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. Some white women suffrage leaders were willing to use class, ethnic, and racial arguments to bolster the case for granting white women the vote. Belle Kearney, a white Mississippi suffragist who addressed the 1903 NAWSA convention, raised the specter of black male political power to argue for the enfranchisement of white women.
By degrees, slavery became the bone of contention in politics. In course of time it would probably have been abolished by the Southerners themselves, if they had been left to work out their own destiny and that of the black man in bonds, but a conflict of ideas gathered to a storm-center between the Puritan of the North and the Cavalier of the South, and the institution was wiped out in blood.
The world is scarcely beginning to realize the enormity of the situation that faces the South in its grapple with the race question which was thrust upon it at the close of the Civil War, when 4,500,000 ex-slaves, illiterate and semi-barbarous, were enfranchised. Such a situation has no parallel in history. In forging a path out of the darkness, there were no precedents to lead the way. All that has been and is being accomplished is pioneer statecraft. The South has struggled under its death-weight for nearly forty years, bravely and magnanimously.
The Southern States are making a desperate effort to maintain the political supremacy of Anglo-Saxonism by amendments to their constitutions limiting the right to vote by a property and educational qualification. If the United States government had been wise enough to enact such a law when the negro was first enfranchised, it would have saved years of bloodshed in the South, and such experiences of suffering and horror among the white people here as no other were ever subjected to in an enlightened nation.
The present suffrage laws in the different Southern States can be only temporary measures for protection. Those who are wise enough to look beneath the surface will be compelled to realize the fact that they act as a stimulus to the black man to acquire both education and property, but no incentive is given to the poor whites; for it is understood, in a general way, that any man whose skin is fair enough to let the blue veins show through, may be allowed the right of franchise.
The industrial education that the negro is receiving at Tuskegee and other schools is only fitting him for power, and when the black man becomes necessary to a community by reason of his skill and acquired wealth, and the poor white man, embittered by his poverty and humiliated by his inferiority, finds no place for himself or his children, then will come the grapple between the races.
To avoid this unspeakable culmination, the enfranchisement of women will have to be effected, and an educational and property qualification for the ballot be made to apply, without discrimination, to both sexes and to both races. It will spur the poor white to keep up with the march of progression, and enable him to hold his own. The class that is not willing to measure its strength with that of an inferior is not fit to survive.
The enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained; for, upon unquestionable authority, it is stated that “in every Southern State but one, there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign, combined.” As you probably know, of all the women in the South who can read and write, ten out of every eleven are white. When it comes to the proportion of property between the races, that of the white outweighs that of the black immeasurably. The South is slow to grasp the great fact that the enfranchisement of women would settle the race question in politics.
The civilization of the North is threatened by the influx of foreigners with their imported customs; by the greed of monopolistic wealth, and the unrest among the working classes; by the strength of the liquor traffic, and by encroachments upon religious belief.
Some day the North will be compelled to look to the South for redemption from these evils, on account of the purity of its Anglo-Saxon blood, the simplicity of its social and economic structure, the great advance in prohibitory law, and the maintenance of the sanctity of its faith, which has been kept inviolate. Just as surely as the North will be forced to turn to the South for the nation’s salvation, just so surely will the South be compelled to look to its Anglo-Saxon women as the medium through which to retain the supremacy of the white race over the African. . . .
Anglo-Saxonism is the standard of the ages to come. It is, above all else, the granite foundation of the South. Upon that its civilization will mount; upon that it will stand unshaken. . . .
Thank God the black man was freed! I wish for him all possible happiness and all possible progress, but not in encroachments upon the holy of holies of the Anglo-Saxon race. . . .
Source: Belle Kearney, “The South and Woman Suffrage,” Woman’s Journal, 4 April 1903. Reprinted in Aileen S. Kraditor, ed. Up From the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), 262–265.
See Also:Strength in Numbers: Kelley on Women, Labor, and the Power of the Ballot
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Class Versus Gender: Catt Taps Middle-Class and Nativist Fears to Boost Women's Causes
More Logic, Less Feeling: Senator Vest Nixes Woman Suffrage