Ladies Last

After the Civil War, both women and black men struggled to win the vote. Why the men succeeded

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found that they complemented each other perfectly. “I forged the thunderbolts,” said Stanton, “and she fired them.” (Library of Congress)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found that they complemented each other perfectly. “I forged the thunderbolts,” said Stanton, “and she fired them.” (Library of Congress)


When Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton duked it out for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, their rivalry was often framed by the invidious question of who should go first into the highest office in the land, a black man or a woman. Of course, either possibility would have been unthinkable back in 1866, just after the Civil War, when slavery had so recently been abolished and black men—and all women—were far from being guaranteed the vote, never mind holding high office.

But the 2008 primary season wasn’t the first time that women and black men were forced into unhappy competition—not for the presidency, but for the franchise itself. “Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams had memorably written to her patriotic husband, John, in 1776. Ninety years later, in 1866, it seemed that no one had. “I have argued constantly with [Wendell] Phillips and the whole fraternity,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained to Susan B. Anthony about male abolitionists, and “all will favor enfranchising the negro without us. Woman’s cause is in deep water.”

For almost two decades Stanton had been passionately committed to securing equal rights for American women. The author of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, read at the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, which she had helped organize, Stanton had been married for 25 years to Henry Brewster Stanton, a well-known abolitionist. Defying stereotypes about women activists being mean, mannish, and unmarried, she had given birth to seven children, and she was round and rosy, her hair snow-white, her manner amiable, her dress an unoffending and forgettable calico. Said a friend about the men who sat open-mouthed when Stanton appeared in public, “Our fossil is first amazed—next bewildered—then fascinated—then convinced—not exactly of the doctrine of woman’s suffrage, perhaps—but at any rate that a woman to be an advocate of that doctrine need neither be a fright nor a fury.”

In 1840, while on her honeymoon, Stanton had been excluded from the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, and from then on her commitment to abolition had included or been superseded by her commitment to women’s rights. Along with Anthony, she had established during the Civil War the Women’s National Loyal League, a political organization like the male-only Union League, which had been founded to preserve the Union but had also gathered support for emancipation, the Republican Party, the Thirteenth Amendment, and equal rights.

Stanton and Anthony did not meet until 1851, when the two women quickly discovered that they complemented each other perfectly; they remained political partners in the fight for women’s suffrage and equal rights for 50 years. “I forged the thunderbolts,” said Stanton, “and she fired them.” Stanton possessed tremendous legal intelligence (her father was a judge), and Anthony, Herculean endurance. “No matter what is done or is not done, how you are criticized or misunderstood, or what efforts are made to block your path,” Anthony counseled a new generation of women, “remember that the only fear you need have is the fear of not standing by the thing you believe to be right.” That encouragement meant a great deal to the 1,500 people gathered in Washington to listen to Anthony’s final public speech, delivered on her last birthday, and to hear her firmly declare, “Failure is impossible.” She died in 1906 at age 86, and Gertrude Stein would call her “the mother of us all.”

Yet failure was very possible, and she’d become accustomed to it. Unlike Stanton, Anthony did not come from wealth. Her father, a Quaker, managed a cotton mill in upstate New York, but during the Panic of 1837, he lost his job and just about everything else. Anthony, who had been in school near Philadelphia, came home to support her large family (she had six siblings) by teaching. In 1845, after her father’s financial condition improved and he bought a farm, she moved to Rochester, New York, where she continued to teach in one school after another, earning less money than the male instructors.

There she met the abolitionists Amy and Isaac Post and Frederick Douglass, who fought not just for abolition but also for women’s rights and equality for all. As a temperance reformer, Anthony had learned early on that though women were invited to meetings, they were told not to speak. So now she spoke. Barbed and sarcastic, she made her positions clear: respect for women’s work, equal opportunity and equal pay, liberalized divorce laws, and the ballot. Because she was a merciless organizer, she circulated petitions, scheduled meetings to coincide with legislative events, wrote pamphlets, and traveled from county to county and state to state. Easy to spot in her gold-framed spectacles, she preferred to be photographed only in profile because of a wandering eye. She was not conventionally pretty or conventionally charming or conventionally dependent on anything or anyone.

