Slavery, Suffrage and the American Civil War
As calls for women’s suffrage gained momentum following the American Civil War, an uncomfortable racial fault-line began to emerge within the movement, argues Jad Adams.
‘The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history…’
These opening words from the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881) were the standard fare of women’s suffrage rhetoric during the 19th century. Women had been a powerful force in the US anti-slavery movement in the early 19th century and notions of women’s rights owed much to the language of the anti-slavery debates. The word ‘emancipation’ was borrowed from abolitionism. Leading women’s suffragists served their campaigning apprenticeships in the abolitionist cause. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were to become two of the most important American suffragists of the 19th century, met at the World Anti-Slavery convention in London in 1840. They went on to organise the Seneca Falls conference in New York in 1848, the first delegate conference in the US to call for votes for women. At the time, all white men had the vote, a situation that outraged elite white women such as Stanton, who was angry that ‘the ignorant Irishman in the ditch’ had civil rights while educated women did not. African-American women were also active in both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. They included former slave and evangelical preacher Sojourner Truth, who, though illiterate, was a commanding speaker. She challenged a conference at Ohio in 1851, in which the paternalist image of delicate middle-class women was dominant. There was reluctance among some delegates even to allow her to speak, but the chair, Frances D. Gage, called them to attention and bid them listen. Truth said: