Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for black abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
The following is an article from the Spring 1989 issue of "Women and Revolution" that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.
Black Freedom, Women's Rights
and the Civil War
This article is based on a talk given by W&R associate editor Amy Rath at a public forum held 5 April 1988 at Howard University. For additional historical material on women in the anti-slavery struggle, see "The Grimke Sisters: Pioneers for Abolition and Women's Rights" (W&R No. 29, Spring 1985) and "Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Black Freedom" (W&R No. 32, Winter 1986).
The talk discusses the movement for women's rights in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, its link through the radical abolition movement with the fight against black slavery, and the destruction of that link to produce the antecedents of the present "feminists." It centers on the ideology of the antebellum abolitionists, the most far-sighted of whom saw that all democratic struggles were vitally linked and that deeply revolutionary changes would be required to establish equality. These men and women were not Marxists but bourgeois radicals of their time; for many, the primary political motivation was religion.
Northern anti-slavery activists espoused "free labor" and accepted the idea that if legal barriers to equality were removed, the American dream would be possible for anyone, given talent and hard work. In antebellum America, in the context of steady immigration and an expanding frontier, a propertyless farmhand could perhaps acquire land of his own, while a (white) laborer might look to becoming a small-scale employer of labor in a generation. But if the "free labor" ideology imagined a democratic political system of economic equals based on a society of skilled artisans and yeoman farmers, this model rapidly became a fiction. A capitalist class of Northern industrial, finance and railroad capitalists had the ascendancy. Though still a predominantly agricultural country, America was the fastest-growing industrial power (with the second-highest industrial output, after Britain). America was already the world's technological leader, very much feared as a competitor by Britain, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
The slave society of the South existed in the framework of a powerful Northern industrial sector which purchased staple crops from the South, first of all cotton. The rich plantations which possessed the South's best land and dominated the region politically were built on a pre-capitalist class relationship of black chattel slavery; at the same time they were part of a money economy in the world's most dynamic capitalist country. The conflict of social systems between the ever more powerful North and the backward South was a profound contradiction heading for collision, exacerbated by America's undemocratic "states' rights" political system which had given the South disproportionate control of the national government (especially the presidency and Supreme Court) since Independence.
The Progressive Bourgeoisie and the Limits of Reconstruction
The "irrepressible conflict" exploded in the Civil War, in the course of which Lincoln, the Northern bourgeoisie's ablest political leader, found himself obliged to go much further than he had intended in the direction of adopting the emancipation program of the abolitionists. Fifteen years before, abolitionists had been viewed as an isolated, if noisy, crew of radical fanatics.
The Civil War smashed slavery and left behind in the South a chaotic situation and four million ex-slaves who had been promised "freedom." But the war and its aftermath underlined that a truly egalitarian radical vision of social reconstruction already could not be promoted by a capitalist ruling class.
In her talk, comrade Rath emphasized the birth of a "feminist" women's movement as a rightward split at a crucial moment in American history: the era of "Reconstruction." Reconstruction posed a possibility of socially revolutionary transformations in the South: the regional ruling class, based on the ownership of land and slaves, had been militarily defeated; under the occupying Northern power, political rights were exercised by the former slaves and those willing to be allied with them.
Reconstruction brought not only black enfranchisement but significant democratic reforms: the 1868 South Carolina constitutional convention drafted the state's first divorce law, while Reconstruction legislatures established the South's first public schools and went to work on liberalizing the South's draconian penal codes and reforming the planters' property tax system (which had taxed the farmer's mule and the workman's tools while all but exempting the real wealth—land). But the Northern capitalists betrayed the promise of Reconstruction, allowing it to be physically smashed by forces such as the Ku Klux Klan, even though that meant the destruction of the Republican Party in the South.
Replacing slavery, a new system of racial subordination took shape: a refurbished system of labor discipline through such measures as one-year labor contracts and "vagrancy" laws to bind ex-slaves to the plantations, and a rigid system of Jim Crow segregation. The defeat of Reconstruction shaped the postwar South into modern times: the sharecropping, the poll taxes, convict labor (the chain gang), the "separate but equal" unequal facilities.
