As the Women’s Suffrage Centennial winds down against the backdrop of nationwide anti-racism protests and a pivotal election, it is fitting to once again reflect on the life of Susan B. Anthony.
Her quest to free women from oppression and secure universal suffrage embodies the American spirit. She was a visionary, a disruptor and a woman on a mission. But was she a racist, too?
There is scant evidence Anthony felt any superiority because of her whiteness, but the political powerlessness of women in the 19th century, withdrawal of support for women’s suffrage by abolitionists, racism within the women’s movement and, later, the intentional pitting of white women against Blacks by southern Democrats made collaboration with racists unavoidable. Despite these barriers, Anthony consistently defended Black women and was esteemed by Black suffragists.
In 1856, as an agent for the Anti-Slavery Society, Anthony addressed the NYS Teachers Convention. She criticized the exclusion of Black children from classrooms and the failure to allow graduation ceremonies at a New York City black normal (teacher’s) school, calling it a “gross insult to their scholarship and their womanhood.” She further scandalized the audience by calling for “equal and identical educational advantages [for all women] side by side with her brother man.” Her conviction that, “the very existence of the nation should be put at stake in the struggle against slavery” fortified her.
After the Civil War, when abolitionists abandoned women’s suffrage in favor of suffrage for Black men, Anthony was introduced to George Francis Train, a radical Democrat and notorious racist who offered funds to start a newspaper she would call The Revolution. Unbeknownst to Anthony, this meeting was prearranged by abolitionist Henry Blackwell and Republican Sen. Sam Wood and served as a trap to further alienate abolition from woman’s suffrage. This collaboration with Train was controversial then and its misinterpretation continues to call her integrity into question today. Despite this, The Revolution made possible the exploration of ideas surrounding universal suffrage, equal education, temperance, dress reform and opposition to Restellism (abortion).
The Oct. 22, 1868, edition contained a letter written by Anthony to the Colored Convention in Utica, N.Y., asking the men to consider the question of suffrage for black women: “Permit me on behalf of the colored women of the State of New York to urge upon you to extend your demand for the ballot to your wives and daughters-your mothers and sisters.”
As another example, on Oct. 7, 1869, Anthony wrote:
“The Revolution criticizes, ‘opposes’ the fifteenth amendment, not for what it is, but for what it is not. Not because it enfranchises black men, but because it does not enfranchise all women, black and white. It is not the little good it proposes, but the greater evil it perpetuates that we deprecate. It is not that in the abstract we do not rejoice that black men are to become equals of white men, but that we deplore the fact that two millions (sic) black women, hitherto the political and social equals of the men by their side, are to become subjects, slaves of these men.”
After abandonment by abolitionists, Anthony came to believe that the success of women’s suffrage depended on the political segregation of race from sex. For this reason, she continued to speak out against racism, then known as “colorphobia,” but was generally complacent over racism among white suffragists. This segregation between race and sex was exacerbated when southern Democrats knowingly pit white women against black in their efforts to demonize Black men.
While attending an anti-lynching lecture in Rochester, N.Y., Susan B. Anthony jumped up to defend the presenter, Ida B. Wells, against a Texan heckler. “Blacks did not come North because they are treated no better in the North than they are in the South!” Following the presentation, Anthony invited Wells to stay at her home and she accepted. When Anthony’s secretary refused to take dictation from Wells, a Black woman, Anthony fired her. According to Well’s biographer, Anthony “was a woman whom Ida and others knew to disparage racism publicly and privately.” Accounts from Black suffragists such as Mary Church Terrell and Fannie Barrier Williams reflect the same sentiment.
As a nation still reckoning with its racist framework, we can learn from the duality of Anthony’s struggle to change society from the inside out. It is critical that Anthony’s interactions with racists and her silence over racism in the white suffrage movement be recognized for what it was and not excused. It is equally important that her rightful and hard-won place as an American heroine be maintained. The arc of Anthony’s life was anti-racist despite opposition from every side. Her friend, Hester C. Whitehurst Jeffrey, a Black suffragist known for her ability to work with Black and white suffragists alike said this at Anthony’s funeral in 1906, “We, the colored people of Rochester, join the world in mourning the loss our true friend Susan B. Anthony. ... The colored churches in this city, the National and State Federations of Colored Women, the federal clubs of the [Colored] association … all extend … their tender sympathy.”