Frederick Douglass, The 15th Amendment, and White Women’s Racism in the Suffrage Movement

Abolitionists and suffragists shared activist spaces as early as the mid-19th century. However, though members often overlapped, shared goals and spoke to the same crowds, talks of the 15th Amendment caused rifts in each movement after the Civil War. 

Women’s rights activists like Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton got their start in abolition. Mott helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society, of which women made up a significant percentage. They formed local women-only branches including the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, notable for its promotion of racial and gender equality and inclusion of Black women as leaders and members. 

Additionally, some well-known abolitionists like Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass voiced support for the women’s rights movement. Douglass spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and was one of 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments there. In 1866 he co-founded the American Equal Rights Association alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The organization demanded universal suffrage in the United States. 

However, supporting universal suffrage eventually proved a daunting and dangerous task for Black men, whom Douglass argued faced prejudice and violence that made their need for the vote more urgent. Though he never abandoned support for women’s suffrage, Douglass began to fight for the passage of the 15th Amendment, which aimed to enfranchise men of all races, but not women. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, Douglass wholeheartedly supported a new amendment meant to enfranchise women and thanked women’s rights activists for their support of Black liberation. In 1888, he spoke before the International Council of Women, in Washington, D.C.: 

“All good causes are mutually helpful. The benefits accruing from this movement for the equal rights of woman are not confined or limited to woman only. They will be shared by every effort to promote the progress and welfare of mankind everywhere and in all ages. It was an example and a prophecy of what can be accomplished against strongly opposing forces, against time-hallowed abuses, against deeply entrenched error, against worldwide usage, and against the settled judgment of mankind, by a few earnest women, clad only in the panoply of truth, and determined to live and die in what they considered a righteous cause.”

Despite Douglass’s steadfast support of women’s enfranchisement, his support for the 15th Amendment felt like a betrayal to white suffragists. Established alliances between abolitionists and suffragists fell to pieces, and many white women who got their start in abolition voiced disdain for the nation’s prioritization of Black enfranchisement. 

Unable to agree on a position about the 15th Amendment, white suffragists split into two main organizations. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, which argued that women should demand the 15th Amendment also include women’s suffrage. Those who supported the passage of the amendment as-is joined the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Brown Blackwell. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton preached that the 15th Amendment would “create an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.” Read “lower orders” as immigrants and freed slaves; in the same speech she asked her audience to “think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for … Susan B. Anthony.” 

Still, in the face of racism from the movement’s leaders, Douglass argued for women’s rights until his death. 

Take a look at Frederick Douglass in SCUA’s Digital Collections at these links: 

Portrait of Frederick Douglass, undated
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, 1845
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa 1855
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa 1881
Photograph of Frederick Douglass, circa 1893

This item is featured along others about suffrage in the exhibition Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

Rigby Philips, History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality (2021)

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