the US. By exploring arguments and claims in pro-suffrage texts in relation to the wider context of racist attitudes and theories of social evolution in the 19th century, we can see that white feminism was not opposed to white supremacy and patriarchy, but instead that they thought of themselves as the natural compliments and originators of white patriarchal power. I first introduce social evolutionary theory, explaining white women’s role in patriarchy and how the white woman benefited from her alignment with patriarchy, moving on to how suffragists ensured their arguments would not disturb white patriarchal power. I then look at white suffragist arguments against the enfranchisement of non-white men, examining how the racist notion of the vulnerable white woman was established to further their movement. The writings of white suffragettes from the mid to late 19th century show that white feminism was not opposed to white supremacy and patriarchy but thought of themselves as the natural compliments and originators of white patriarchal power.

§1: Motives

Exploring the motivations that white women had to preserve patriarchy and white supremacy is crucial in understanding the material interest that even socially progressive and abolitionist feminists had in maintaining racial dominance. Without acknowledging that white suffragists had good reason and motives to fight to protect white supremacy and patriarchy, we may run the risk of presuming that their racism was a personal prejudice, ignorance rather than a consistent conviction — a frequent remark of “That was simply common opinion at the time!” can be deployed when pointing out the intellectual racism of idolised historical figures. Instead, by looking at popular theories of social evolution, we can see that it is not offhand prejudice, but rather active theories consistently put to work to justify perceptions of whites as naturally superior, and non-whites as degraded. Social evolutionary theories began to take root in the mid 19th century, popularising the new idea that civilisation, or sexual and racial differences, could be changed over time.1 This supported the idea that white women could use their superior moral character and natural teaching abilities in new social and political roles in order to civilise ‘lower’ races and classes. Middle-class white women’s role in society was one of teaching, nurturing, and complimenting the nature of white men as imperial aggressors in order to perfect patriarchy and advance their own civilised race. These ideas are central to how suffragists understood their own situation, and what they had to gain from embracing their crucial role in white supremacy and patriarchy.

Writer and suffragist Charlotte Gilman details her social evolutionary account of how white women came to be economically dependent on men and how we have now reached the evolutionary point where women can surpass their dependent state to join white men in their supremacy. Gilman presents the term “sexuo-economic relations” to refer to the mutually beneficial sexual relationship that persists between humans, their needs forming a common consciousness to achieve their goals in order to better thrive as a species. Gilman claims that common consciousness arises between mother and child, the need sustained between them as the mother’s body feeds the child necessarily, while the male father is not initially necessary in this relationship. This creates a point of matriarchal or sexually egalitarian societies, where human sex differences are not initially stark — both males and females work together physically with little difference between them socially. However, through the male reducing the female to economic dependence, he, in turn, must provide and care for her and the child, creating his nature as “man-mother”. This is what Gilman claims to be how racial faculties are the key function in the creation of a strong common consciousness that is necessary for proper social evolution to reach civilization. From Gilman’s own account we can see that white women’s interest is shared with the interest of men: it is not a sex-based common interest, but a race-based common interest. In a lecture titled “Woman as a Factor in Civilisation” Gilman states, “To be civilised is to belong to a highly developed social group” which she identifies has been created for the white American race by the white man. To better the conditions of the white race, the caring white woman must balance out the aggressive nature of the white man, so that the white race can evolve into a more ‘civilised’ racial group and white women can share the benefits and liberties of being in a superior race. This conceived racial similarity between white men and women far outweighed the conceived sexual differences, paving the way for race-based alignments rather than sex-based alignments.

Further differences, grounded not just in social evolutionary theory but in material circumstances, fuelled middle-class white women's motivations for aligning with white men. As white women began to enter the public sphere from their previous roles as mothers and wives confined to the home with no reach into politics or public matters, class differences were exacerbated with the rise of corporate capitalism. The gap between the ‘civilised’ white managerial classes and the ‘brutish’ immigrant non-white working classes further entrenched the idea of the white woman as an idol and teacher to those primitive lower classes and races, facilitating the argument for white women to claim their superior place alongside white men in the public sphere. In order to effectively civilise lower-status individuals while retaining their own economic security, white women’s interests would align nearly wholly with that of the white man. These arguments that women’s suffrage would greatly benefit white society through white women’s moral superiority to non-whites and their racial similarity to white men drove suffragist thought in the 19th century.

