How Racism Weakens the Fight for Women’s Suffrage: Multiracial Unity Is Crucial to Stopping Sexism

by Al Simpson

The struggle for women’s suffrage was long and admirable but it wasn’t without serious flaws. For the most part, it did not overcome racism or fear of foreigners or recognize the class basis of sexism. Despite universal suffrage today, white women workers still earn about 77% of the wages of white men, and black women workers earn about 61% of the wages of white men. All women suffer sexism on the job, and black women also suffer racism. We will examine the history of the women’s suffrage movement in detail and discuss what has been won, how the movement could have been stronger, and whether true equality is possible under U.S. capitalism.

The early women’s suffrage movement and its intersection with the movement to abolish slavery.

Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831 gave the initial impetus to the abolitionist movement. Rebel slaves in Virginia killed 55-65 slave owners, and although it was put down within a few days, it inspired anti-slavery forces, including many women. It also inspired a fierce backlash, including the execution of 56 slaves and the murder of 120 slaves and free blacks by militias.  State legislatures passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free black people, restricting rights of assembly and other civil liberties for free black people, and requiring white ministers to be present at all worship services.

Working women of that time led lives that bore a remarkable similarity to slavery. Women mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts went on strike in 1836 and sang strike songs that likened their lives to outright slavery, with low wages, long hours and horrible working conditions.

Middle class and wealthy women were nominally free, but the oppressive conditions of their marriage were likened to slavery, a novel insight in the early to mid-19th century. As the manufacturing of home goods such as candles, butter, and clothing, migrated to factories, women who were home bound by their husbands were no longer productive, except as a vehicle for child birth and rearing of children. This made for resistance.

The first female anti-slavery society was formed by black women in 1832, in Salem Massachusetts.[i]  In the 1830s, many white women, both housewives and workers, supported the abolitionist movement. Mill women contributed money from their meager earnings and organized bazaars to raise more money. Middle class women became agitators and organizers of anti-slavery actions.

Only four women were invited to attend the founding meeting of The American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and It was stipulated that they were to be only “listeners and spectators.”[ii] Lucretia Mott would hear none of this, and from her seat in the “listener and Spectator” section she said:

“Right principles are stronger than names. If our principles are right, why should we be cowards? Why should we wait for those who never had the courage to maintain the inalienable rights of the slave?” [iii]

This must have astounded her listeners, as women were at that time forbidden to speak in public, but they applauded her and went on with the business at hand. The four women attendees were barred from signing the Declaration of Sentiments and Purposes document at the end of the meeting.

Lucretia Mott was undeterred and helped organize The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society immediately after the men’s meeting ended. Mott was a person who had a lot of guts; she stood her ground in the face of racist mobs.

In 1838, this frail looking woman, dressed in the sober, starched garb of the Quakers, calmly faced the pro-slavery mob that burned down Pennsylvania Hall with the connivance of the mayor of Philadelphia.[iv]

The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was one of many groups that sprung up after The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. As in the case of Philadelphia, many of the meetings of these groups were assaulted by racist mobs. The skills that women developed as abolitionists were later to be used in the struggle for women’s suffrage.

The sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, were the only pioneering women abolitionists who understood that women’s  oppression was perpetuated and exacerbated by the existence of slavery. A decade before male supremacy was challenged organizationally, the Grimke sisters urged women to resist the destiny of passivity and dependence which society imposed on them – in order to take their rightful place in the struggle for human rights.[v] They started giving lectures to women’s anti-slavery societies around 1836. Men hearing about the eloquence and power of their speeches, slowly started to attend these lectures, which was remarkable because no other women had regularly addressed mixed audiences. Women speakers were usually disrupted by jeers and derogatory outcries by men who believed that women should be seen but not heard.

The Start of the Official Suffragist Movement

Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were excluded from participation in the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London England by a majority vote of the delegates. They found themselves fenced off by a bar and a screen. As a supportive protest, they were joined as silent listeners by William Lloyd Garrison, Nathaniel P. Rogers of Concord, NH, and the black abolitionist Charles Remond. For some reason, Charles Remond is not mentioned in Stanton’s description of events, but he was in attendance, and he even wrote an article in the Garrison’s newspaper, Liberator, entitled “a silent listener”.[vi] In addition and most importantly, Remond was sponsored by three anti-slavery women’s groups.