While the woman suffrage leaders described in comrade Rath's talk took a stand against the great democratic gains that hung in the balance, many women mobilized by the anti-slavery movement served honorably in Reconstruction, for example as freedmen's schoolteachers who risked their lives to participate in freeing black people from the chains of bondage.
During Reconstruction, debate raged over the agrarian question: the radical demand raised by the freed-men and destitute white Unionist Southerners that the secessionists' estates be confiscated and distributed to them. Some abolitionists saw that racial democracy could not be achieved if a class of whites continued to own the land where a class of blacks were laborers. They argued for justice to those who had been slaves (who created the wealth of the plantations, beginning by clearing the wilderness).
But the tide had turned: the triumphant Northern rulers would not permit such an attack on "property rights" (especially as Northerners directly and Northern banks were coming to own a good deal of Southern property). Fundamentally, the federal power reinvested political power in the hands of the former "best people" of the old Confederacy. In the sequel, intensive exploitation of black agricultural labor, rather than industrial development or capital investment in the modernization of agriculture, remained the basis of the Southern economy.
What was the alternative? Working-class power was shown by the 1848 and 1871 upheavals in Europe to be the alternative to bourgeois rule, as Marx and Engels explained from the Communist Manifesto onward, but conditions were not mature even in Europe for the small proletariat to seize and wield state power. In mid-19th century America, the Northern bourgeoisie under the pressure of a revolutionary Civil War possessed a genuinely progressive side, the basis for the abolitionists' support for the Republican Party. The abolitionists' great debates revolved around how far out in front of the progressive bourgeoisie they should be. There were "radicals" and those with a more "realistic" appraisal of what the Republican Party would support. Today, more than a century after Reconstruction, that debate is transcended. The ruling class long since passed firmly over to the side of reaction; the federal government is no defender of the oppressed. Those who look to find support for an egalitarian program in any wing of the ruling class are doomed to disappointment. To complete the unfinished democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution is a responsibility of the modern working class.
When the post-Civil War suffragettes chose to focus on the narrowest political rights for middle-class women and turn their backs on the rights and survival of the most desperately oppressed, they prefigured all of today's "constituency" and "reform" politics which refuse to attack the profound class inequalities ingrained in capitalist society. Sojourner Truth's classic "Ain't I a Woman" speech (see below) today stands as a powerful indictment of these ladies as much as of the outright sexists she was debating. Those who renounce the revolutionary content of the demand for women's liberation so as to advance their schemes for election of female politicians or advancement of women in academia are direct descendants of those first "feminists" who refused to challenge the power structure of their time on behalf of justice for two million of their sisters who were freed slaves.
But there is another women's movement: the women who have joined in the front ranks of every revolutionary struggle on this planet, from the 19th-century radical abolitionists to the women workers who sparked the Russian Revolution to the communist women of today. When the October Revolution of 1917 smashed the old tsarist society in Russia, militant women were among the first recruits to communism in dozens of countries where women were oppressed by semi-feudal conditions and "customs." Young women radicalized around questions like women's education, the veil, wife-beating, religious obscurantism, arranged marriages, etc., recognized a road forward to uprooting social reaction and building a society freed from sexual, racial and class inequality. Our heroes are the revolutionary women who have shared in making all of revolutionary history, from the first moment that slaves rose up against the Roman Empire to the great struggles of today.
It was 1863, and the bloodiest war ever fought by the U.S. was raging. Abraham Lincoln had finally realized he must pronounce the destruction of slavery as the North's goal in this civil war. On 22 September 1862, his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declared that on the first of January, 1863, all slaves in the Confederacy "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union, it turned the tide of battle. The war was now indisputably a war to end slavery, not simply to repair the Union. Soon thereafter, the government began to enlist blacks into the army; these ex-slaves and sons of ex-slaves tipped the military balance in favor of the Union. It was a matter of time until black soldiers singing "John Brown's Body" marched into Charleston, South Carolina—the "soul of secession," as Karl Marx called it-after Sherman's march through Georgia to the sea.