After the Civil War, the matter of rights for black people, for poor southern whites, and even for ex-Confederates—but not for women—was on the table. And by the spring of 1866, the women’s cause, as Stanton had said, was in deep water. So Anthony and Stanton, along with their allies in the abolitionist movement—including Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and the radical editor Theodore Tilton—formed the American Equal Rights Association to lobby the government for equal rights for all, male and female, black and white. As Douglass eloquently declared, “The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing at any time to hold up both hands in favor of this right.”

The path to securing the women’s vote had just been made more difficult, though: the Fourteenth Amendment, defining citizenship and ensuring due process and equal protection, had introduced the category of “male” into the Constitution, where it had never been used before. “If that word ‘male’ be inserted,” Stanton gloomily warned, “it will take us at least a century to get it out.”

Why not guarantee voting rights to every adult person—or, better yet, to every citizen? Stanton wanted to know. “The disfranchised all make the same demand, and the same logic and justice which secures suffrage to one class gives it to all,” she explained. She and Anthony hoped to have another friend in the popular orator Anna Dickinson. (Douglass credited Dickinson, along with Tilton, for articulating what would become the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing black male suffrage, and she was also praised for educating the public about it.) But Dickinson linked arms with more moderate Republicans, who, along with many former abolitionists, unceremoniously reminded Stanton and Anthony that this was the “Negro’s hour.” This was the nation’s hour, Stanton replied.

Everyone walks through the door or no one walks through the door, she said. The silver-tongued orator Wendell Phillips, a longtime abolitionist, disagreed. A spokesman for the independent voter, the disenfranchised, and the cause of black equality, Phillips was not ready to speak up for women. He reiterated that the ladies’ turn would come; they just needed to wait. He did not object to the enfranchisement of women per se, he said, but he thought that campaigning for “woman suffrage” undercut the case for black males. One reform at a time. Stanton was furious. “If the two millions of southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children,” she said, “then their emancipation is but another form of slavery.”

The renowned editor Horace Greeley, once a supporter of women’s suffrage, also took a step back. “The ballot and the bullet go together,” he said, waving Stanton away. “If you vote, are you ready to fight?”

Stanton answered, “Yes, we are ready to fight, sir, just as you did in the late war, by sending our substitutes.”

Greeley was silent but never for long. “Public sentiment,” he soon explained more temperately, “does not demand and would not sustain an innovation so revolutionary and sweeping.” The Negro’s hour would swiftly pass if nothing were done; Stanton should know that.

In the spring of 1867, before the first anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association meeting in New York City, George T. Downing, an entrepreneur and leading black activist, asked Stanton whether she really believed that black men shouldn’t have the vote until women did. Everyone should have the ballot, she replied; Reconstruction without universal suffrage did not interest her. Equal rights for all. But frankly, she continued, she didn’t trust the “colored man” to safeguard a woman’s rights. “Degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are,” she explained. “I desire that we go into the kingdom together.”

Annoyed, Downing asked his question a different way: whether Stanton would really reject half a good result—the enfranchising of men regardless of color—if women didn’t get the vote. Digging in her heels, she retorted with an argument that alienated some of her supporters, both then and now. “The wisest order of enfranchisement is to take the educated classes first,” she said. That is, why allow uneducated men to govern women? “Would Horace Greeley, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith or Theodore Tilton be willing to stand aside and trust their individual interests, and the whole welfare of the nation to the lowest strata of manhood?” she asked.

If not, why ask educated women, who love their country, who desire to mould its institutions on the highest idea of justice and equality, who feel that their enfranchisement is of vital importance to this end, why ask them to stand aside while two million ignorant men are ushered into the halls of legislation?

It was not her best moment. From the crowd, someone shouted out, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

While the members of the American Equal Rights Association were meeting in New York, Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, were in Kansas stumping for universal suffrage. The Kansas legislature had proposed separate but related referenda to the state constitution: one would grant black men the vote by removing the word “white” from the constitution; the other would grant women the vote by removing the word “male.” If both referenda passed in the fall of 1867, impartial suffrage, as it was called, would prevail on the Kansas plains—and from there, the sky was the limit. “Success in Kansas means success everywhere,” said Blackwell.