Spurred on by their treatment in London, Stanton and Mott decided to hold a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY in July, 1848. Stanton wanted to introduce a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage, but Mott felt that it was too outlandish and would undermine the convention. Stanton’s husband threatened to leave town if the resolution was introduced – and he did. Frederick Douglass, the black orator and abolitionist seconded the resolution and argued for its passage. He was the only one of 37 male attendees who supported the resolution. [vii]  The women’s suffrage resolution was the only one not endorsed unanimously by the 300 convention goers, although it did pass.  Interestingly, Frederick Douglass at The National Convention of Colored Freemen, held in Cleveland Ohio, amended a resolution to define the word “delegate” to include women, where it gained swift and enthusiastic approval.[viii]

The response to the Seneca Falls convention approval of a women’s suffrage resolution by the “pillars of society” was quite negative. It was disapproved in the press, the pulpit, and in the parlors of women of wealth. Many of the women who signed the declaration removed their names and influence and joined those who were opposed to it. People who were well disposed to the convention tried to distance themselves from it. However, it did not dissuade Frederick Douglass and support for women’s suffrage grew in the face of the uproar. Another convention took place in Rochester, NY about a month later. This time they dared to have a female presiding officer, which became a precedent for future meetings. Frederick Douglass once again argued for women’s right to vote and the resolution was passed by a larger majority than before.

The main focus of the Seneca Falls convention was the institution of marriage and its many harmful effects on women. Women were robbed of their property rights, making them economically dependent on their husbands. Men could demand absolute obedience from their wives and could legally physically punish them; the laws governing separation and divorce gave all rights to the husband; all avenues to wealth and distinction such as medicine, law, and theology were inaccessible to women. There was also the matter of loss of confidence and self-respect.[ix] These issues were, for the most part, raised by women from the middle and upper classes. But what about working-class women, whose issues were completely ignored at the middle and upper class women’s conventions?

The Struggles of White Working-Class Women

In 1831, when the textile industry was a major focus of the young industrial revolution, the textile mills in New England employed 38,927 women and 18,539 men. The mill owners represented life at the mills as a great prelude to marriage; where, they claimed, women would be supervised by matrons in a manner similar to a finishing school. But the reality was much, much, different. Women toiled long hours–12, 14 and 16 per day–  in atrocious working conditions, and lived in inhumanly crowded quarters. Also, there was:

“So little time was allowed for meals – one half hour at noon for dinner – that the women raced from the hot, humid weaving room several blocks to their boarding houses, gulped down their main meal of the day, and ran back to the mill in terror of being fined if they were late. In the winter they dared not stop to button their coats and often ate without taking them off. This was pneumonia season. Tuberculosis was with them in every season.”[x]

The mill women fought back!  Beginning in the late 1820s, long before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, the women organized “turn outs” and strikes that included banners, marches and fireworks. All quite unacceptable to “polite society,” but these were desperate struggles.

By 1848, conditions at the textile factories had deteriorated even further, if such a thing was possible.  The New England farmers’ daughters the mills previously recruited were rapidly being replaced by immigrant women. These women, unlike the ones who came before them, did not come from families who owned land, and they only had their laboring power to fall back on. When they fought back, it was for their very survival. So passionate was their struggle that “in the 1840s women workers were in the leadership of labor militancy in the United States.”[xi] The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association presented petitions to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1843 and 1844, forcing them to hold public hearings, it was the first time that a legislature investigated labor conditions in United States history. The white women workers of the New England mills waged many battles to defend their dignity as workers and as women and challenged the sexist image of womanhood. They deserved to be lauded by the wealthier pioneers of the women’s movement, but they were ignored.

The Exclusion of Black Women from the Women’s Movement – A Sign of Things to Come

Although no black women were present at the Seneca Falls convention, there had been a black struggle for women’s rights. Martha Stewart, a black woman, was the first native born female lecturer who to address audiences of both men and women. In the 1827 Freedom’s Journal – the first black newspaper in this country – she wrote an article, under the pen name Matilda, demanding education for black women, a highly controversial and unpopular position at that time. A black convention in Philadelphia, soon after the Seneca meeting, invited not only black,  but white, women to attend, and Lucretia Mott accepted.

