"…the white women all go for sex": Discourses of Gender, Race, Ethnicity in the American Woman's Rights Movement, 1869

Michaela Bank

1 Introduction

Mathilde Franziska Anneke came to the United States in 1849 as one of the many German political refugees known as the "Fortyeighters." Soon after her arrival she became a speaker at women's rights conventions and eagerly promoted the principle of gender equality. Among the crowds of migrants from Europe who came to the United States in the nineteenth century were more women who – like Anneke – formed alliances with the Anglo-American Woman's Rights Movement1. Despite many differences with regard to nationality, religious belief, family situation, education, etc., these women were united by a strong mutual belief in women's rights as human rights and in gender equality, which led them to support the fight for women's rights in America. In that sense migrant women's rights activists differed from their Anglo-American partners in the movement, who argued rather on the basis of citizen's rights and claimed rights of political participation for women on that ground.

The migrants' narratives were told along the threads of expectations for a society in which individual freedom and democratic, egalitarian principles would be realized. For example, Mathilde Franziska Anneke expressed her expectations and the disappointment of these in a speech delivered at the National Woman's Rights Convention in New York City in 1853: "Before I came here, I knew the tyranny and oppression of kings [...] and when I came here I expected to find that freedom which is denied us at home. [...] Here, at least, we ought to be able to express our opinions on all subjects; and yet, it would appear, there is no freedom even here to claim human rights" (qtd. in Stanton, Anthony, Gage 1: 572). While these sentiments and Anneke's disappointments were directed towards the general American public, they also imply that the Woman's Rights Movement and their conventions in particular, might have served as a "counter public sphere" (cf. Fraser 69-98) contesting the lack of freedom in the dominant public for migrant women, like Anneke, and other Anglo-American women.

Understood as a "counter public sphere," the Woman's Rights Movement provided (1) migrant women with a public in which individual freedom and democratic principles were realized, (2) women in general with a sympathetic female public as opposed to the otherwise male-dominated one, and (3) a public that transcended dominant discourses such as the separation of genders and prevailing racism and nativism. Thus, the movement could have gained potential for emancipation, which derived, as Fraser shows, from the dialectic relation between the two characters of counter public spheres. On the one hand, they served on an individual level as alternative spaces of retreat and positive group formation, while on the other hand they functioned as spaces for exercising political agitation that could be applied in the dominant public sphere. "Counter Public Spheres", therefore, contribute to the balancing of dominant public processes of participation, of representation and visibility of discourses due to their communicative, dialectic character (cf. Fraser 84).

To which degree did the Woman's Rights Movement indeed represent this "counter public sphere" in the sense of transgressing established gendered, racialized and social hierarchies – and in the sense of being a sympathetic environment for American and foreign women? What sense of "universalism" and participatory structures did this Woman's Rights Movement establish in its creation of the movement's collective subject "woman"? By looking at what and whom this collective subject subsumed and hid one can arrive at answers to the question how the movement succeeded in its attempt to transgress prevailing stereotypes and hierarchical orders – stereotypes of gender, race, ethnicity and class. This paper, therefore, presents an analysis of the collective subject "woman" in the debates of the Eleventh National Woman's Rights Convention in 1896 in New York.

2 Historical Context of the Eleventh National Woman's Rights Convention

Susan B. Anthony claimed in 1866 that with the act of emancipation women and "the negro" had come to hold the same civil and political status: both were now citizens of the United States; yet neither had the right to vote. This observation led to an alliance at the outset of Reconstruction between former abolitionists who fought for the principle of racial equality and women's rights advocates who fought for the principle of gender equality. In 1866 they founded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) and declared with great pathos the necessity of this new organization:

Seeing with a holier vision that the peace, prosperity, and perpetuity of the Republic rest on EQUAL RIGHTS TO ALL, we, to-day, assembled in our Eleventh National Woman's Rights Convention, bury the woman in the citizen, and our organization in that of the American Equal Rights Association. [...] The object of this Association shall be to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex (qtd. in Stanton, Anthony, Gage 2: 173).

