The Suffragist Problem: Roots of White Feminism

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“The history of American feminism has been primarily a narrative about the heroic deeds of white women.”
–Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought

As Beverly Guy-Sheftall states in the quote above, the narrative of feminist history has primarily been about the heroic deeds of white women. Suffragettes are romanticized by modern day feminists, specifically white feminists, who celebrate them for the work they did by wearing white clothes and purple sashes to honor them and by sharing articles and stories about how badass they were. And in some ways, they were badass. For example, Victoria Woodhull was not just the first woman to run for president; she was also the first woman to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street and among the first women to found a newspaper. When she ran for president, she spent election day in jail for calling out the popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterous hypocrite. Pretty badass, right? But if she would have been able to accomplish her full slate of ideas, eugenics would be at the forefront of science and women would have no access to abortion. And if most of the celebrated early feminists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had successfully pushed through their agendas, rich white folks would be the only ones allowed to vote. It’s important for us to examine the real history of the women’s rights movement and to recognize how central racism was to women earning the right to vote so we can better understand how white supremacy has shaped the narrative of feminist history and move forward in a more progressive way.

“White feminism” spawns from the early women’s suffrage movement, which had originally teamed with the abolitionist movement. The suffragists were all about equality until the discussion turned to black men possibly receiving the right to vote before white women. They became resentful because they could not abide the idea that black men might get the right to vote first. These spurned white women betrayed the abolitionist movement, and the black women who had been involved in the feminist movement were written off and consigned to oblivion.

“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
–Susan B. Anthony (Social reformer, member of the Anti-Slavery Society, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association)

The result of this split in the movement was black women becoming an invisible group whose needs, and frankly, existence, were ignored. “Black” meant black men and “women” meant white women. It became impossible for black women to build solidarity when they were marginalized and openly discriminated against by both black men and white women. White women deliberately separating themselves from the abolitionist movement directly led to black women being erased from the narrative.

In history, it is often stated that the suffragists “caved in” to racism in society, rather than presenting them as the active, political agents they in fact were. The suffragists were not victims, and in fact, their racism was extremely effective in mobilizing the women’s movement. When black men got the right to vote, white women who were never interested in voting were suddenly motivated. The white women who led the suffragist movement used racism and privilege as a central tenant. They used their positions as the daughters, wives, and sisters of powerful white men to gain some of the political capital of those men. They did not think or care about how that political power would affect poor women, disabled women, or women of color. They had a one-track mind – getting white women the right to vote.

“You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”
–Anna Howard Shaw (Physician, Methodist minister, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association)

When the Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870, it did not reference sex as a protected category. In response, some white women consigned themselves to being apolitical, but others remained enraged. Four years later, in 1874, the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded after some of these enraged women formed a “Women’s Crusade.” This crusade hosted a lecture from Dr. Dio Lewis, which empowered the women to take a stand against the dangers of alcohol. At the time, since it was looked down upon for women to be activists, the suffragists used prohibition as a springboard to protest for their civil rights. They believed if they could work to push prohibition through, it would send a powerful message that women activists were here to stay, and then they could work toward the right to vote. Taking advantage of the “family values” women were supposed to uphold, the WCTU’s platform was “protection of the home,” and they worked to obtain pledges of complete abstinence from alcohol, and later on, tobacco and other drugs. With this platform, the WCTU quickly became the largest women’s organization in the United States, and later, in the world. The organization had become a powerful force in the women’s suffrage movement.

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A little-known fact about the WCTU is that many of its members teamed up with the Ku Klux Klan to push prohibition forward. The members who did so viewed it as necessary to obtain the goal of earning white women the right to vote. Since membership to the KKK was limited only to men, the women formed the “Women of the KKK” (WKKK). The women of the WCTU who belonged to the WKKK, including Lulu Markwell, Lillian Sedwick, Elizabeth Tyler, and Daisy Douglas Barr, were responsible for electing Klan-friendly governors and advocated for racial segregation in order to obtain money from the KKK. In turn, the women donated to the Klan’s anti-alcohol activities to advance prohibition. The WCTU even supported the Klan in areas where it was unpopular to do so and despite their tactics of intimidation, violence, and illegal entrapment, because they were successful in effectively convicting bootleggers and moonshiners. This made the WCTU a willing accomplice to the KKK’s illegal activities. And it worked. Together, the WCTU and the KKK had a hand in the passage of prohibition.

“The white men, reinforced by the educated white women, could ‘snow under’ the Negro vote in every State, and the white race would maintain its supremacy without corrupting or intimidating the Negroes.”
–Laura Clay (Founder of Kentucky’s first suffrage group)

Many celebrated women’s suffragists used white supremacy to advance their cause to the detriment of women of color. Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, said, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” This was the mantra of feminists in the suffrage movement, because it appealed to the white men in power. These white feminists yelled at the top of their lungs that they should be given the right to vote, not black men, because they would help push the white supremacist agenda. They did everything they could to trample on people of color to advance their own civil rights, including promoting lynching. The first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, said, “If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts – then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”

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The suffragists put race at the center of their movement as a political strategy, and by doing so, they successfully stepped on the backs of women of color to boost themselves. As white women, we must stop buying into the narrative white supremacy has created about feminism and start recognizing and acknowledging actual, real history. Real history is always messier and grittier than what you learn in school. It’s important for us to take the initiative to learn about what really happened in the movements we base our ideologies on and ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. Sure, we can understand that suffragists lived in a different time and recognize the good work they did do. And we do, ad nauseam. But it’s even more important that we reframe the familiar narrative of American feminism created by the original white feminists and learn from their mistakes. As we shape our modern feminist movement, we must do so in a way that includes ALL the women white supremacy has erased from the narrative.

I’ve witnessed a lack of knowledge of the history of black feminism in the U.S. and an alarming extreme lack of awareness of the real history of feminism and the women’s suffrage movement from white feminists. White feminism has a history and a reason for existing; it is NOT just an insult to white women. The reality here is that feminism and white supremacy are inextricably intertwined; white supremacy was a central tenant to early feminism, and deep-rooted white feminism continues to perpetuate white supremacy today. This is why it’s SO important for all of us to engage in intersectional feminism and fight for racial justice. Let’s not buy into the narrative that has been created for us. Let’s start to create our own.


Source Articles:

KKK and WCTU: Partners in Prohibition, David Hanson

Black Women & the Suffrage Movement: 1848 – 1923

Trouble with White Feminism: Racial Origins of U.S. Feminism, Jessie Daniels

The Root: How Racism Tainted Women’s Suffrage, Monee Fields-White

Victoria Woodhull Biography

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