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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

July 19, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: Douglass and Suffrage

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On three ways in which Frederick Douglass contributed significantly to the fight for women’s suffrage:

1)      Conventions and Communities: As I wrote yesterday, Douglass was a key participant in the Seneca Falls Convention, not only through his attendance and support for the Declaration of Rights, but also (for example) in pushing other attendees to sign and support that document. Two years later, he was also a prominent attendee and participant at the first national Women’s Rights Convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts. For these conventions to truly launch both an overall national women’s rights movement and a specific fight for women’s suffrage, a number of things had to happen, but I would argue that two important steps were the presence of men alongside women and the interconnections with other social movements like abolitionism. Douglass was not the only presence to contribute to both of those trends, but he was in 1848 and 1850 and certainly remained for the rest of his life a vital voice for women’s rights and suffrage on all those levels.

2)      Amendments by Addition: It’s become a frustratingly familiar fact that the women’s rights and abolitionist (turned Black rights) movements split almost immediately after the Civil War, and a principal cause was the fight for the 15th Amendment and Black male suffrage (which Seneca Falls organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton later characterized by writing, “Surely there is no greater monopoly than that of all men in denying to all women a voice in the laws they are compelled to obey”). Frederick Douglass supported that fight and amendment, as well he should have—but he also was at that time and for the remaining decades of his life an ardent advocate of an additional amendment for women’s suffrage. To my mind that additive philosophy—seeing these amendments and fights not as a competition or even a hierarchy but as complementary and connected elements of a broader battle for rights, justice, and equality—was absolutely the right call, and it was one that Douglass continued to model despite the era’s divisions.

3)      Literally Lifelong Activisms: Right up until the very end of his long life Douglass remained a key voice in and for that fight. He did so most publicly through recollections of the Seneca Falls Convention, in an April 1888 speech he delivered to the International Council of Women in Washington, DC—the speech where he famously and importantly argued that “no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself.” But his activism continued until literally the last day of his life—on February 20th, 1895 he took part in a strategy meeting for the women’s rights movement with Susan B. Anthony and others, and died at home that evening of a stroke. Don’t know that any detail could better capture a truly lifelong commitment to a cause than that!

Next Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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