The struggle for woman suffrage lasted almost a century, beginning with the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, and including the 1890 union of two competing suffrage organizations to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA and other organizations campaigned diligently for the vote in a variety of ways, but did not achieve success until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. This prolonged struggle entangled female activists in other important political and moral issues that divided the nation along racial, ethnic, and class lines, and debates over the vote for women often took a divisive tone. In this 1891 speech to the National Council of Women, African-American abolitionist, lecturer, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper answered the racist charges of white suffragists who saw the vote for (white) women as a way to maintain white supremacy. The vote for African-Americans, both men and women, Harper argued, was a matter of “justice, simple justice.”
I deem it a privilege to present the negro, not as a mere dependent asking for Northern sympathy or Southern compassion, but as a member of the body politic who has a claim upon the nation for justice, simple justice, which is the right of every race, upon the government for protection, which is the rightful claim of every citizen, and upon our common Christianity for the best influences which can be exerted for peace on earth and good-will to man.
Our first claim upon the nation and government is the claim for protection to human life. That claim should lie at the basis of our civilization, not simply in theory but in fact. Outside of America, I know of no other civilized country, Catholic, Protestant, or even Mahometan, where men are still lynched, murdered, and even burned for real or supposed crimes. . . . A government which has power to tax a man in peace, and draft him in war, should have power to defend his life in the hour of peril. A government which can protect and defend its citizens from wrong and outrage and does not is vicious. A government which would do it and cannot is weak; and where human life is insecure through either weakness or viciousness in the administration of law, there must be a lack of justice, and where this is wanting nothing can make up the deficiency.
The strongest nation on earth cannot afford to deal unjustly towards its weakest and feeblest members. . . . I claim for the negro protection in every right with which the government has invested him. Whether it was wise or unwise, the government has exchanged the fetters on his wrist for the ballot in his right hand, and men cannot vitiate his vote by fraud, or intimidate the voter by violence, without being untrue to the genius and spirit of our government, and bringing demoralization into their own political life and ranks. Am I here met with the objection that the negro is poor and ignorant, and the greatest amount of land, capital, and intelligence is possessed by the white race, and that in a number of States negro suffrage means negro supremacy? . . .
It is said the negro is ignorant. But why is he ignorant? It comes with ill grace from a man who has put out my eyes to make a parade of my blindness,—to reproach me for my poverty when he has wronged me of my money. If the negro is ignorant, he has lived under the shadow of an institution which, at least in part of the country, made it a crime to teach him to read the name of the ever-blessed Christ. If he is poor, what has become of the money he has been earning for the last two hundred and fifty years? Years ago it was said cotton fights and cotton conquers for American slavery. The negro helped build up that great cotton power in the South, and in the North his sigh was in the whir of its machinery, and his blood and tears upon the warp and woof of its manufactures.
But there are some rights more precious than the rights of property or the claims of superior intelligence: they are the rights of life and liberty, and to these the poorest and humblest man has just as much right as the richest and most influential man in the country. Ignorance and poverty are conditions which men outgrow. Since the sealed volume was opened by the crimson hand of war, in spite of entailed ignorance, poverty, opposition, and a heritage of scorn, schools have sprung like wells in the desert dust. It has been estimated that about two millions have learned to read. Colored men and women have gone into journalism. Some of the first magazines in the country have received contributions from them. Learned professions have given them diplomas. Universities have granted them professorships. Colored women have combined to shelter orphaned children. Tens of thousands have been contributed by colored persons for the care of the aged and infirm. . . . Millions of dollars have flowed into the pockets of the race, and freed people have not only been able to provide for themselves, but reach out their hands to impoverished owners.
Instead of taking the ballot from his hands, teach him how to use it, and to add his quota to the progress, strength, and durability of the nation. . . .
Underlying this racial question, if I understand it aright, is one controlling idea, not simply that the negro is ignorant; that he is outgrowing; not that he is incapable of valor in war or adaptation in peace. On fields all drenched with blood he made his record in war, abstained from lawless violence when left on the plantation, and received his freedom in peace with moderation. But he holds in this Republic the position of an alien race among a people impatient of a rival. And in the eyes of some it seems that no valor redeems him, no social advancement nor individual development wipes off the ban which clings to him. It is the pride of Caste which opposed the spirit of Christ, and the great work to which American Christianity is called is a work of Christly reconciliation. . . .
Source: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, speech, in Rachel F. Avery, ed., Transactions of the National Council of Women of the United States, assembled in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 22–25, 1891 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1891), 86–91. Reprinted in Gerda Lerner, The Female Experience: An American Documentary (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1977), 355–357.
See Also:Strength in Numbers: Kelley on Women, Labor, and the Power of the Ballot
"The Solitude of Self": Stanton Appeals for Women's Rights
"Durable White Supremacy": Belle Kearney Puts Black Men in Their Place
Class Versus Gender: Catt Taps Middle-Class and Nativist Fears to Boost Women's Causes
More Logic, Less Feeling: Senator Vest Nixes Woman Suffrage