Canvassing the state in the winter and spring of 1867, Stone and Blackwell bumped along in oxcarts and open wagons, traveling as far as 40 miles a day. It was hard work, but their spirits were high. Stone excitedly telegraphed the New York meeting of the American Equal Rights Association: “Kansas rules the world!”

But all was not well. “A persistent effort has been made by the enemies of female suffrage,” commented a Kansas newspaper editor, “to get up a fight between that and negro suffrage.” Pitting women against black men seemed a ploy engineered by the enemies of both movements, even though friction already existed between them, and some Kansans had already formed an anti–women’s-suffrage league. That league sought help from the Republican State Committee, which sent out speakers to defeat the women—including one man who stood up at a women’s suffrage meeting to ask whether men really wanted old maids to vote.

That sort of prejudice was not confined to Kansas. “I do not believe in suffrage for women,” said Jessie Benton Frémont, the writer and wife of the former explorer and Republican presidential candidate. “I think women in their present position manage men better.” Anyway, didn’t women acquire power from some separate and higher sphere? Wouldn’t voting therefore demean women? “As to woman’s rights, I have always found privileges much better things,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister chastised his daughter. “I do not like your saying that you ‘suppose many women would vote as well as most men,’ ” she continued. “It is placing women whose mental endowments make them the eminent and enviable few, just on a level with the herd of mediocre men.”

When Stone and Blackwell returned to the East, Stanton and Anthony were among those who took their place. They too traveled as much as 25 or 30 miles daily, speaking in every county and every school district in Kansas. They slept in farmhouses, chewed moldy biscuits, and hauled with them speeches, documents, and tracts. Their male allies in the American Equal Rights Association—Phillips, Beecher, Tilton—did not show up. Tilton offered to print only one editorial in his paper, The Independent. Beecher was busy writing a novel for which he had been paid a $30,000 advance. Phillips was on vacation. The men signed a petition on the women’s behalf; that was all. “I have often found men who, if you could believe their words, were ready to die for the negro,” Olympia Brown, the country’s first female minister, grimly reflected, “but would at the same time oppose bitterly any enlargement of women’s opportunity or sphere.”

Anthony tried Anna Dickinson, who was home in Philadelphia, sick. “If only Anna E. Dickinson could make 10 or 15 of the strong points—we should feel sure,” Anthony said, and tried again. Dickinson did not budge. Recalled a rueful Olympia Brown, “We had no party, no organization, no money.” Until, that is, the ostentatiously rich George Francis Train blew into town in October, prepared to fund the campaign, hop on the Kansas trail, and save the day.

As a boy, the Boston-born Train had heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, the esteemed master of self-reliance, deliver one of his rousing speeches. Taking to heart Emerson’s injunction to build your own world, he had gone to work for a relative in the shipping business in Liverpool. Then he made his way to the gold-rush town of Melbourne, Australia, where he started his own firm, amassed a fortune, dispatched the first clipper ships to California, and frequently sent off vivid journalistic reports to The Boston Post about commerce—and about his travels to Java, Singapore, and Shanghai.

Back in America, after speculating in contraband cotton during the war, Train bought shares in the Union Pacific Railroad and in 1864 concocted a system, which he called the Crédit Mobilier of America, to capitalize the railroad and secure land rights from the government for its expansion. In the long run it would lead to a famous congressional bribery scandal, but for now he grew even wealthier.

Train possessed a gift for platform histrionics that turned staid New England rectitude on its head. Wearing lavender kid gloves, a blue dress coat with brass buttons, white vests, and shiny patent-leather boots, he rambled, he clowned, he blustered, and he mesmerized his audience for as long as two and a half hours with his jokes and his causes: Irish home rule, soft (paper) money, eight-hour working days—and suffrage for women. He believed himself destined to become president of the United States, and in 1872 he ran as an independent candidate.

An American of his time and place, Train was a robust racist. Years earlier, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, while Charles Sumner had been praising Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation, Train had interrupted to harangue the Massachusetts senator, who, Train said, “could speak of nothing but the ‘sublime nigger.’ ”

He thus seemed an unlikely choice to help Stanton and Anthony in Kansas. But Stanton did not care if Train was a bigot or a boob. He put his money and his showmanship at suffrage’s disposal. “If the Devil steps forward ready to help,” she declared, “I shall say good fellow come on!” The Republicans had sabotaged women. Train understood that. “The Garrisons, Phillipses, Greeleys, and Beechers,” he sang in his own little ditty, “False prophets, false guides, false teachers and preachers, / Left Mrs. Stanton, Miss Anthony, Brown, and Stone / To fight the Kansas battles alone.”