In May of the revolutionary year 1863, the first convention of the Women's Loyal National League met in New York City. Its most eminent speaker was a woman whose name is little known today: Angelina Grimke" Weld. As part of her address she gave a keen analysis of the war:
"This war is not, as the South falsely pretends, a war of races, nor of sections, nor of political parties, but a war of Principles; a war upon the working classes, whether
white or black; a war against Man, the world over. In this war, the black man was the first victim, the workingman of whatever color the next; and now all who contend for the rights of labor, for free speech, free schools, free suffrage, and a free government...are
driven to do battle in defense of these or to fall with them, victims of the same violence that for two centuries has held the black man a prisoner of war "The nation is in a death-struggle. It must either become one vast slaveocracy of petty tyrants, or wholly the land of the free."
—Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina
A resolution was presented: "There can never be a true peace in this Republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established." Angelina Grimke' defended it against those who thought it too radical:
"I rejoice exceedingly that that resolution would combine us with the negro. I feel that we have been with him— True, we have not felt the slaveholder's lash; true, we have not had our hands manacled, but our hearts have been crushed I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours."
It was only after the Civil War that an ideology arose which was later named "feminism": the idea that the main division in society is sex. In response to the debate over the role of the newly freed slaves in U.S. society, the leaders of the woman suffrage movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—sided with the counterrevolutionary assault on Reconstruction. The birth of bourgeois feminism was part of a right-wing process which shattered the vision of the left wing of the revolutionary democracy into separate, feeble bourgeois reform movements.
The Second American Revolution
The Civil War was one of the great social revolutions in the history of the world, destroying the slaveholding class in the South and freeing the black slaves. Not only Marxists saw that. The best fighters of the day—the Grimke sisters, the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens—knew that the war would have to become a revolution against slavery before the North could win. They hated the feudalistic society of the South, with its degraded slaves, its cruelty, its arrogant, leisurely gentlemen planters, its impoverished rural whites, its lack of education, industry and general culture. The radical abolitionists wanted to wipe away that society, and also saw much wrong in the North, such as the subservience of women, and legal and social discrimination against blacks. Their ideology was to create a new order based on free labor and "equality before the law," a concept brought to the U.S. by the Radical Republican Charles Sumner out of his study of the 1789 French Revolution.
In Europe after the French Revolution the status of women was the most visible expression of the contradiction between capitalist society and its own ideals. But in the U.S. that was not so true, because of chattel slavery. The United States—the first country to proclaim itself a democratic republic—was the largest slaveholding country in the world, a huge historical contradiction which had to be resolved.
The Industrial Revolution
It was the Industrial Revolution, fundamentally, that generated what William Seward called the "Irrepressible Conflict." In broad historical terms the Industrial Revolution had created the material conditions for the elimination of slavery in society. Technological and social advances made possible a much more productive capitalist agriculture and industry. In 1854 the abolitionist clergyman Theodore Parker described slavery as "the foe to Northern Industry—to our mines, our manufactures, and our commerce...to our democratic politics in the State, our democratic culture in the school, our democratic work in the community" (quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom).
The Industrial Revolution had a contradictory effect on the condition of women. Production of goods had been primarily through cottage industry, but with the invention of the spinning jenny, the power loom and the steam engine, cottage industry was ended. The men left home to go to the factory, while women stayed home to do the housework, raise the children and to buy at the local store what once they had made at home.
Women's labor ceased to be productive labor in the strict Marxist sense. This is the material basis for the 19th-century ideology of the "women's sphere." While the material advances of the Industrial Revolution made life easier for women, it also locked them into the stifling confines of domesticity in the isolated nuclear family. Women also worked in factories, but even in the industries in which they were concentrated (in textile production they made up two-thirds of the labor force) generally they worked only for a few years before getting married.
The Fight for Women's Legal Rights
Slaves were a class, but women are a specially oppressed group dispersed through all social classes. Although all women were oppressed to some extent because of their position in the family, the class differences were fundamental between the black slave woman and the slave plantation mistress, or the Northern German-speaking laundress and the wife of the owner of the Pennsylvania iron mill. "Sisterhood" was as much a myth then as it is now. Women identified first with the class to which they belonged, determined by who their husbands or fathers were.
Before the Civil War, women were basically without any civil rights. They couldn't sue or be sued, they couldn't be on juries, all their property and earnings went to their husband or father. Although women did have the vote for a few years in New Jersey and Virginia after the American Revolution, this advance was quickly eliminated. (This was part of a general right-wing turn after the Revolution, when suffrage was restricted gradually through property qualifications. In New York State, for example, with some restrictions blacks could vote up to about 1821.) For the wealthy upper-class woman, this lack of legal rights loomed as a terrible injustice because it prevented her from functioning as a full member of the ruling class (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the mother of American feminism and the daughter of a judge, felt this keenly). For the working-class or slave woman, if her property legally belonged to her husband it didn't seem a problem— she didn't have any property.
Though the legal question was a small matter for poor and slave women, nevertheless legal injustice is not insignificant for Marxists, and it is bound up with multi-layered social oppression. This was true for the position of women in pre-Civil War society. Until the 1850s wife-beating was legal in most states. Divorce was almost impossible, and when it was obtained children went with the husband. The accepted attitude toward women was assumption of their "inferiority," and the Bible was considered an authority. When anesthesia was discovered in the 1840s, doctors opposed its use for childbirth, because that suffering was women's punishment for Eve's sin.
The Anti-Slavery Struggle and Democratic Rights
But how were women to fight for equal rights in this society divided between slave and free? Angelina Grimke' was precisely correct when she said, "until the negro gets his rights, we will never have ours." It was necessary to destroy chattel slavery, which was retarding the development of the whole society. The movement for women's rights developed in the North out of the struggle to abolish slavery. It could hardly have developed in the South. In the decades before the war, in response to the growing Northern anti-slavery agitation, the South was becoming more reactionary than ever: more fanatical in defense of the ideology of slavery and more openly repressive. There were wholesale assaults on basic democratic rights, from attacks on the rights of the small layer of free blacks, who were seen as a source of agitation and insurrection, to a ban on the distribution of abolitionist literature.
In the South, there were no public schools. It was illegal to teach slaves to read, and almost half of the entire Southern population was illiterate. But in the North over 90 percent of the residents could read and write. Girls and boys went to school in about the same proportions, the only country in the world where this was true. So while in the North women teachers were paid less than men, and women factory hands received one-quarter the wage of men, in the South there were few teachers at all, and few industrial workers.
As a young slave in Maryland, and later while he was trying to earn a living as a refugee in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass came to understand the common interests of all working people in the South, slaves and free blacks and whites. He learned a trade on the docks, where he experienced racist treatment from white workmen, who saw black labor as a threat to their jobs. But Douglass realized that the position of the workmen, too, against their boss was eroded and weakened by slavery and racism. As Marx said, "Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." And indeed, the working-class movement met with little success in the antebellum U.S., whereas after the war there was an upsurge in unionism and labor struggle.
The vanguard of the abolitionist movement—the radical insurrectionist wing—believed in the identity of the interests of all the oppressed. John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the great activist of the Underground Railroad, and the Grimke sisters were all inspired by a vision of human equality based in revolutionary democracy. Although their egalitarian principle was based on a religious view and ours is based on a Marxist understanding of society, we honor their essential work in leading the anti-slavery struggle. The abolition of slavery did profoundly alter the United States, it did open the road to liberation by making possible the development of the proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard, which will establish justice by abolishing the exploitation of man by man.
The Grimke Sisters of South Carolina
Penetrating insights into the situation of women in pre-Civil War America came from women who were committed abolitionists. Sarah and Angelina Grimke are examples, as is Sojourner Truth who is better known today. The Grimke sisters were unusual members of the ruling class who defected to the other side. As daughters of one of South Carolina's most powerful slave-holding families, they had grown up in luxury, but left the South because of their revulsion for slavery. The Grimke sisters became famous in 1837-1838 as agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The power of their personal witness of the atrocities of the slave system drew huge audiences. The sisters were quick to point out that as upper-class white women, they had seen only the "better" treatment of the house and city slaves, and not the more brutal treatment of plantation hands in the fields. But one of the things they did know about was the sexual exploitation of women slaves and the brutal breakup of black families through the slave trade.
