Friends, Enemies and AgitatorsBy Barbara Matusow
“Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” That was the advice Frederick Douglass gave to young black Americans shortly before his death, in 1895. The words could easily have served as a motto for Susan B. Anthony, who campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage. Each of them International celebrities and fiery spokesmen for their causes, they were friends and allies of longstanding. But over time, their friendship would be severely tested.
Early on, during the 1850’s, they sang from the same hymnal. Paid speakers on the anti-slavery lecture circuit, Douglass and Anthony were accustomed to grueling schedules and angry mobs. In Syracuse, New York in 1861, Anthony defiantly stood her ground on stage while pro-slavery adherents armed with knives and guns threw rotten eggs and broke up benches. Earlier, In Pendleton New York, Douglass fell and broke his hand running from a mob. Thanks to their shared dedication to the cause of anti-slavery, Douglass and his wife even moved to Rochester, Anthony’s hometown, which was also a center of abolitionist ferment.
Unquestionably they made an odd pair. The dashingly handsome Douglass, always impeccably dressed, was a married man and the father of five. Attractive to women, for a time he shared his house, and probably his bed, according to the available evidence, with a prominent German intellectual. Anthony, two years his junior, equated marriage with subjugation and the loss of identity. Her austere attire, severe expression and jutting jaw made her a constant target of ridicule in the press.
Initially, Douglass was the more prominent of the two. An escaped slave and electrifying speaker, he was only 27 when he published the first of his three autobiographies, all best sellers. Anthony, while remaining a fervent opponent of slavery, gradually shifted her focus to the field of women’s rights, where she proved to be a brilliant tactician and organizer. She left the writing and theorizing to her close friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who once quipped, “I fashioned the thunderbolts and Susan fires them.”
Both women considered Douglass a good friend, a self-described “woman’s rights man.” He was the only African American present at what is generally considered the birth of the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, organized by Stanton and Lucretia Mott. (Anthony did not meet Stanton until a couple of years later.) A resolution urging that women be given the right to vote—considered too radical by many at the time-- was headed for defeat when Douglass took the floor. On the strength of his oratory, the measure passed.
As a matter of theory, both Anthony and Douglass agreed that suffrage should be universal, that all persons, regardless of race, creed, color, or sex should have the vote. Where they began to diverge was over the question of which group should take precedence.
Harsh words were exchanged over the 14th amendment, which extended the rights of citizenship to black males but made no mention of women. Anthony, ever the absolutist, was incensed. “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman,” she declared.
Douglass believed that the inclusion of female suffrage could torpedo the entire amendment, and he argued passionately that the situation of the Negro, particularly in the South, was too dire to wait, that “it was a matter of life and death”:
“When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New 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 [women] will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own."
Then came fight over the 15th amendment, solidifying the Negro male’s right to vote but once again leaving out women. At an 1869 women’s suffrage convention, Anthony and Stanton felt betrayed and furious when their old abolitionist allies proclaimed it was “the Negro’s hour,” that women would have to wait.
Stanton and Anthony angrily urged that the amendment be defeated altogether, resorting to vile language and racist tropes. Anthony, for example, warned that “horrible outrages” would be perpetrated on white women should black men get the vote. Stanton denigrated both immigrants and blacks: “Think of Patrick and Sambo, and Hans and Yung Tung,” she declared, “who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws” for women of education and refinement.
Isolated by their rhetoric and intransigence, the two women walked out and formed a new organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association, or the NWSA. (Lucy Stone, their longtime colleague, formed the rival American Women’s Suffrage Association—a split that lasted 20 years.) Douglass, unsurprisingly, was furious at Anthony and Stanton. Yet he continued to publicly express his support for women’s suffrage. And whether out of magnanimity or plain old pragmatism, he was back on the platform of the NWSA convention seven years later and seldom missed another convention for the rest of his life.
Historians differ as to how much animosity remained between Douglass and Anthony, who over the years did not hesitate to disassociate herself from him when she found it expedient. In a recent biography by David Blight, “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom,” Blight maintains that Douglass never really forgave Anthony for her vitriol during the struggle over the 14th and 15th amendments. Yet the facts make one wonder. Only hours before he died of a massive heart attack, Douglass was seated next to Anthony on the platform at a women’s convention in Washington. As soon as Anthony heard the news of his death, she rushed to Cedar Hill, his home in the Anacostia section of DC, where she remained for several days, helping Helen Douglass, his second wife, arrange the funeral services. Not only that, Anthony stayed in a guest room reserved for her visits and where her portrait was hung over the fireplace. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s portrait is hung in Douglass’s study. Both can be seen in their original places of honor on National Park Service tours of the house.) Anthony also delivered a eulogy for Douglass at Washington’s Metropolitan AME church.
For all the slights he suffered through the years, Douglass remained a steadfast “woman’s rights man.” 40 years after the fact, he looked back with pride on his role in passing the pro-suffrage resolution in Seneca Falls, telling the 1888 convention, “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.”
“The Agitators,” a play by Mat Smart, directed by KenYatta Rogers and featuring Ro Boddie and Marni Penning is on stage through November 25, 2018 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC, a partner of the 2020 OWOV Festival. Tickets and information can be found here.