Douglass vs. Anthony: The Historical (and Contemporary) Debate between Black Men and White Women

We’ve all been consuming a considerable amount of media that references the tension between black men and white women—from white women’s co-opting of the Black Lives Matter movement, presumably in an attempt to appear woke, to the inaction of white female elected officials, editors, community leaders, business owners, etc., to the systemic racism that compels white women to perceive black men as a threat to their physical safety.

Perhaps the discord had its public-political origins in 1869, when Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony went head-to-head at the meeting of the American Equal Rights Association.

Near the beginning of the debate, Anthony makes an incendiary, racist remark that clearly privileges women’s suffrage over the Black vote: “The old anti-slavery school and others have said that the women must stand back and wait until the other class shall be recognized. But we say that if you will not give the whole loaf of justice and suffrage to an entire people, give it to the most intelligent first.”

More recently, the tension has re-surged via Amy Cooper, the Central Park dog walker who called 911 on bird-watcher and science writer, Christian Cooper (who’s black). Cooper’s sister, in an interview with Gail Brown for CBS News on June 9, 2020, said she tweeted her brother’s Central Park encounter with “Karen” because she’s “through with the weaponization of white woman’s tears.”

Some would argue that white women can occupy a relatively high rung on the social (and socio-economic) ladder, but it’s conditional, meaning it’s not a guarantee, meaning gender equality can never be assumed or assured. We know that gender factors into a myriad of social inequities like unequal pay, unequal access to athletic scholarships and opportunities, unequal access to STEM studies/fields, and a much higher risk of sexual harassment in the workplace and in the community—with 59% of women experiencing sexual harassment compared to 27% of men. Sexual assault numbers are even more gender-biased—82% of all juvenile rape victims are female, and 90% of all adult victims are female.

Black men can also occupy a high rung on the social ladder, but more frequently in arenas like entertainments and professional sports. Still, only six of the 615 billionaires in America are black—Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Michael Jordan among them, with the lone black woman being Oprah Winfrey. Comparatively, in 2019, Forbe’s cited 25 female billionaires in the U.S.

We could go on for days comparing everything from access to higher education to U.S. senate seats, and white women would have an advantage in these arenas as well, though sometimes only by slim margins.

But the tension between black men and white women isn’t just about quantifiable successes.

According to a story published in Stat on June 3, 2020, most black men say that they’re fearful to walk down the street wearing a mask. Everyone from black doctors to black lawyers, black protestors to black citizens have been questioned (and sometimes arrested) by the police for “masking up” despite the disproportionate number of Covid cases ravaging the black community.

I suppose a white woman could say that she’s fearful to walk down the street wearing a mask, too, though we all know it’s not the mask that puts her at a greater risk of sexual assault, and it’s highly unlikely that she’ll be stopped – or shot – by the cops for wearing a mask given that over the past three years, cops have fatally shot about 1000 men per year compared to fewer than 50 women.

Black men are also fearful of white women’s lies, and for good reason.

Just three years ago, Martenzie Johnson opened his op-ed, “Being black in a world where white lies matter,” with the revelation of one of the most devastating lies in modern history—Emmett Till was innocent.

The white woman who claimed that he’d made advances on her had finally admitted to Duke University professor and author, Timothy B. Tyson, that she’d “fabricated” the story. Johnson reminds us that “that lie led to Till being beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, having his eyes gouged out and a 74-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire before being thrown in the nearby Tallahatchie River.”

The origins of racially motivated lies can be traced back to slavery, as documented by Berkeley historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers in her 2019 book entitled They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. Everything from testimonials, bills of sale, and other legal documents have shown that since white women could own their own slaves in the south, their financial interest in slavery was no different from that of their male counterparts. In other words, white women have historically enslaved Black men—physically and psychologically.  

Again, the point isn’t to tally the number of social advantages and risks faced by each demographic today, but to show that what appears to be rapidly mounting tension between black men and white women is nothing new.

As we celebrate the one-year anniversary of The Revolution (Relaunch), it seems critical to revisit the debate between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony at the 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, the entire transcript of which was published in The Revolution on May 20, 1869 (and is reprinted below). Ironically, one of the most significant take-aways seems to be Anthony’s belief that the federal government “has the power to decide the Woman question and the Negro question at one and the same time.” If nothing else, revisiting the transcript might help us better understand the history of our nation’s disenfranchised masses, the painful story of how we have been deceived and/or disappointed by our so-called democracy since its inception.

