Opinion | When The Suffrage Movement Sold Out To White Supremacy
Harper’s speech anticipated by more than a century the “intersectional” legal analysis of the critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who showed how policies that treat race and gender as mutually exclusive deprive black women of redress in discrimination cases while also obscuring the fact that they struggle under the dual burdens of racism and sexism.
“History of Woman Suffrage” draws heavily on the proceedings of the 1866 meeting but tellingly leaves out Harper’s momentous speech. The historian Nell Irvin Painter argues that her words were “too strong” for white suffrage leaders who saw her polished, self-assured style as antithetical to what they viewed as blackness. They preferred the uneducated version of black womanhood embodied by the formerly enslaved suffragist Sojourner Truth, who entertained her audiences as she imparted her ideas.
Yet Harper’s poise and self-possession were the norm among the affluent freeborn black women who had time to engage with the suffrage movement. For example, the sisters Harriett Forten Purvis and Margaretta Forten — daughters of the wealthy Philadelphia sailmaker and abolitionist James Forten and his wife, Charlotte — were central players in the staging of the Fifth National Woman’s Rights Convention in their hometown in 1854. The Boston journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, who played a leadership role in the Massachusetts suffrage movement in the late 1800s, was the wife of the pro-suffrage state legislator George L. Ruffin.
Another respected suffragist and abolitionist — but again, whose voice is missing from the suffragist narrative — is Sarah Parker Remond, who grew up in a prominent New England family. Remond, like Harper, was a member of the American Equal Rights Association. She was popular on the abolitionist speaking circuit and also toured the Northeast with her brother, Charles, in the late 1860s in support of women’s voting rights.
Chroniclers of the suffrage struggle tended not to record their black peers. Fortunately, the 1853 lawsuit Remond filed against two men who ejected her from an opera in Boston for reasons of race provides a window into what she believed. The archivist Dorothy Porter Wesley writes in her study of the Remond family that the judge issued a forceful decision, “fully sustaining the equal rights of our Colored citizens.” We also know that Remond grew sufficiently tired of racism in the United States and fled to Europe.
While Remond stumped for suffrage in the North, Charlotte Rollin of Charleston, S.C., pursued the same mission in the Reconstruction-era South. The historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn lists Rollin as the first South Carolinian to serve as a delegate at a national suffrage convention. In an 1870 speech — a rare occasion in which a black suffragist’s comments were set down — she argued for women’s rights under the universalist principle that denying rights to anyone endangers the rights of everyone:
“We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the ground that we are human beings, and as such entitled to all human rights. While we concede that woman’s ennobling influence should be confined chiefly to home and society, we claim that public opinion has had a tendency to limit woman’s sphere to too small a circle, and until woman has the right of representation this will last and other rights will be held by an insecure tenure.”
White Suffragist Racism
Last year, Chicago renamed a prominent downtown street for the celebrated newspaper editor and anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells, who also played a starring role in the earlier 20th-century suffrage movement. Less well known in the city today is the estimable Wells contemporary Fannie Barrier Williams, a member of the black elite who had a profound impact on Chicago during more than three decades of civic and political activism.