When, in 1869, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment2 was pending in Congress, the organization could no longer uphold its original principle of universal suffrage, and the particular interests of racial equality and gender equality resurfaced. The Fifteenth Amendment, as it was presented and ultimately ratified, introduced "manhood suffrage" and outlawed racial discrimination with regard to the vote. Thus, in the eyes of the radical women's rights activists, it also represented a direct rejection of "woman suffrage," and reaffirmed female subordination.

In the following, I will present an analysis of the various and differing discourses of race, ethnicity and gender that were inherent in the debates over whether or not AERA should support the ratification of the amendment. Different AERA members and speakers on the platform of the annual convention in May 1869 represented different standpoints and at this strategic political intersection argued for such antagonistic principles as "manhood suffrage," "universal suffrage," "woman suffrage," and "educated suffrage." These individual principles masked particular conceptions of race, ethnicity and gender. Disclosing these conceptions as they were brought forth by this convention provides an answer to the broader question of how – and if – the Woman's Rights Movement succeeded in transgressing prevalent discriminatory discourses by proposing alternative discourses.

3 The Paradigm of Sexual Differences

"Woman" was the established collective subject of the Woman's Rights Movement in the nineteenth century. In order to maintain such collective identity based on gender, the advocates of women's rights had to continue to argue for the particularity of woman, for the natural difference of the female from the male. It appeared as universally accepted knowledge among the women's rights reformers that the two genders differed on grounds of biological differences, i.e. sex. This knowledge achieved the status of a dominant discourse when arguing for women's political rights. Particularly in the debate about "manhood suffrage" the women involved in the Woman's Rights Movement pointed towards a negative and unwise male nature which needed to be balanced by a positive and wise female nature.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in this fashion in her opening speech of the convention:

I urge the Sixteenth Amendment, because 'manhood suffrage' or a man's government, is civil, religious and social disorganization. The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease and death." On the contrary, the female element was characterized by "all the diviner elements of human nature, [and by] the great humanizing element. [...] It is only through the infusion of the mother soul into our legislation, that life will be held sacred. (Stanton193)

While Stanton used this common knowledge to elevate the political standing of women, the paradigm of sexual difference also strengthened the predo­minant gender order which prescribed to men and women separate roles in separate spheres, the women's sphere being anything but the public and political sphere in this model.

4 Categorizations and Hierarchies

Assumptions about the nature of the sexes and gender were inevitably intertwined with notions about ethnicity, race, class, and intellect. The various arguments for women's rights and against the Fifteenth Amendment contained multiple interrelations of gender with other exclusive categories and, as a result, constructed a hierarchical order of subjects and identities. In this hierarchy gender was no longer the sole determinant for the movement's collective subject. The categories "woman" and "man" masked complex and exclusive identities.

4.1 "Race"

The most obvious interrelation is that of gender with the category of "race" in this debate. For the former abolitionists and African-Americans among the speakers, the Fifteenth Amendment was, after all, not about gender, but about "race." In their view, it ended racial discrimination because it would enfranchise African-American men without restriction. Among these speakers was Frances Harper. She made clear in her statement that the question of whether to support the enfranchisement of the African-American man or not was a question of perspective:

When it was a question of race, [I] let the lesser question of sex go. But the white women all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position (Proceedings 391).

For her, it seemed to be as simple as that: White women clearly gave precedence to the abolition of gender discrimination, whereas African-Americans, both male and female, gave precedence to the abolition of racial discrimination. It seems as if "universal suffrage" as the initial principle of AERA was adapted and modified by individuals, like Harper in this instance, according to their individual standpoint and their solidarities with a peer group.

