An ex-slave, renowned abolitionist, advocate for women’s rights, orator, and newspaper editor, Frederick Douglass began his work of liberation trying to free Blacks from slavery and economic exploitation. Given his broad commitment to equality, it is not at all surprising that he became a supporter of the women’s movement of the nineteenth century. Although other Black men, like Alexander Crummell and Martin Delany, supported Black women’s liberation, Douglass’s support was the most significant.1
While it is certainly true that Elizabeth Cady Stanton influenced Douglass’s views on women’s equality,2 it would be inaccurate to suggest that Douglass was sensitized to the oppressive plight of women by White feminists. Having personally witnessed numerous brutal attacks against Black women, Douglass developed a sensitivity to and awareness of their plight long before his conversations with White feminists like Stanton. Nor was Douglass’s position on women’s liberation always consistent with that of Stanton’s; Douglass embraced a broader vision of women’s equality than many of the early white feminists, including Stanton, a vision of equality that included the rights of Black women. Moreover, Douglass became quite critical of Stanton’s and other White feminists’ insistence that White women, by virtue of their education and cultural development, were more deserving of the vote than the uneducated, recently "emancipated" Blacks.
As I have said, Douglass became sensitized to women’s issues via his exposure to Black women’s subordinating experiences. And these experiences often informed Douglass’s political engagements. In numerous speeches he "vivified the horrid inhumanity of slavery by detailing the physical, moral, and sexual abuse of slave women, primarily at the hands of White men. He spoke rhetorically of ‘America’s soil reddened by the stain from woman’s shrinking flesh.’"3 No other abolitionist more dramatically portrayed the inhumanity perpetrated against Black women. And White feminists of the day did not employ Black women’s experiences as women under slavery as a basis for their feminism. Looking back on his life, Douglass commented that his escape from slavery was for himself; his advocacy for emancipation was for his people; "but when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act."4
In an 1854 proposal for a Black industrial school, Douglass stressed the need to include Black women, "who he argued particularly needed the training in the ‘methods and means of enjoying an independent and honorable livelihood.’"5 When he considered changing the name of his newspaper in 1853, a suggestion was made to call the newspaper The Brotherhood. Douglass rejected this title "because it ‘implied the exclusion of the sisterhood.’"6 Although Douglass believed that the movement to enfranchise Blacks was contributing in significant ways to the uplift of women, he understood well their need to have a separate, organized movement to work toward the attainment of their rights.
Douglass was the only man to play a prominent role at the first national convention of women’s rights at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. He also played a prominent role in the National Convention of Colored Freedmen in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1848, where he officially introduced the issue of women’s rights into the Black Liberation movement. That same year, Douglass helped to organize a Black civil rights convention, and Black and White women were encouraged to attend and participate in the proceedings.7
When the American Equal Rights Association (ERA) was formed in 1866, Douglass was chosen as one of the three vice presidents. Although the organization was ridiculed severely by the press, and Douglass was later branded and mocked as a "women’s rights man,"8 he continued to be supportive of their efforts. Douglass’s participation was not without some conflict, however. It was at the November 1866 meeting of the ERA that Douglass had his first serious disagreement with White feminist leaders. Some of them, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were growing increasingly concerned about White women’s rights, and less about the rights of Blacks. These women threatened to withdraw their support of Black enfranchisement if women’s right to vote was not included in the Reconstruction package.
Although Susan B. Anthony was known to become outraged whenever her Black friends were subjected to racist treatment, she found it expedient to be publicly indifferent to such racism in order to attract southern White women to the women’s movement. Ida B. Wells, founder of the first Black women’s suffrage club, criticized Anthony (her friend) precisely for her failure to make her personal dissatisfaction with racism a public issue of the women’s rights movement. Anthony, Stanton, and other White feminists of the period capitulated to racism "on grounds of expediency," at a time when Blacks were terrorized on a massive scale through lynching and sexual abuse.
White women’s political expediency in context of racial violence against Blacks caused Douglass to conclude that while White women desired the vote, for Blacks the vote was a matter of life and death. Blacks, he contended, needed the vote in order to complete the emancipation process. As long as they were denied the vote, they would be subjected to lynching, rape, and economic exploitation. Although he continued to support the women’s movement, he came to believe that circumstances necessitated a shift in emphasis. It was this belief which led to his letter of September 27, 1868, to Josephine Sophie White Griffing:
I am now devoting myself to a cause not more sacred, certainly more urgent, because it is life and death to the long-enslaved people of this country; and this is: Negro suffrage. While the Negro is mobbed, beaten, shot, stabbed, hanged, burnt, and is the target of all that is malignant in the North and all that is murderous in the South his claims may be preferred by me without exposing in any wise myself to the imputation of narrowness or meanness towards the cause of woman. As you well know, woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation.
She is the victim of abuses, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended I think that the cause is as urgent as that of ours. I never suspected you of sympathizing with Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton in this course. Their principal is: that no Negro shall be enfranchised while woman is not. Now, considering that white men have been enfranchised always, and colored men have not, the conduct of these white women, whose husbands, fathers and brothers are voters, does not seem generous.9
The final break between Douglass and White feminists occurred during the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the vote to Black men but not to women. At the May 1869 meeting of the ERA, Douglass found himself passionately stressing the special conditions confronting Blacks:
When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot.10
When someone in the audience interrupted and asked whether this was not the case of Black women, Douglass responded: "Yes, yes,
yes, it is true of the black woman, but not because she is a woman but because she is black.’"11 Although impressed with his commitment and advocacy, the majority of the feminists present were not so moved as to support him. Near the end of the meeting, they dissolved the ERA and formed an organization totally devoted to women’s suffrage, the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Notwithstanding the formation of this organization, Douglass continued to support women’s rights, and to criticize male-dominated political decision making ostensibly on behalf of women: "We legislate for woman, and protect her, precisely as we legislate for and protect animals, asking the consent of neither."12 Perhaps not surprisingly, then, upon the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, Douglass continued to work for another constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.13