Why, then, shouldn’t Stanton seek help from Train? Her friends were appalled. Train was an antiwar Democrat with a reputation as a huckster who entertained audiences by pandering to their basest fears, warning them that with black male suffrage, “We shall see some white woman in a case of negro rape being tried by 12 negro jurymen.” Stanton replied,

Suppose George Francis Train had devoted his time & money for three months to the negro as he has to the woman, would not the abolitionist on all sides be ready to eulogize & accept him, of course they would. Do they ignore everyone who is false to woman? By no means.

Let him who was without sin cast the first stone. “I would not talk of negroes or women,” she also pointed out, “but citizens; that is where Wendell Phillips failed; he should have passed from the abolitionist into the statesman … instead of falling back to the Republican platform.”

Though Train may have damaged the Kansas campaign, neither referendum was likely to win anyway, and neither did. “It was not the woman suffrage question that killed the negro question,” Anthony summed up. “It was the Republican leaders.” As far as she was concerned, and she was prescient, the Republicans had by not joining the two causes thrown the black man overboard, and the female rats had known when to leave a sinking ship.

In other words, there was plenty of blame to go around.

With Train covering their expenses, Anthony and Stanton went back east, delivering speeches all the way, and though Train’s racism continued to alienate former friends and delight enemies, Anthony and Stanton refused to denounce him. Nor did they, as it turned out, move from suffrage to statesmanship. And their rhetoric was disconcerting, patronizing, xenophobic. In St. Louis, Anthony told an audience,

When you propose to elevate the lowest and most degraded classes of men to an even platform with white men—with the cultivated, educated, wealthy white men of the State—it is certainly time for you to begin to think at least whether it might not be proper to lift the wives, daughters, and mothers of your State to an even pedestal.

The next year, Stanton said without compunction,

Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung 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 Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble. …

Would these gentlemen who, on all sides, are telling us “to wait until the negro is safe” be willing to stand aside and trust all their interests in hands like these?

This argument played into other hands—those of the most bigoted Democrats—but Stanton and Anthony were angry, resentful, indignant. Frederick Douglass tried to smooth out relations with them in New York in the spring of 1869. Speaking before a crowd in Steinway Hall at the American Equal Rights Association annual meeting, he affirmed his friendship for Stanton and his respect for her—there was no greater advocate of equal rights, he said—but he just could not embrace her use of such unfortunate terms as Sambo.

Moreover, he could not see how anyone could pretend that giving the vote to women was as urgent as it was to black men. “When women, because they are women,” he said,

are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon 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 equal to our own.

A voice shouted from the back of the hall, “Is that not all true about black women?”

“Yes, yes, yes; it is true of the black woman,” he answered, “but not because she is a woman, but because she is black.”

Such was the argument, the quandary, the political koan: was it fair, right, practical to put black men ahead of women, all women, if one had to choose? Did one have to choose? Could fairness, justice, and expedience be separated? Should they? The dilemma split men and women of good will; it ruffled feathers and assumptions. Clara Barton, who had worked without stop during the war and afterward, taking medicine and succor and information to the wounded and their families, believed women should vote, yet she too felt obliged to put black men ahead of women; how not? There were “thousands of hungry Negroes men & women & children at our doors,” she explained, “thousands upon thousands waiting in fear, trembling and uncertainty all through the South, surrounded by an enemy as implacable as death, and cold as the grave.” To her, giving black men the vote might stop the brutal murders and beatings inflicted on the entire black population.

Then there was the matter of politics. In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant, running as a Republican, had been elected president, but he’d won by only 300,000 votes. Both moderate and radical Republicans saw the Democratic handwriting on the wall. If they did not pass federal legislation to secure the black man the vote, Republicans would lose elections—and fail to complete the work that the war had begun: not just to save the Union but to reconstruct it. The ladies had to wait, and ladies, ladylike, should do so.