Paulina Wright Davis, who opposed the amendment, set an example for the racist interrelation of gender and race. She argued against the enfranchisement of the African-American man, claiming it would put the African-American woman in worse condition than the one she had to endure in slavery:

The colored women of the South say they do not want to get married to the negro, as their husbands can take their children away from them, and also appropriate their earnings. [...] The black women are more intelligent than the men, because they have learned something from their mistresses. (Proceedings 391)

Not only did Davis portray the African-American man as tyrannical, brutal and inferior to the African-American woman, but also drew parallels between the oppression in slavery and the degradation of women in general. In slavery the African-American woman was equal to the African-American man, Davis claimed, whereas the Fifteenth Amendment would degrade her status again. Although elevating the African-American woman in relation to the African-American man on grounds of the superiority of the femininity, Davis, along the poles of racial differences and dominant hierarchies, subordinated her as well. In claiming that the superiority of the African-American woman derived from learning from her mistresses only, she established the racial inferiority of the "black" woman in relation to the "white" woman.

4.2 Ethnicity

Ethnicity was another exclusive category evoked in the debate which was related to gender. To demonstrate this, I want to come back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton's speech. She demanded that the pending Fifteenth Amendment be accompanied by the ratification of a Sixteenth Amendment guaranteeing women equal political rights. With reference to the destructive and corrupt male forces in government, as mentioned previously, she claimed:

Will the foreign element, the dregs of China, Germany, England, Ireland and Africa, supply this needed force [i.e. new virtue], or the nobler types of American womanhood who have taught our president, senators and congressmen the rudiments of all they know? [...] Hence, the highest feelings of patriotism, justice to woman, and love for the race, impel us to protest against this wholesale enfranchisement of all types and shades of men, until women are admitted to the polls to outweigh the dangerous excess of the male element. [...] If American women find it hard to bear the oppressions of their own3 Saxon Fathers, the best orders of manhood, what may she not be called to endure when all the lower orders of foreigners now crowding our shores legislate for her and her daughters. 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 Lucretia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, Susan B. Anthony or Anna E. Dickinson. Think of jurors and jailors drawn from these ranks to watch and try young girls for the crime of infanticide, to decide the moral code by which the mothers of this republic shall be governed? (Stanton 195-196).

In this passage an ethnic superiority of the "American" people and the "American" women in particular is strongly expressed. "American womanhood" explicitly subsumed those women, the "mothers of this republic," who educated "our president, senators and congressmen," who were, as Stanton expressed, "the daughters of Adams, Jefferson and Patrick Henry, in whose veins flows the blood of two revolutions" (Stanton 290). She claimed a distinct genealogy of the American women from those men who were universally regarded as the founders of the United States. The "American nation" was imagined as exactly those people who shared an Anglo-Saxon heritage, with the "few Saxon fathers" as the "best orders of manhood."

This nativism or assumed superiority of the "American race" explicitly discriminated against "all the lower orders of foreigners now crowding our shores" and included people of all nationalities, from China, Germany, England, Ireland and Africa, which she labeled "dregs" - the least valuable of all. Stanton's evaluation of the non-American, non-Saxon foreigners also implied cultural and educational deficits that disqualified them as political subjects in the American republic. They had not - possibly due to language barriers or different experiences of politicization - read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling book, two symbols for American democracy, freedom and a peculiar tradition of language, and they were not able to distinguish between a monarchy and a republic in Stanton's eyes. She also mentioned differences in moral judgment, in moral integrity between inferior foreigners and members of the superior "American race." Ethnicity, therefore, not only described a certain national and cultural heritage but was itself intertwined with notions about educational level and moral integrity. Foreigners were generally considered inferior and particularly dangerous to democratic principles and freedom, symbolized by the Declaration of Independence in Stanton's speech, and to the moral values and virtues of American culture.