§2: Preservation of White Supremacy

White supremacy was grounded in the notion that the white race had evolved from a sexually egalitarian society to a patriarchal one, noting that the race had reached a point of high civilisation and social evolution in which sexual differences were entrenched throughout the society. Women had clear moral and behavioural differences to white men which were thought to have selectively passed down through reproduction, which had developed due to their ‘superior’ treatment by white men. Attributes of delicacy, intelligence, and refinement were assigned to white American women in virtue of their elite social evolution nurtured through their protection by white men. As this concept of sexual differentiation and civilisation had been only observed in white races, and it followed that civilisation was, then, a particular racial feature of whiteness. Charlotte Gilman in “Women and Economics” outlines the need for patriarchy in the creation of a ‘civilised’ (white-dominated) world, noting that the subjection of women is a small price to pay in the creation of such a world: “Women can well afford their period of subjection for the sake of a conquered World; a civilised man.” In contemporary discourse, many would believe such a strong support of patriarchy would be paradoxical with feminist goals; this is the kind of antagonism that arises later in the 20th century. Gilman instead acknowledges white women’s duty of race-preservation in creating a world in which ‘savages’ are taught to be civilised or else ruled by whites, a world safe for the white woman to become free to rule alongside white men. Patriarchy is not an oppressive system to the white woman, it is instead a necessary instrument in the evolution of the white race.

A careful approach was taken by suffragists when arguing for political authority alongside white men as evolutionary theory became popular, identifying sexual differences to be the marker of civilisation. Asserting white women’s moral superiority for the right to the vote was not enough, arguments for white women’s suffrage now had to explain how expanding the sphere of women would not endanger sexual differences. If suffragists asserted any kind of sexual identity with men, they would be advocating a change in women’s evolutionary nature, which in turn would threaten the racial-sexual supremacy of the white race. If white women became more similar to men, there would be a risk of civilisation degrading and for the white race to revert to savagery. This fear of evolutionary racial-sexual regression was augmented by anxieties over increasing numbers of black and immigrant men in urban areas where people freely mingled, with concerns over whiteness being ‘tainted’ by this mixing and consequently regressing. In order to reassure themselves (and those they presented their arguments to) that white supremacy and patriarchy would not be threatened, suffragists conceded that women’s suffrage would indeed change the sphere of women evolutionarily, that it would further emphasise sexual differences instead of diminishing them, ensuring the foundations of white supremacy remained untouched. Suffragist Ora Brashere claims that without the “influence of female instincts, males would never have risen beyond an overmastering desire for sex-gratification.” White women’s sexual differences, then, could be used as an argument for racial advancement: without white women’s influence, white men could not have achieved their level of intellectual and moral advancement to better the race. White women were argued to be necessary for the advancement of white civilisation through their role in patriarchy, and by entering the political sphere they could lend their unique female traits to balance out the violence of white men to better dominate their society.

§3: The Right to Vote

Arguments for white women’s suffrage relied on old notions of the moral superiority of white women, but newly evolved to reflect contemporary fears of the growing influence that black and other non-white men were gaining in the US. With the enfranchisement of non-white men, particularly black men who had formerly been enslaved, discussions of how to begin the process of creating civilised citizens out of these populations came to the foreground. Space opened up for white suffragists to make the case for their aptitude for the role of civilising these newly enfranchised groups, forming a crucial point in their argument for their suitability for suffrage. White suffragist frustration in the years leading up to the enfranchisement of non-white men in 1870 can be seen in speeches given by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In her 1854 speech “Address to the Legislator” Stanton questions a legislator on the potential enfranchisement of non-white men before white women:[Can it be that here that you] would willingly build up an aristocracy that places the ignorant and vulgar above the educated and refined — the alien and the ditch-digger above the authors and poets of the day — an aristocracy that would raise the sons above the mothers that bore them? Stanton clearly emphasises her contempt for the idea that the foreign, non-American ‘alien’ could be placed above the educated and civilised ‘real’ (white) American woman. The use of ‘alien’ effectively reminds the legislator who exactly white men have most in common with — these non-white men are not their friends nor their equals, they are unknown intruders who may carry a fatal threat to the familiar (and superior) racial group. This is far from opposition to white supremacy, rather it reinforces the idea that non-white men were unsuited to positions of influence. Stanton’s disdain for the lone enfranchisement of non-white men is furthered post-civil war. In articles in Stanton’s magazine Revolution, she asks us to imagine the likes of “Patrick, Sambo, Hans and Yang-Tang” (brutish, uncivilised, racially inferior types) drawing up legislation for “Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble” (virtuous, civilised, racially superior types). Stanton’s method here is clear. By deploying the names of white women, she conjures up the mental image of educated, pure girls who, if left under control of uncivilised brutes, come under threat. By highlighting women’s moral and racial superiority to that of non-white men and emphasising the danger posed to the white woman, Stanton makes the case for women’s enfranchisement to counteract the new threat of the enfranchised ‘degraded’ man. These attacks on the nature of non-white men are one example of Stanton’s attitude to patriarchy; she raises no issue with the role of men ruling, the problem she identifies is ‘savage’ men, inferior to her civilised white nature, ruling.