Though the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 did enfranchise the black man—“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—the amendment said nothing about protecting or enforcing that right. It did not prevent any state from adopting restrictions that might deprive him of his ability to cast his ballot. Nor did its language anticipate the terrorist techniques, the murders, the beatings, and the threats that would be used to frighten black voters in the South. The black man could be asked whether he owned property, whether he could read or write, whether he knew how many bubbles were contained in a bar of soap. Yet Wendell Phillips, for one, realized that a broader amendment was further than most people were willing to go. He urged his radical friends not to oppose the Fifteenth Amendment if for no other reason than as an act of common political sense.

After the amendment passed both houses, the American Anti-Slavery Society disbanded. In May 1870 Congress did try to look after the black voter with an enforcement bill aimed to safeguard him and his right to vote, and Phillips promised he would keep up the good fight to ensure black men their rights. And to work for women.

But because the Fifteenth Amendment had excluded them, Stanton denounced it for enacting “an aristocracy of sex.” The amendment might be hailed for creating a national citizenship in a unified nation, but women had been specifically discounted. She and Anthony therefore moved in a different direction that, though it included the ballot, also envisioned a reconstructed American society where women and men could be treated equally, where women could earn the same wages for the same work, where they could go to college or, as Margaret Fuller had put it so many years before, become sea captains.

Stanton and Anthony organized the New York–based National Woman Suffrage Association, with Stanton as its initial president and its members mainly educated white women. Its membership did not include Lucy Stone. She disagreed with Stanton, disliked Anthony, and hated to discuss such distracting topics as labor laws, especially before black men got the vote. Yet she too was an indefatigable activist, the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a bachelor’s degree—at Oberlin College—and a superlative organizer and orator with a low, pleasing voice. She had insisted on keeping her name after marriage but was more conservative on social issues than either Stanton or Anthony. She believed that changing the divorce laws, for instance, would permit men to abandon women. And she’d been completely scandalized by Stanton and Anthony’s alliance with George Francis Train.

Calculating the harm done by Train’s involvement in women’s suffrage and, worse, by Stanton’s opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment, and furious when she learned that the National Woman Suffrage Association had been formed behind her back, as it seemed to her, Stone established a dissident movement that included the notables of the abolition movement, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Higginson, as well a new convert, Julia Ward Howe, famous as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That was the core of the American Woman Suffrage Association. As its executive committee disingenuously said, it had been organized “without depreciating the value of Associations already existing.” But its very existence did depreciate Stanton and Anthony.

The American Woman Suffrage Association did not push for restructuring the relationship between men and women; ultimately and despite their very real, deep, and utter commitment to women’s suffrage and civil rights, those liberal white men and women were reformers, not radicals. They wanted to create a national alliance focusing mainly on the ballot box and steering clear of such polemical topics as divorce, prostitution, contraception, and women’s control over their own bodies. Yet the two groups did share a great deal, as Theodore Tilton knew, and in the spring of 1870, when he proposed their merger, many well-known white and black advocates of women’s suffrage, such as Lucretia Mott, Gerrit Smith, and Harriet Tubman, met the proposal with what seemed like relief. Others were dubious. No good comes of meddling, Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier said; that was too bad, he also said, since all this strife just made more sport for the Philistines.

Whittier was right. The Boston secessionists, as Stanton privately called Stone’s group, would never agree to any merger, and the two factions didn’t unite for another two decades. The question batted about ever since was whether the rupture cost women the vote, which they would not receive for another 50 years. Perhaps; but the call for equal rights for women, like so much other reform, had already lost steam after the war. People were tired of causes, tired of speeches, tired of platforms and planks. The hour was not the Negro’s or the woman’s; it belonged to retrenchment.

Yet it also seems true that a black man voting was a far less dumbfounding spectacle than a woman doing so. Stanton was not wrong about this; the so-called aristocracy of sex did exist. Since free black men had been walking on the streets of Boston, New York, and Brattleboro, riding the streetcars in Washington, and working on the docks of Baltimore and San Francisco, the idea of those men voting, despite the color of their skin, was not as alarming as a woman with political power. They were, after all, men. Stanton tried to reassure the critics. Giving women the ballot did not sully women, demoralize marriage, or wreck the home, she said. It did not render men an appendage of the dinner pot and washtub. But not many people wanted to listen.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brenda Wineapple is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar. She is the author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up