At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered what is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I a Woman?” On the second day of the convention, some of white women attempted to silence her, but the chair of the meeting, Frances Dana Gage, allowed her to speak. The importance of this is that it told the delegates that the word ‘women’ included middle and upper class women like themselves, but also included black women and working-class women.

The women’s movement, like the abolitionist movement lacked any awareness of the role of workers in a profit-driven society. The one was based on the frustrations of living with sexism and the other was mainly moralistic, and neither saw the relation of racism or sexism to industrial capitalism. The northern industrialists had vanquished the southern plantation owners during the Civil War and were now free to exploit all laborers in much the same way slaves had been exploited, but without the need supply their room and board- what we call wage slavery. Neither movement considered how both blacks and women were the workers most exploited by their employers. There were only a few exceptions, such as the Grimke sisters.

The End of the Civil War – Will Women Get the Vote?

Despite his lionization as the man who liberated the slaves, Abraham Lincoln was NOT opposed to slavery. When the Civil War began, Lincoln’s goal was to maintain the Union for the capitalist class, not to abolish slavery or to eliminate racism. Lincoln was an open racist who declared, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races.” In 1861 he advocated “colonizing” Black people in Africa and Central America; supported a constitutional amendment protecting slavery where it already existed; refused to enlist blacks into the army; and ordered continued enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act which required all citizens to return runaway slaves to their masters.[xii]

Three days after Confederate General Robert E Lee’s surrender, Lincoln did express support for black suffrage. This enraged John Wilkes Booth and a group of co-conspirators, who assassinated Lincoln three days later. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s murder, the radical Republicans in congress wanted to abolish slavery, give citizenship to the freed slaves and finally allow free black men to vote. The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery was ratified on December 6, 1865.

The Racist Response

In a racist letter to the editor of the editor of the New York Standard, dated December 26, 1865, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote.

“The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the negro; and as long as he was lowest in the scale of being, we were willing to press his claims; but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first. As self-preservation is the first law of nature, would it not be wiser to keep our lamps trimmed and burning …” [xiii]

This letter demonstrates that Stanton had no inkling of the relationship between the oppression of the Southern slaves and her own oppression as a woman. At the first meeting of The Equal Rights Association in May 1867, she said that it was far more important for women (that is, Anglo-Saxon women) to receive the franchise than for black men to win the vote. But the abolition of slavery did not stop the economic oppression of blacks. So, it was necessary for the blacks to counter, as best they could, racist laws that would be enacted to continue and even exacerbate their oppression. This did not stop many suffragists from voicing their racist opinions.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868, guaranteed full citizenship only to men, no matter what their race. The women’s suffrage leaders were enraged.

(Stanton’s) indignation and that of Miss Anthony knew no bounds. The latter made the pledge that “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Mrs. Stanton made derogatory references to “Sambo,” and the enfranchisement of “Africans, Chinese, and all the ignorant foreigners the moment they touch our shores.” She warned that the Republican’s advocacy of manhood suffrage “creates an antagonism between black men and all women that will culminate in fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the Southern states.”[xiv]

The beacons of the women’s movement were not concerned that after the slaves were freed, they were subject to massive economic deprivation and unprecedented racist violence by mobs of white men. The violence, especially lethal violence, was greater than during slavery because during slavery, the blacks were property and had value that the slave owners were loath to destroy, but now that the blacks were free, there was no such consideration. According to W.E.B. Dubois,

“In Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, it was said in 1866: “The life of a Negro is not worth much there. I have seen one who was shot in the leg while he was riding a mule because the ruffian thought it more trouble to ask him to get off the mule than to shoot him.”[xv]

 Frederick Douglass was not impressed with the ex-slaves’ so-called “freedom.” and felt they could not have genuine freedom unless they had the ballot. This was the basis for his insistence that, at that moment, black male suffrage ought take strategic priority over women’s suffrage., He was not defending black male superiority,[xvi]  and his belief that black suffrage was a strategic priority was not anti-woman.[xvii] While Frederick Douglass was not completely free of male chauvinism, he believed that unless black men had the right to vote, blacks would not make any economic progress. The newly freed blacks had to defend their lives, while middle-class women did not.

