“Get Out the Vote” Digitization Spotlight- Annual Report of the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society

To overthrow an institution which has grown up, to giant size, in the heart of a mighty nation; which has its foundations in the strongest depraved principles of human nature; which is surrounded and sustained by the sanctions of law and public opinion, and protected by the suffrage of a false religion; to destroy and utterly lay waste such an institution, and to do so by moral influence on the minds of the community, it is not the work of a day, or a year. Such a work is ours. It can be accomplished only by constant and unwearied effort, day after day, and year after year, by seizing every opportunity to pour a ray of light on the darkened understanding, or a softening influence on the hardened heart, till the mind of the nation is renovated, and the pillars of slavery are removed.

Annual Report for the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society, 1938

Each month, we shine the spotlight on items from the exhibit Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America that have been fully digitized and made accessible online.

For November, we are showcasing the Annual Report of the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society.

The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (1833-1870) was formed by women who had been denied positions in the American Anti-Slavery Society, but responded to William Lloyd Garrison’s call for women to become actively involved in the abolition movement. the society circulated petitions to Congress, raised money through annual fairs, organized lectures, held conventions coordinated with other abolitionist women societies, and much more to aid anti-slavery causes in America.

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Temperance as a Tool for Suffrage

Before women’s rights activists campaigned for suffrage, they called for prohibition. In 1852, four years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the New York State Women’s Temperance Society. They would not found the American Equal Rights Association until 1866. 

Stanton and Anthony fought for statewide prohibition in New York alongside divorce and other Civil Reforms– like the amendment of the Married Woman’s Property Law, which allowed for property ownership, suits in court, shared child custody, and the rights to earnings and inheritance– before they ever explicitly fought for voting rights. 

Beginning in 1866, they fought for Universal Suffrage with the American Equal Rights Association, but split from the organization in 1869 over its prioritization of suffrage for black men over women. From there, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. That same year, the National Prohibition Party was organized. 

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Telling the Stories of Women in Broadcasting

One of the intriguing aspects of working with the Library of American Broadcasting (LAB) collections is discovering, through routine processing, people who developed interesting careers in early network radio and television but are not well-known among broadcast historians. In particular, information on women in broadcasting can be especially scarce, making it challenging to discover the full scope of their contributions to the industry. The relative lack of archival documentation compared to their male counterparts certainly reflects their historic marginalization in the industry.

Sometimes, we have only a few items from which to assemble personal histories, such as those I find while working with our photo archive. Take, for example, this press photo of a woman seated in front of an early NBC “box camera” microphone. An included caption describes her: “Continually on the trail of celebrities to present on the National Farm and Home Hour, Helen Stevens Fisher generally succeeds in presenting at least one nationally famous personality each week. Her early experience as a newspaper reporter serves her in good stead when it comes to getting her guests to tell some of their most interesting experiences.”

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Women’s Suffrage: Carrie Chapman Catt

“A small group of people determined to oppose legislation, if provided with money, as were the brewers and distillers, may prevent action being taken, even though the masses of the people demand it.”

In a modern political landscape that empowers lobbyists and special interest groups–particularly those with enough money to spare–you wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that these words were spoken in the last few years.  In fact, they were spoken one hundred years ago.

Carrie Chapman Catt, who composed these words, embodied socially progressive ideas in more ways than one.  Born in 1859 in rural Wisconsin, Catt dedicated four decades of her life organizing campaigns and advocating political leaders across the country for the passage of laws to enable women’s suffrage.  During a time when even the more influential women rarely occupied positions of high social and political power, Catt served two terms as the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association between 1900 and 1920 and founded the League of Women Voters in 1920.     

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Racism as a Political Tool in the Southern Suffrage Movement

In 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that “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.” This amendment gave many men of color the right to vote, though racist state and local governments almost immediately drafted new laws to disenfranchise them. 

Across the American South, racist politicians scrambled to restrict Black votes and maintain white supremacy. As soon as the federal government stopped enforcing the 15th Amendment after Reconstruction, Southern states successfully disenfranchised most Black men with Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation tactics. 

However, as the women’s suffrage movement regained popularity, Southern politicians feared not only that the proposed Susan B. Anthony Amendment would enfranchise Black women voters, but that it would re-enfranchise Black male voters as well. As Congress debated the Amendment in 1919, South Carolina Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith argued that “the southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.” 

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Why did some women oppose the suffrage movement?

