In the long battle for women's suffrage, and the passage of the 19th Amendment, some leading activists prioritized white women’s suffrage over voting rights for all women.

Two of the most prominent women's suffragists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were at one time part of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), a group they formed with Frederick Douglass and other activists in 1866. The organization’s goal was to win voting rights “for both women and African Americans,” says Lisa Tetrault, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

“There’s tension from the very beginning over the priority of those two demands,” she says. “Black women fall out of this equation.”

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1898. (Credit: The Library of Congress)
The Library of Congress
Suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, circa 1898.

During the AERA’s founding convention, Black suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper addressed how this framing was unhelpful for her and other Black women. “[Harriet Tubman], whose courage and bravery won a recognition from our army and from every Black man in the land, is excluded from every thoroughfare of travel,” Harper said. “Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on.”

After only three years, the AERA dissolved over heated fights about whether to support the 15th Amendment, with which Black men won the right to vote. (In the South, this victory would be short-lived.) At a pivotal convention in May 1869, Douglass argued that the AERA should support the amendment while continuing to fight for women’s suffrage. Stanton not only disagreed, she gave an address filed with racist stereotypes about the male immigrants and formerly enslaved men whom the amendment would enfranchise.

“Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for…Susan B. Anthony,” she said at the convention. “[The amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”

Both Douglass and Stanton had previously attended the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights in 1848. According to Tetrault, “what’s particularly painful was that Douglass had been the one at Seneca Falls who stood up and defended women’s right to vote. And then when it comes to the 15th Amendment, Stanton refuses to reciprocate.”

The disagreements at that convention led not only to the dissolution of AERA, but a split in the women’s suffrage movement between those who supported the 15th Amendment and those who did not. Stanton and Anthony joined the faction that did not; and after the amendment passed, many of the suffragists on that side pandered to white southerners by arguing that that if white women could vote, they could drown out the Black male vote.

Anthony also sought to distance her work from Douglass, who continued to support women’s suffrage for the rest of his life. During an 1890s suffrage meeting in Atlanta, she asked him not to appear onstage with white women because it would seem inappropriate. However, these racist strategies ultimately proved ineffective because southern white men were already preventing Black men from voting with discriminatory poll taxes, tests and lynching.

Both Anthony and Stanton died more than a decade before the 19th Amendment passed. And although their work was instrumental in making that passage possible, they did not work to prioritize making voting rights accessible to all women. In 1920, Black women in the south and many Latinas in the southwest were still barred from voting because of racist voting restrictions. And when they tried to reach out to the main suffrage organizations at the time, they were ignored.

“They say basically, ‘Help us, we still can’t vote,’” Tetrault explains. “And those organizations basically say, ‘That’s a race question, it doesn’t concern us.’”