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Suffrage and the Fifteenth Amendment

An opinion article written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in opposition to the 15th Amendment.

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Summary

We object to the proposed amendment of the Constitution of the United States securing “Manhood Suffrage,” for several reasons. We are against the constitutional amendment that gives all men the right to vote for several reasons.
There is only one safe, sure way to build a government, and that is on the equality of all its citizens, male and female, black and white. The government should treat all citizens the same.
2d, We object to a “man’s government,” because the male element, already too much in the ascendant, is a destructive force; stern, selfish, aggrandizing; loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition; breeding discord, disorder, disease and death. Men in government have done a lot of damage already.
If the civilization of the age calls for an extension of the suffrage, a government of the most virtuous, educated men and women would better represent the whole humanitarian idea, and more perfectly protect the interests of all, than could a representation of either sex alone. But to ignore the influence of woman in the legislation of the country, and blindly insist upon the recognition of every type of brutalized, degraded manhood, must prove suicidal to any government on the footstool, hence we protest against the extension of suffrage to another man, until enough women are first admitted to the polls to outweigh the dangerous excess of the male element already there. If more Americans get the right to vote, the vote should go to educated women. It is unfair that all men, even those who are uneducated, will be allowed to vote.
So long as there is a disfranchised class, and that class the women of the nation, “a man’s government” is worse than “a white man’s government,” because in proportion as you multiply the tyrants, you make the condition of the subjects more hopeless and degraded. Giving all men the right to vote would make it even more unfair for women than it is now because there would be even more eligible voters while women still have no power.
Just so if woman finds it hard to bear the oppressive laws of a few Saxon Fathers, of the best orders of manhood, what may she not be called to endure when all the lower orders, natives and foreigners, Dutch, Irish, Chinese and African, legislate for her and her daughters? If women already are oppressed by the “best” men, what will the “lower” men do to them with their voting power?
4th, We object to the proposed amendment because the history of American Statesmanship, for the last century, does not inspire us with confidence in man’s capacity to govern a nation with equity, and we came to this conclusion from what wise men themselves say of our rulers, and of the condition in which the country is today. History has shown that men cannot rule a country fairly.
5th, We object to “manhood suffrage,” because it is opposed to all the recent revelations of science. All late writers on the science of government recognize in woman the great humanizing element of the new era we are now entering, in which moral power is to govern brute force. It is only through the infusion of the mother soul into our legislation, that life will be held sacred, the interests of the many guarded, capital reconciled to labor, the criminal treated like a moral patient, education made practical and attractive, and labor profitable and honorable to all. Scientists say that women’s morality is an important power in this new era. Giving women the vote is the only way to pass fair and moral laws.
6th, We object to the proposed amendment, because it raises a more deadly opposition to the negro than any he has yet encountered. It creates an antagonism between him and woman, the very element most needed to be propitiated in his behalf. Suffrage for all could easily be carried in every state; but when you propose to lift the negro above the woman, and make him her Ruler, Legislator, Judge and Juror, if even northern women rebel, what can you expect at the south? It will be more dangerous for Black men if they can vote and women cannot because women will resent them and they might face more violence, especially in the South.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Manhood Suffrage,” The Revolution, December 24, 1868. Lewis & Clark Special Collections and Archives.

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Background

Before the Civil War, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were two of the most influential women’s suffrage activists in the nation. The fight for voting and women’s rights slowed during the Civil War because Americans in the North and South were focused on the war effort. However, as the war ended and slavery was abolished, many women like Stanton and Anthony wondered how they fit into conversations about healing the nation and creating opportunities for newly free people. 

The 15th amendment, first proposed in 1868, promised voting rights to all men, regardless of race or previous enslavement. While both Stanton and Anthony had been abolitionists, they were opposed to the 15th amendment because it did not include voting rights for women. They spoke openly and publicly about their opposition, often using racist, nativist, and classist language. Stanton and Anthony were not just upset that they were excluded from the amendment, they were bothered that people who they saw as inferior had the right to vote. Their public statements revealed their distrust of anyone that was not white, native-born, and middle class. It was clear that their definition of women’s equality only extended to women like them. 

The debate over the 15th Amendment led to a split between the two women and their colleague Frederick Douglass. Douglass was an early supporter of women’s suffrage. However, he was so disgusted by the women’s responses to the 15th amendment that he spoke out against Stanton at the May 1869 convention of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), saying: “I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to the woman as to the negro. . . . With us, the matter is a question of life and death.” Stanton and Anthony left the AERA shortly after the convention and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). While the NWSA did not prohibit Black women from joining at the national level, local organizations could reject their participation.

About the Resources

The Revolution was a weekly paper edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and published between 1868 and 1870. The paper promoted women’s suffrage. In this article, Elizabeth Cady Stanton argues that the proposed amendment is unfair. All men, including those recently freed from slavery and immigrants, would receive voting rights. Yet educated white women would not have the right to vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton expresses a racist, xenophobic, and classist view of who should have voting rights. Although Elizabeth Cady Stanton had advocated for abolishing slavery, this article reveals that she did not truly believe Black Americans should be treated as equal to white native-born Americans. At the time, this was a problematic but not uncommon belief among white suffragists.

Vocabulary

  • abolitionist: A person who wanted to end the practice of slavery.
  • aggrandizing: Increasing the power or status of something or someone. 
  • antagonism: Strong dislike between people.
  • ascendant: Something that is rising.
  • disfranchised: Without voting power.
  • humanitarian: Concerned with helping people.
  • infusion: To introduce a new element into something.
  • nativists: People who believe native-born citizens should be favored over immigrants.
  • ratification: The process by which an amendment to the federal Constitution is approved or rejected by states.
  • revelations: Discoveries.
  • Saxon: Anglo-Saxon, meaning people of northwest European descent.
  • suffrage: The right to vote; in this era, suffrage often referred specifically to the right of women to vote.
  • tyrants: Rulers who treat people cruelly.

Discussion Questions

  • What arguments against the 15th Amendment does Elizabeth Cady Stanton provide in the article? Why did she make these arguments?
  • What does this article say about the changing relationship between white female abolitionists and Black abolitionists? 
  • Where do Black women fit into this story? What does it say about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the white women’s suffrage movement that she did not mention them in her article?
  • Why is it important to include this debate over the 15th Amendment in the study of the suffrage movement, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony? How might this article change people’s perspectives on their leadership?
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Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; POWER AND POLITICS

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