Conquering our Prejudices, Then and Now

As we commemorate the first anniversary of The Revolution (Relaunch), it’s worth remembering its tangled history of racism.

Throughout its existence, The Revolution was the mouthpiece for Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s view that unless (white) women got the vote, they would not support suffrage for Black men. They resisted Frederick Douglass’s position that, “With them [women] it is a desirable matter; with us it is important; a question of life and death,” both sides seeming to disassociate African American women’s bodies from the issues at hand.

As David W. Blight notes in his 2018 biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, one way that Stanton and Anthony were able to elevate their platform was by “welcoming the support of wealthy racist merchant George Francis Train, who funded the new journal Revolution” (p. 490). This decision would alienate long-term supporters of women’s rights, Black and white, working to pass the Fifteenth Amendment (1870). For example, when the amendment passed through Congress in February 1869, Stanton declared that if Black men in the South had the vote, it would “culminate in fearful outrages on womanhood,” a sentiment that fell into lockstep with white supremacist arguments across the board—the “threadbare lie” that Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) would spend a lifetime refuting.

Since the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s right convention, Frederick Douglass had been an ally of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both pledging support for universal suffrage. By 1866, as the language of the proposed Fourteenth Amendment (1868) made clear that “maleness” mattered, Douglass began sending somewhat different messages, deciding to support civil rights amendments even if they didn’t include women. Although Douglass was known to invoke anti-Irish “drunken Patrick” stereotypes to argue for Black suffrage, Stanton and Anthony went further, increasing their use of racialized rhetoric even after Douglass had called Stanton out for her racist use of “Sambo” (Blight, 2018, p. 490).

By 1868, Stanton and Anthony had effectively rejected the Republican priority of civil rights for (male) African Americans and increasingly aligned with white-supremacist Democrats who adamantly opposed the Fourteenth and then Fifteenth Amendments and didn’t show much more support for white women’s suffrage. Train (1829-1904), who has been described as “a combination of Liberace and Billy Graham,” supported (white) women’s rights, but he was adamantly against African Americans gaining suffrage (Landers, 2020).

Enter The Revolution.

Supposedly, the very idea for The Revolution came about when Train and Anthony canvassed Kansas together, stumping for (white) women’s suffrage. When Train asked Anthony why her movement didn’t have a dedicated publication, Anthony said she had no money, especially now that supporters were pouring their funds into the fight for the Fifteenth Amendment. That evening, in typical masculinist fashion, as he introduced Anthony to an audience, Train announced the paper’s name, motto, and cost—the first Anthony claimed to know of it (Holland, 1987, p. 14).

Despite the loss of support Train’s association caused, decades later, Stanton and Anthony still thought his participation was important, overtly noting his appeal to the “intelligent Irishmen, and the prejudices of the ignorant,” a phrase that exposes the racial underpinnings of the debate.

By spring 1869, Train announced he was not part of The Revolution any longer, but in practice, he continued to write uncredited material. The paper’s editorial stance against the Fifteenth Amendment, combined with Train’s association with it, had led to a fifty-percent drop in subscriptions and insufficient ads. Not even Anthony’s popular lecture tours and influence could keep it afloat. The Revolution was sold and became a different sort of newspaper – much less radical –and eventually fading away in 1872, though not before Train went bankrupt, ran for president, (receiving no votes), and pursued becoming “Dictator of the United States” (Landers, 2020)!

Stanton and Anthony were not the first (and certainly not the last) to believe white supremacist strategies were a way forward. They are also not unique in defending, decades later, their associations with racists.

Douglass’s declaration to white people was “Conquer your prejudices.” Clearly, the work remains grossly incomplete.

Stanton and Anthony remained in contact with Douglass until his death, both encouraging his work and vice versa. But neither woman conquered their racial and class prejudices.

We can hope that The Revolution (Relaunch) might be a vehicle for continuing that incomplete work.

Pamela Stewart is an editor for TRR.

Blight, D. (2018). Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Simon and Schuster.

Holland, P. G. (1987). George Francis Train and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1867-70. University of Iowa.

Landers, J. (2016, 24 March). For Susan B. Anthony, getting support for her ‘Revolution’ meant taking on an unusual ally.