Suffragists like Stanton were quick to draw on the conception of their moral superiority as white middle-class women to argue their right to political authority, but when in 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote, suffragist arguments needed to reflect the new political environment. In the movement after the Civil War, many suffragists had fought for abolition in their youths and used arguments of similarity between the condition of enslaved men and white women to make their case for enfranchisement, where white women were ‘enslaved’ under the patriarchal model while black men were enslaved by the institution of slavery. The opportunism in such arguments is evident: pre-civil war, suffragists like Stanton argued that non-white men gaining suffrage would be a disaster to the sanctity of white civilisation due to their degraded character, yet when suffrage is granted to these men, white women claim to share their nature, making them worthy of political authority. White suffragists resented the fact that their own perceived exclusion from politics persisted when ‘lower races’ had gained what should have rightfully been given to white women first. Opposing the proposed Fifteenth Amendment in an 1867 speech, Stanton asserts, “The Negro should not enter the kingdom of politics before woman, because he would be an additional weight against her enfranchisement.” The assumption that black men would hinder the movement towards women’s suffrage was unfounded, as there was never any organised resistance from any groups of black men as there were with anti-suffrage white men. The humiliation felt by white suffragists at their being left out of the 15th amendment fuelled further outcry against the enfranchisement of black men. Speaking of this humiliation, Susan B. Anthony noted that (white) women felt that their “faithfulness” to the government (patriarchy) had not been recognised, giving rise to the contempt for the “totally illiterate” and “densely ignorant” enfranchised black man. It is clear that white suffragists’ anger was not merely directed towards the fact that they had been left out of the amendments, but rather that black men had been included. Suffragists saw the vote as their well-deserved right, being the natural inheritors of civilisation and racial superiority, their humiliation fueled by the notion of men of inferior races becoming their ‘protectors’.

§4: White Woman Victimhood

So far we have looked at white suffragists appeals evolutionary theories, to their racial superiority to non-white men and their racial similarity to white men as reasons for their enfranchisement; we can now turn to how white suffragists deployed the ‘threat’ of black men to white womanhood to advance their cause. Elizabeth Cady Stanton expressed her conviction that black men harboured hostility towards women: “The lowest classes of men are invariably the most hostile to the elevation of woman as they have known her only in ignorance and while white suffragists excluded black women from the movement on account of their racial inferiority, I focus here on the treatment of black men who were seen as an immutable threat unlike black women, who were pitied for their relations to black men.

degradation and ever regarded her in light of a slave.” Stanton’s claim illustrates the notion that the violence of white men (both towards white women and racialised men and women) was not a concern to the white woman. Instead, the threat lied in the black man, who white suffragists characterise as a misogynist who places women in conditions akin to slavery. Stanton furthers her conviction that being enslaved by a white man is preferable to the marriage of a black woman to a black man, claiming that “it is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant Black one.” Stanton implies that the marriage to an ‘uncivilised’ black man is not just on par with being actually enslaved, but that it is worse. This notion of the black man as hostile to women due to his ‘savage’ nature is recurrent in suffragist rhetoric: the first female senator in the US, Rebecca Felton, declared in 1898 “If it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week, if it is necessary.” Felton’s characterisation of the free black man as a rapist of white women is not a unique one. Ellen Barrett Ligon, a southern physician, writes in Good Housekeeping: “The despoiling of the white woman is [the negro’s] chosen vengeance…all the helplessness of womanhood appeals to the manhood of the world to protect her with every possible safeguard.” These appeals are in direct support of patriarchy: for the white woman to be protected, the white man as ruler was an absolute necessity.

White suffragists were not anti-patriarchy. The most outspoken and prominent women in the movement, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Gilman, and others, argued for their right to vote through assertions that they would strengthen, not challenge nor weaken, patriarchal power. By expanding white women’s political influence, they could teach white men to soften their violence to preserve the white race and perfect patriarchy, bettering the white race through social evolution. In deploying further racist arguments that the black man is too ‘savage’, ‘degraded’ and ‘dense’ to be enfranchised, least of all enfranchised before white women, suffragists displayed that they believed they were racially superior to what they deemed ‘lower races’. The demonisation of enfranchised black men as hostile rapists who white women must be protected from (by white men) is another clear endorsement of white patriarchy. White women did not feel threatened by white supremacy and patriarchal power, they endorsed it wholly as their natural duty in perfecting their race.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store