The 15th and the 19th

Sarah Churchwell tells the tortured history of the campaign to secure votes for women and how it was tied up with another campaign to suppress votes for black Americans. From the 15th amendment in 1870 to the 19th amendment in 1920: why the promise of enfranchisement is often not what it seems.


Talking Points: 


The struggle for votes for women and votes for black people have been linked from the beginning.

  • Some activists wanted to do both at once, but slavery was deemed more urgent. 
  • Of course, in practice, white lawmakers soon stripped the 15th amendment of its practical power by passing laws such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses.


Many suffragettes believed that if they supported the 15th amendment, Republicans would turn around and recognize their claims, and that black legislators in particular would argue for rights for women.

  • It didn’t work out that way.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Antony felt that they had been betrayed by the Republican cause.


The 19th amendment is explicitly modeled on the 15th amendment.

  • But it passes in part because people are convinced (correctly in the short term) that it won’t lead to the enforcement of the 15th amendment.


Another thing that happens in this moment is the 18th amendment, or prohibition. 

  • Temperance was extremely important to many politically active women at the time.
  • At the time, women had no rights within marriage, and no redress against domestic violence or poverty.
  • But it was also about nativism. Drinking was associated with certain immigrant cultures, especially catholic cultures. 
  • Temperance gains traction in part as a way of criminalizing suspicious foreign conduct.


Further Learning:


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking


 

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