Ann D. Gordon argues in her critical essay on "Stanton and the Right to Vote" that Stanton never dismissed the principle of "universal suffrage" based on the rights of citizens as they were guaranteed in the US Constitution. Gordon reads Stanton's nativist, racist and elitist favoring of restricted suffrage as a "way to open the door and break down the male monopoly on voting" (Gordon 118). She seeks to counter balance the image of Stanton as a "manipulator of racist stereotypes and propagandist for social hierarchies" (113) by pointing out that over the course of her career Stanton was led by the ideal of equal citizenship irrespective of race or gender. Only because the full package of "universal suffrage" could not be obtained at once, Stanton strategically drifted from this principle into the anti-emancipatory rhetoric of racism, nativism and elitism based on education. While Gordon's argument is convincing, it neglects the actual effect this rhetoric had on Stanton's contemporaries. They understood her rude rhetoric not as mere political strategy, but as a direct insult against, for example, Germans in America. The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, a conservative German-American newspaper, responded to Stanton's address with an article titled "Nativismus unter den Frauenrechts-Frauen" that criticized the offensive polemic and concluded: "Wenn von gleichen Rechten aller menschenähnlichen Geschöpfe die Rede ist, so versteht sich immer von selbst, daß Hans und Grete, daß die Lagerbiertrinker und Bretzelesser nicht mit dazu gehören" (Nativismus unter den Frauenrechts-Frauen 6).

Instead of being a political intervention, Stanton's abusive language was understood by the groups she degraded as nativist and racist. Justifiably, it produced resentments among the migrant population against the Woman's Rights Movement and at the same time perpetuated dominant discourses of racial and ethnic identities. Therefore, it has to be understood as propaganda for social hierarchies, which appeared in many speeches and served the purpose of elevating "American womanhood." They enforced the image of a morally and intellectually inferior mass that would, if women were not enfranchised, overrule the American society because it would even outnumber the "few Saxon fathers" who had political power. The question of woman suffrage, therefore, was no longer oriented along the poles of a binary gender order, but along the poles of ethnicity, race, education, also religious belief and class. When Stanton and her league of women's rights advocates demanded "universal suffrage" and "woman's rights" they had in mind a certain woman and a certain man for whom they demanded these rights. "Woman" in this sense was white, American, well-educated, and virtuous.

5 Ethnic Women and Human Rights

A distinct and peculiar position with regard to the universality of citizens' rights was represented by two European women who were speakers and journalists in the American Woman's Rights Movement at that time. The position of these women was unusual in the debate, because their arguments appeared to be detached from institutionalized political interests – the vote – and generally grounded on the ideas of enlightenment, of democracy, and the conviction of the universality of humanity and egalitarian human rights.

After several American agitators had spoken Mathilde Franziska Anneke, spoke about the "holy conviction of our inalienable human rights." Her argument for the enfranchisement of women and men – for "universal suffrage" – was grounded in the universality of human rights and based on firm belief in reason.  Therefore, she did not articulate personal sentiments of injustice or justice, of precedence of one group over another, as her American colleagues had done before. She appealed to the authority of reason as the idea of the republic and to the realization of the republican idea, which called all people to the ballot box in order to secure a balanced representation of interests, including male and female interests. Anneke highlighted her German heritage in the speech, not only by giving the largest part of it in German and by addressing explicitly the Germans among the audience, but also by referring to "German ways of thinking [...]; the light which flows from thinking brains [in Germany]" and by linking the German language to the language of "the earnest and free philosophy of German thinkers and workers" (Proceedings 393). She distinguished herself from the American positions by situating herself in a tradition of German philosophy considered superior to the American tradition of thought. Situating herself in that fashion appeared to counter-balance nativist arguments, which had been strongly brought forth by Stanton for example.

Jenny d'Héricourt, a French philosopher of women's rights, spoke after Anneke on the platform. Her argument for the enfranchisement of women also rested on the conviction of the equality of all human beings. She expressed that humanity alone was the basis for rights, not ability, functions, or qualities. She demanded:

Woman must have equal rights with man, because she is, like him, a human being; and only in establishing, through anatomical or biological proof, that she did not belong to the human race, can her rights be withheld. (Proceedings 394)

This established, she, like Anneke, stressed the necessity to realize the republican idea and to maintain it by granting all humans political powers. Overall, her rhetoric reflected her standpoint as an outsider in the American republic, and her speech must have sounded like an intervention by a distanced consciousness. She explicitly addressed the American men and appealed to their understanding.