When most Americans consider the history and legacy of the women’s suffrage movement, they think of larger-than-life historical figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells, as well as momentous and impactful events like the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  In other words, people understand the suffrage movement based on the contributions made by people who actively advocated for the expansion of voting rights to women and who believed that, as equals, women should be able to help shape the institutions and policies that shaped their own lives.

On the other hand, fewer Americans today may know much about the communities of women who did not believe that women should have the right to vote.  Many today may not know that this group even existed in the first place. After all, why would women oppose the expansion of their own basic rights and privileges?

Typically made up of women from more privileged social and economic backgrounds, the communities of women who opposed suffrage were called several different names, including “anti-suffragettes,” “antis” and “remonstrants.”  One of the anti-suffrage groups who helped popularize the term “remonstrant” was the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women.     

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The Trial of Susan B. Anthony, 1873

On November 1, 1872–four days before Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected as President of the United States–Susan B. Anthony and her three sisters walked into a voter registration office in Rochester, New York.  After a local inspector contacted a legal professional and required them to take an oath of registry, all four women obliged and walked out of the office as registered voters. This was a surprising result, to put it lightly, as the state of New York would not allow women to vote for another 45 years, and nationwide suffrage for women would not be legalized for another 48 years.

Susan B. Anthony on the cover of the February 26, 1916 issue of The Suffragist
Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage newsletter collection

While this event was not the first time women attempted to cast ballots without the legal right, the developments that occurred afterwards generated unprecedented national attention and helped generate new interest in the growing women’s suffrage movement.  After Anthony, her three sisters and about a dozen other women successfully voted after completing the standard oath of registry, they were all arrested less than two weeks later on charges of illegal voting. The arrests were an unexpected and dispiriting turn of events, but Anthony–always a gifted publicist as well as a strong leader–managed to use the upcoming trial as an opportunity to expose the injustices of the current voting regulations and cultivate further support for her movement.

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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. 

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Spotlight on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and acclaimed poet born in Baltimore in 1825. Born to free parents and orphaned at three, Watkins was raised by her maternal uncle Rev. William Watkins, an abolitionist and civil rights activist, and his wife Henrietta. She was educated at her uncle’s school, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. While she was still very young, Harper worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a white family that owned a bookshop. There, she discovered her love for books and filled her free time with reading. 

From there, Watkins grew up to become the first African American woman to publish a short story, and she published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at age 20. Harper went on to publish another book of poetry, many short stories, and several novels, including her most popular work Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Watkins’ writing often addressed issues of race, gender, and their intersections. 

The poem below, “Slave Mother,” highlights the painful relationship between motherhood and Blackness that Harper observed during her lifetime. 

Heard you that shriek? It rose

   So wildly on the air,

It seem’d as if a burden’d heart

   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—

   The bowed and feeble head—

The shuddering of that fragile form—

   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?

   Its every glance was pain,

As if a storm of agony

   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,

   Her boy clings to her side,

And in her kyrtle vainly tries

   His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore

   For him a mother’s pains;

He is not hers, although her blood

   Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands

   May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

   That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light

   That o’er her pathway smiled,

A fountain gushing ever new,

   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone

   Of music round her heart,

Their lives a streamlet blent in one—

   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,

   Her last and fond embrace.

Oh! never more may her sad eyes

   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks

   Disturb the listening air:

She is a mother, and her heart

   Is breaking in despair.

In her discussions of intersectionality, Watkins alienated many white suffragists. She criticized the racism and selfishness of their refusal to support the 15th Amendment. In response, she helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which actively supported the 15th Amendment. She was also active in the “Colored Section” of Philadelphia’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Later, Watkins helped organize the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW focused on both black and women’s issues such as women’s suffrage, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, and became the most prominent organization of the African American Women’s Suffrage Movement. 


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

New Exhibition Online: Get Out the Vote

We are thrilled to announce the launch of a new virtual exhibition, Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

Inspired by our collections of grassroots organizations, we used material from our collection to tell the story of voting rights in America, from the founding of this nation to our current electoral climate.

The ideal of universal suffrage, or “one person, one vote,” has compelled many to advocate for greater equity and inclusion in the electoral process. Over the years, voting rights have expanded and contracted for many marginalized communities. Election laws continue to evolve in America as citizens demand equitable representation in government and access to the ballot.

Despite the importance of suffrage in America, voting rights have not always been ensured for everyone. Barriers to voting have led many to advocate for a more representative electorate and to encourage greater participation in local, state, and national elections. Their efforts are crucial to ensure all ALL citizens have the opportunity to cast their ballot.

Visit the online exhibition, explore our collections, and contact us to learn more.