Because the sisters addressed the issues of sexual exploitation frankly and often, it was one of the issues the opposition used to try to shut them up. The clergy complained that the Grimke's brought up a subject "which ought not to be named"—how dare these delicate .blossoms of Southern womanhood talk about sex! The very idea of women speaking publicly represented an attack on the proper relationship between the sexes and would upset "women's place" in the home. Contemporary observers were shocked by the sight of women participating actively in the debates of the anti-slavery movement, as they did especially in New England, the birthplace of radical abolitionism. The Grimkes replied by pointing out that the same argument was used against abolition itself: it would upset the established order of social relations. They effectively linked up women's rights and emancipation of the slaves.
Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman?"
Black women got it from both sides, as the life of Sojourner Truth shows. She was born a slave around 1797 in New York State and was not freed until 1827, under the "gradual emancipation" provisions of the state law. As a slave she was prevented from marrying the man she loved, who was brutally beaten for daring to visit her (they were owned by different masters). They were both forcibly married to other slaves. Her son was sold South as a small child, away from her. After she was freed, she lived a backbreaking existence in New York City, one of the more racist cities in the North and a center for the slave trade.
Sojourner Truth went to all the women's rights conventions. The famous story about her dates from 1853. The usual crowd of male hecklers had almost shut down the proceedings. The women were unable to answer their sneers of how delicate and weak women were. Sojourner Truth asked for the floor and got it, despite the opposition of a lot of the delegates to the presence of a black abolitionist. You have to keep in mind what this woman looked like in this gathering of ladies: she was six feet tall, nearly 60 years old, very tough and work-worn. She said:
"The man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place—and ain't I a woman?
"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? I have born...children, and seen most of 'em sold into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me—and ain't I a woman?"
—Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle
Sojourner Truth put her finger on the heart of the contradiction between the stifling idealization of women and their oppression as housewives and mothers and exploitation as slaves and workers.
Women's Rights and the Abolitionist Movement
Support for women's rights was tenuous within the politically diverse anti-slavery movement. Many free-soilers were not anti-racist; some opposed slavery because they didn't want blacks around. Even some of the most dedicated abolitionists argued that "women's rights" could harm the anti-slavery cause, and in 1840 a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society was precipitated by the election of a woman to the leading body.
That same year at an international anti-slavery meeting in London, women members of the American delegation were denied their seats. In the audience was the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Out of this experience she decided to begin organizing for women's rights. Eight years later, in 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York the first women's rights convention in the world was held. At first Stanton wasn't going to put forward the vote as a demand—she was afraid it was too extreme. She had to be argued into it by Frederick Douglass. It was the only demand that didn't get unanimous support at the meeting; it was considered too radical.
The role of Douglass was not an accident. The best fighters for women's rights were not the Elizabeth Cady Stantons and the Susan B. Anthonys—the ones who "put women first"—but the left-wing abolitionists. The most militant advocates of black equality, the insurrectionist wing, the prophets of the Civil War, were also the most consistent fighters for women's rights, because they saw no division of interest between blacks and women. Frederick Douglass not only attended all the women's meetings, arguing effectively for full equality for women, but he brought the message elsewhere. He put forward resolutions for women's rights at black conventions, and they were passed. He used to advertise the meetings in his paper and print reports on the proceedings. His paper's motto was, "Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."
The Fight Over the 14th Amendment
Stanton and Anthony had suspended their woman suffrage campaign for the duration of the war. They circulated petitions for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, which became the 13th Amendment. After the war Stanton and Anthony set up an Equal Rights Association to agitate for the vote for both blacks and women. They thought because of the broad social upheaval the time was ripe for woman suffrage. But this proved not to be the case.
The question here was citizenship rights under capitalist law, specifically voting. Compare it with how voting rights and citizenship were looked at in another revolution at the same time: the 1871 Paris Commune, the first proletarian revolution (whose example dramatically reinforced ideological conservatism among the American bourgeoisie). The Commune subsumed nationality and citizenship to class considerations. Anybody who got elected from the working class, whatever country they were born in, sat on the legislative body of the Commune, while the industrialists and the bourgeois parliamentarians fled the city and were "disenfranchised" as their property was expropriated.