Maybe/finally/hopefully, this will be the contribution of the fourth wave—to learn from some of our fiercest advocates of the 19th century, to acknowledge (and critique) their contributions, to make reparations in our own communities when federal and state governments fail to do so, to equally support #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

RD is the founding editor of TRR.

Cover art by Gary Bowers.

May 20, 1869


Mr. Douglass—I came here more as a listener than to speak, and I have listened with a great deal of pleasure to the eloquent address of the Rev. Mr. Frothingham and the splendid address of the President. There is no name greater than that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the matter of Woman’s Rights and Equal Rights, but my sentiments are tinged a little against THE REVOLUTION. There was in the address to which I allude, a sentiment in reference to employment and certain names, such as “Sambo,” and the gardener and the bootblack and the daughter of Jefferson and Washington, and all the rest that I cannot coincide with. I have asked what difference there is between the daughters of Jefferson and Washington and other daughters. (Laughter.) I must say that I do not see how anyone can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to women as to the negro. With us, the matter is a question of life and death. It is a matter of existence, at least, in fifteen states of the Union. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of Now York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own. (Great applause.)

A Voice—Is that not all true about black women?

Mr. Douglass—Yes, yes, yes, it is true of the black woman, but not because she is a woman but because she is black. (Applause.) Julia Ward Howe at the conclusion of her great speech delivered at the convention in Boston last year, said, “I am willing t(hat the negro shall get it before me.” (Applause.) Woman! why she has ten thousand modes of grappling with her difficulties. I believe that all the virtues of the world can take care of all the evil. I believe that all the Intelligence can take care of all the ignorance. (Applause.) I am in favor of Woman’s Suffrage in order that we shall have all the virtue and all vice confronted. Let me tell you that when there were few houses in which the black man could have put his head, this woolley head of mine found a refuge in the house of Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and if I had been blacker than sixteen midnights, without a single star, it would have been the same. (Applause.)

Miss Anthony—I want to say a single word. The old anti-slavery school and others have said that the women must stand back and wait until the other class shall be recognized. But we say that if you will not give the whole loaf of justice and suffrage to an entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. (Applause.) If intelligence, justice, and morality are to be placed in the government, then let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last. (Applause.) While I was canvassing the state with petitions in my hand and had them filled with names for our cause and sent them to the legislature, a man dared to say to me that the freedom of women was all a theory and not a practical thing. (Applause.) When Mr. Douglass mentioned the black man first and the women last, if he had noticed he would have seen that it was the men that clapped and not the women. There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband or brother; for anyone who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she takes it. (Applause.) Mr. Douglass talks about the wrongs of the negro; how he is hunted down, and the children’s brains dashed out by mobs; but with all the wrongs and outrages that he to-day suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (Laughter and applause.) No matter, there is a glory— (Loud applause, completely drowning the speaker’s voice.)

Mr. Douglass—Will you allow me—

Miss Anthony—Yes, anything; we are in for a fight to-day. (Great laughter and applause.)

Mr. Douglass—I want to know if granting you the right of Suffrage will change the nature of our sexes. (Great laughter.)

Miss Anthony—It will change the pecuniary position of women, it will place her in a position where she can earn her own bread. (Loud Applause.) She will not then be compelled to take hold of such employments that man chooses for her.

Why, Mr. Douglass, in our Working Women’s Association we discussed a certain question, and then one woman proposed that at the next meeting we should discuss the question “Why marriages are on the decline.” When women are thrown upon their own resources without proper education, their alternatives are starvation or prostitution, and then society turns round upon them. Marriage all over the country is regarded as too expensive a luxury. A man cannot afford to marry. What we demand is, that we shall have the ballot; we shall never get our rights until we have it. The objects of this Society is to acquire this right and privilege. (Applause.)

Mrs. Norton said that there was one thing that Mr. Douglass’s remarks left it open for her to say, and that was to defend the government from the inferred inability to grapple with the two questions at once. It legislates upon many questions of landed and other interests at one and the same time, and it has the power to decide the Woman question and the Negro question at one and the same time. (Applause.)