Gentlemen, will you be just, will you preserve the republic, will you stop the moral ruin of your country; will you be worthy, virtuous, and courageous for the welfare of your nation, and, in spite of all obstacles, enfranchise your mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters? Take care that you be not too late! (Proceedings 395)

These obvious differences between "American" and "foreign" women in their arguments might appear simplified, and they are not meant to generalize about entire groups of "The Americans" and "The Foreigners." Moreover, this evidence prompts the impulse to inquire why these differences were so visible. Both migrant women's first contact with politics occurred in Germany and France, respectively, in circles which promoted radically democratic politics and precisely upheld the principle of the universality of human rights. Possibly, these differences in political and intellectual heritage are a plausible explanation. In addition, these migrant women had made individual experiences their "American" colleagues could not have shared, i.e. the experience of migration. This experience of coming from a country in which one was among the ruling class to another in which one was suddenly an outsider and a member of an ethnic minority might have instilled them with a different sense of justice and equality than the Americans as members of the dominating class. These diverse viewpoints which I have shown could have been based on different experiences of belonging and of being marginalized due to their migration experiences.

6 Conclusion

In this analysis I have demonstrated that the collective subject "woman" did not transgress dominant stereotypes of gender, race and ethnicity. On the contrary, it served as an overtly unifying mask, thereby perpetuating precisely these dominant discourses. The Woman's Rights Movement then can no longer be understood as a "counter public sphere" in the sense of an opposition to dominant discourses.4 On grounds of this result, the experiences of migrant women in the movement public, their experiences of unfulfilled expectations for freedom and liberty – which was a dominant thread in their migration narratives – have to be analyzed critically against the background of an elitist and exclusive movement that failed to transgress prevalent stereotypes and, on the contrary, perpetuated discourses that opposed a universalistic claim of human rights as the nativist, racist and insulting rhetoric showed. Nativism and Racism can not merely be understood as political strategies but have to be seen as real and having effects on individuals, groups and social hierarchies.

1 I use the term Woman's Rights Movement, although grammatically incorrect, in congruity with the nineteenth century activists' consistent usage of that phrase. They chose the singular over the plural to demonstrate the unity of their female sex, suggesting that all women were united in one movement for one cause. However, I will refer to the female activists as "women" and when not referring to the movement also use the correct term "women's rights".

2 Ratified in February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution ruled that "the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude" (US Const. Amendment 15, sec. 1.).

3 In the "Proceedings," which are reprinted in the History of Woman Suffrage "own" is substituted by "few," which has an even stronger nativist notion than "own."

4 Of course, in a very materialist way the movement did transgress prevalent orders by enabling women to become visible on a political platform which was denied to them in the otherwise male-dominated society. With regard to this feature, the Woman's Rights Movement has to be evaluated positively as a counter public sphere.

Works Cited

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Richard Candida Smith. Eds. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist as Thinker. A Reader in Documents and Essays. New York: NYU P, 2007.

Fraser, Nancy. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Gordon, Ann D. "Stanton and the Right to Vote: On Account of Race or Sex." Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist as Thinker. A Reader in Documents and Essays. Ed. Ellen Carol DuBois and Richard Candida Smith. New York: NYU P, 2007: 111-27.

"Nativismus unter den Frauenrechts-Frauen." New Yorker Staats-Zeitung 19 May 1869: 6.

"Proceedings of the May Anniversaries in New York and Brooklyn." Stanton, Anthony, Gage. The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. 2: 378-99.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. The History of Woman Suffrage. 6 Vols. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1881.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. "Address to Anniversary of American Equal Rights Association, May 12, 1896, New York City." Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist as Thinker. A Reader in Documents and Essays. Ed. Ellen Carol DuBois and Richard Candida Smith. New York: NYU P, 2007: 187-205.

U.S. Const. Amendment 15, sec.1.