This was not on the agenda in the United States in the 1860s. The historical tasks of the Civil War and Reconstruction were to complete the unfinished bourgeois revolution, to resolve questions like slave versus free, national sovereignty and democratic rights. In his novel Gore Vidal calls Lincoln the Bismarck of his country, and this is justified. For example, before the Civil War, each state printed its own money. Greenbacks were first made by the Union to finance the war. The Supreme Court regularly said, "the United States are." Only after the war did this country's name become a singular noun—one national government.
But the big question was what to do with the newly emancipated slaves, and this question focused on two things: land and the vote. The debate over the vote represented, in legal terms, a struggle to determine what "citizenship" meant in relation to the state. Many Northern states did not allow blacks to vote, either. The 14th Amendment, which was passed to answer this question, says that all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens of the nation and of the state in which they live, and that states can't abridge their "privileges and immunities" or deprive them of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law" or deny them "equal protection of the laws."
The Republican Party, which was founded as an anti-slavery party, contained within it many shades of political opinion. It has been argued that the only reason the Republicans gave the vote to blacks was to maintain political control over the states in the conquered Confederacy. This was true of some Republicans, but the men who politically dominated Congress during the period of Radical Reconstruction were committed revolutionary democrats, as observers of the time said of Thaddeus Stevens, who was called the "Robespierre, Danton, and Marat of America." There were good reasons for Douglass' loyalty to the Republicans, given after much early hesitation and sometimes combined with scathing criticism.
But there were a lot of contradictions. The party that was trying to implement black rights was also the party that was massacring the Indians in the West, breaking workers' strikes in the North, presiding over a new scale of graft and corruption, and trying to annex Santo Domingo. In the fight to replace slavery with something other than a peonage system which mimicked bondage, the land question was key. And the robber barons—the moneylords, the triumphant ruling class-rapidly got pretty nervous about the campaign to confiscate the plantations and give them to the blacks. It was an assault on property rights, in line with what those uppity workers in the North were demanding: the eight-hour day, unions, higher wages. The ruling class was quite conscious about this; an 1867 New York Times editorial stated:
"If Congress is to take cognizance of the claims of labor against capital...there can be no decent pretense for confining the task to the slave-holder of the South. It is a question, not of humanity, not of loyalty, but of the fundamental relation of industry to capital; and sooner or later, if begun at the South, it will find its way into the cities of the North.... An attempt to justify the confiscation of Southern land under the pretense of doing justice to the freedmen, strikes at the root of all property rights in both sections. It concerns Massachusetts quite as much as Mississippi."
—Eric Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War
This question was not resolved quickly, but over a couple of decades. But to collapse a lot of complex history, the revolutionary tide receded under the weight of triumphant capitalism. In 1877 Union troops were withdrawn from Southern occupation as part of the compromise making Rutherford B. Hayes president. The Civil War did not establish black equality, and the 14th and 15th Amendments which codified in law the war's revolutionary gains were turned into virtual dead letters. Nor did the Civil War liberate women, not even in a limited, legalistic sense. They continued to be denied even the simple right to vote (although in some districts in South Carolina in 1870, under the encouragement of black election officials, black women exercised the franchise for a brief time).
From the defeat of Reconstruction was spawned the kind of society we have now. On top of the fundamental class divisions in the U.S. is pervasive and institutionalized racial oppression. The black slaves were liberated from bondage only to become an oppressed race/color caste, segregated at the bottom of society— although today, unlike the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, blacks also constitute a key component of the American proletariat.
The Birth of American Feminism
Many Radical Republicans were critical of the 14th Amendment, which was a true child of compromise. Sumner called it "uncertain, loose, cracked, and rickety." Opposition centered on a loophole that allowed a state to opt for losing some representation in Congress if it chose to restrict black suffrage—and Southern states exploited this concession. But what Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't like about it was that for the first time, the word "male" appeared in the Constitution. And this fight was the birth of American feminism.
