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Frederick Douglass [Elizabeth Cady Stanton]


An 1895 public letter on the occasion of Frederick Douglass' death, by suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was a leading figure in the early woman’s rights movement and an abolitionist. She organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, worked for universal suffrage with the American Equal Rights Association between 1866 and 1869, and revived the woman’s movement after the Civil War. She wrote the National Woman Suffrage Association’s “Declaration and Protest” in 1876, campaigned for woman’s suffrage with the National Woman Suffrage Association until 1890 and led the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) until 1892. But by 1895, she was an outsider within the women’s movement—alienated from the mainstream by her support for liberalized divorce laws and reproductive self-determination. “I am a leader in thought, rather than numbers,” she acknowledged in 1888, before resigning the presidency of the NAWSA in January 1892. ECS letter, 8 May 1888, Olympia Brown Willis Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. For further see Stanton, Eighty Years And More (New York: European Pub. Co., 1898) and Beth Waggenspack, The Search for Self-Sovereignty (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).

In 1895 she wrote a public letter on the occasion of Frederick Douglass’s death. Fellow activist Susan B. Anthony read the letter at Douglass’s funeral in Washington, D.C., on February 25, as Stanton was unable to attend. The letter points to Douglass’s work on behalf of woman’s rights. That activism began in 1848 when Douglass signed the “Declaration of Sentiments” at the Seneca Falls Convention and was the only man to speak in favor of Stanton’s resolution demanding woman suffrage. At a critical moment when delegates wavered, Stanton asked him to speak. She later recalled: “I knew Frederick, from personal experience, was just the man for the work.” Stanton et al. (eds.), History of Woman Suffrage (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881-1922): 1, 70-71. The resolution passed and Douglass would later express pride at this early support of woman’s rights: “There are few facts in my humble history to which I look back with more satisfaction than to the fact… that I was sufficiently enlightened at that early day, and when only a few years from slavery, to support your resolution for woman suffrage…. When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.” ouglass, “The Woman's Suffrage Movement,” address to the International Council of Women, March 31, 1888; in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip Sheldon Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 706-711 (709).

Douglass was not the only abolitionist who campaigned for woman’s rights: Frances Wright, the Grimké sisters, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Henry Ward Beecher, and Parker Pillsbury were all active in the movement. Many observed connections between slavery and the situation of free women in America. Abby Kelley observed: “We have good cause to be grateful to the slave, for the benefit we have received to ourselves, in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves.”  Kelley, undated, in “An Anti-Slavery Album of Contributions from Friends of Freedom, 1834-1858,” Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress. J. Elizabeth Jones declared that women were slaves, “politically and legally,” History of Woman Suffrage,I: 108, and Angelina Grimké remembered: “For many years I felt as I was compelled to drag the chain and wear the collar on my struggling spirit as truly as the poor slave was on his body.” Grimké, 1838, cited in Jean Fagan Yellin, Women and Sisters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989),42. Then, in 1871, Victoria Woodhull argued that the Thirteenth Amendment had emancipated women; that the abolition of slavery had enfranchised women.

But woman’s rights activists were thrown by the Fourteenth Amendment. “If that word ‘male’ be inserted as now proposed, it will take us a century at least to get it out again,” warned Stanton. Stanton, Eighty Years and More (New York: European Pub. Co., 1898), 242. Excluded from the Fifteenth Amendment too, women recognized that the universal suffrage movement had failed them. So too had Douglass. Between 1865 and 1870, he split from woman’s rights activists over the question of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Douglass and most abolitionists called it the “Negro’s Hour,” while Stanton and others were furious at the exclusion of women. Douglass only resumed fighting for woman’s rights after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Stanton tried to bring an end to the hostility between race activists and woman’s rights campaigners with her 1869 article “Women and Black Men,” and Douglass reaffirmed himself as a “woman's rights man” with an article of October 1870 demanding women’s suffrage. In 1888 he even called woman’s rights a more important cause than abolition, explaining: “My special mission… was the emancipation and enfranchisement of the negro. Mine was a great cause. Yours is a much greater cause, since it comprehends the liberation and elevation of one half of the whole human family.” Douglass, “Emancipation of Women,” address to the New England Woman Suffrage Association, May 28, 1888, in Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights, ed. PhilipS. Foner (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 116-124 (116).

Stanton’s purpose with her 1895 letter was therefore twofold. First, she wanted to honor Douglass’s contribution to woman’s rights and celebrate her friend as one who truly understood the “degradation of disfranchisement for women.” For in spite of the break between abolitionists and woman’s rights activists in the 1860s, radical women did re-embrace Douglass as a hero to their cause. Rosa Hazard Hazel explained in 1899: “In the chemistry of his own soul did [Douglass] find the affinity between the rights of the negro and the rights of woman…. When I hear women… [censure] the indifference of negro men to one of the gravest problems of the day, I answer, ‘The negro is not unrepresented in your fight for freedom.’” Hazel, speech at Douglass Memorial Meeting, May 1899, in Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights, 171-175 (173-174).

Second, Stanton believed women were still “in a transition state from slavery to freedom,” as she noted in 1890, and she wanted to harness the abolitionist spirit for woman’s rights in the new century. Stanton, “Divorce versus Domestic Warfare,” Arena, April 1890: 560-569 (568).

Douglass himself tried to draw a line from abolitionism and woman’s rights, insisting in 1888: “this woman suffrage movement is but a continuance of the old anti-slavery movement…. The fundamental proposition of the woman suffrage movement is scarcely less simple than that of the anti-slavery movement. It assumes that woman is herself. That she belongs to herself.” Douglass, “Emancipation of Women,” 123. So in February 1895, Stanton offered Douglass’s activism as an “object lesson.” Douglass was “not dead,” she concluded, because the woman’s rights struggle was not yet won.

- Zoe Trodd