Of course the 14th Amendment should have given women the vote, and the importance of suffrage for black women was not inconsiderable. But a Civil War had just been fought on the question of black freedom, and it was indeed the "Negro's Hour," as many abolitionists argued. The biggest benefit for women's rights would have been to struggle for the biggest expansion possible in black freedom—to campaign for the land, for black participation in government on the state and federal level, to crush racism in the North, to integrate blacks in housing, education, jobs—to push to the limit the revolutionary possibilities of the period. But Stanton and Anthony sided with the right-wing
assault on the revolutionary opening that existed. They wrote:
"Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Ung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling book, making laws for [white abolitionists] Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble."
Stanton and Anthony embraced race-hatred and anti-immigrant bigotry against the Irish, blacks, Germans and Asians, grounded in class hostility.
They took this position at a time when blacks in the South faced escalating race-terror. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 to terrorize Southern blacks; hundreds were murdered. Republicans of both colors were targeted, and a special object of Klan hatred was the schoolhouse and the schoolteacher (many of them Northern women). In the North as well there was a struggle over the vote, over integrated schools. There was a fight to end Jim Crow in the Washington, D.C. trolley system (after the law desegregating streetcars was passed there in 1865, Sojourner Truth herself went around the capital boarding the cars of companies that were refusing to seat blacks). The freedmen's struggles for a fundamental transformation of race relations triggered in the North what some historians have called the first racist backlash. Frederick Douglass' home in Rochester, New York was burned to the ground; Republican and abolitionist leaders routinely received death threats.
So in this period of violent struggle over the race question, the feminists joined forces with the Democrats, the political party of the Klan and the Confederacy, who hoped to exploit the women's issue against blacks. Henry Blackwell (Lucy Stone's husband) argued that white women voting in the South would cancel out the black vote. Stanton and Anthony teamed up with George Train, a notorious racist, who financed their newspaper, Revolution. They adopted the slogan "educated suffrage"—that is, a literacy test for voters—which was deliberately formulated against non-English-speaking immigrants and ex-slaves.
Frederick Douglass made a valiant attempt to win the feminists over to support for the amendments at a meeting of the Equal Rights Association in 1869, where he argued for the urgency of the vote for blacks:
"When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed to the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot."
—Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle
At this convention Douglass proposed a resolution which called the 15th Amendment the "culmination of one-half of our demands" while imploring a redoubling of "our energy to secure the further amendment guaranteeing the same sacred rights without limitation to sex." But by this point, a split was inevitable. The feminists blamed the Republican Party and the abolitionists for the defeat in Kansas of an 1867 referendum on woman suffrage. They decided that "men" could not be trusted, and for the first time argued that women must organize separately for their own rights. They even flirted with male exclusionism. The movement split in two, one maintaining a formally decent posture on the race question as a cover for doing nothing. The main wing led by Stanton and Anthony wanted to address broad issues, but their capitulation to racist reaction defined them.
They claimed the ballot would solve everything. Their paper was printed in a "rat" office (below union scale). Anthony urged women to be scabs to "better" their condition, then whined when the National Labor Congress refused to admit her as a delegate! Stanton said it proved the worst enemy of women's rights was the working man.
After Reconstruction went down to defeat, the first "feminists" dedicated themselves to the reactionary attempt to prove woman suffrage wouldn't rock the Jim Crow boat. But in the South, the restabilization of a system of overt racist injustice set the context for all social questions. In the South, any extension of the franchise was feared as a threat to "white supremacy" stability. By 1920, when woman suffrage was passed nationally— largely because of World War I which brought women into industry and social life—not a single Southern state had passed the vote for women, although almost every other state had some form of it.
Today, the bourgeois feminists like to hark back to the struggle over the 14th Amendment as proof there must be a separatist women's movement. They claim Stanton and Anthony as their political mothers. Let them have them! We stand in a different tradition: the heritage of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, the Grimke sisters, of revolutionary insurrectionism against the class enemy. Today, to complete the unfinished tasks of the Civil War and emancipate women and blacks from social slavery requires a communist women's movement, part of a multiracial vanguard party fighting for workers power in the interests of all the oppressed.