The women’s rights leaders tended to view the goal of women’s suffrage as an end in itself, to the exclusion of almost anything else, and by 1866 they sought the support of anyone, however racist or sexist. This included both the racist and sexist Democrats and the equally guilty Republicans. In the discussion of the 15th amendment, which would enfranchise black men, the white women suffragists insisted that black men should not have the vote while women did not. Many, if not all the black women suffragists saw this as a dangerous position to take because they understood that black people needed political rights immediately to gain some protection against the marauding mobs of whites. Black women suffragists were careful not to go along with the racist comments of their white counterparts, because in the aftermath of slavery, they understood that such insults referred to the entire black race.

Frederick Douglas’ appeal to support the 15th amendment at the last meeting of the Equal Rights Association (ERA) in 1869 was also supported by Sojourner Truth and Frances E. W. Harper, a black poet and advocate of women’s suffrage. Harper argued that the enfranchisement of black men was far too vital for her race to risk losing it at such a critical moment. The plea for the unity, however, was defeated, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony supported the dissolution of the ERA, and shortly afterwards Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and others founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).

The 15th amendment was ratified in 1870, and the ten-year period of radical reconstruction (1867 – 1876) was a time of great progress for former slaves and all poor people in the South. This period of progress was ended by The Compromise of 1877 (also called The Betrayal of 1877), an informal, unwritten deal that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, with the understanding that Hayes would remove federal troops who had protected the electoral and economic gains of blacks in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.[xviii] The loss of this protection permitted untrammeled violence against black people and the destruction of the Reconstruction governments in those states. The Republican party which represented the Northern capitalists, subsequently participated in the disenfranchisement of the black people in the South. After 1876, black men would be arrested on the slightest provocation and given long sentences or large fines to work out. The purpose of this was to ensure that there would be enough convict labor to run the plantations at extremely low costs. In addition, it was still true that black women were legitimate prey to white men who wanted to have their way with them. If the women resisted, they would be thrown in prison and returned to another form of slavery.[xix]

Still, not all of the advancements made during Reconstruction were destroyed. Fisk University, Hampton Institute and several other black colleges were established in the post-civil war South. Some 247,333 students were enrolled in 4,329 schools. These were the building blocks of the South’s first public school system. In the post Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws that were enacted cut the educational opportunities for blacks considerably, but all of the gains could not be reversed.

The Path the Women’s Suffrage Movement Would Take Near the Beginning of the 20th Century.

Ida B. Wells, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was an African-American investigative journalist, educator. She arguably became the most famous black woman in America, during a life that was centered on combating prejudice and violence. In the 1890s, During the Memphis riots of 1866, three of her personal friends were lynched. Wells went on to document lynching in the United States, investigating frequent claims of whites that lynching were reserved for black criminals only. She exposed lynching as a barbaric practice of whites in the South used to intimidate and oppress African Americans who created economic and political competition for whites. A white mob destroyed her newspaper office and presses, as her investigative reporting was carried nationally in black-owned newspapers.[xx]  By 1899, her astounding conclusion was that over the past ten years there were between one hundred and two hundred officially recorded lynchings each year.

Susan B. Anthony always had the highest praise for Frederick Douglas. Yet, as Anthony explained to Ida B. Wells in 1894, she pushed Douglas aside for the sake of recruiting white Southern women.

“In our conventions … he was the honored guest who sat on our platform and spoke at our gatherings. But when the … Suffrage Association went to Atlanta, Georgia, knowing the feeling of the South with regard to Negro participation on equality with whites, I myself asked Mr. Douglas not to come. I did not want to subject him to humiliation, and I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the Southern white women into our suffrage association.” [xxi]

In this conversation she also said that she rejected the efforts of several black women who wanted to form a branch of the suffrage association, because she wanted to avoid anti-black hostility of some of her white Southern members, who might quit the organization if blacks were admitted.

“ ‘And you think I was wrong in so doing?’, Anthony  asked. I answered uncompromisingly yes, for I felt that although she may have made gains for suffrage, she had also confirmed white women in their attitude of segregation.” [xxii]

This capitulation to racism on the grounds of expediency went on until the 19th amendment granting women the vote was approved in 1920. The so-called “neutral” stance adopted by the NWSA had the effect of encouraging the proliferation of racist ideas in the ranks of the membership. In 1895 the NWSA convention was held in Atlanta Georgia. There was a resolution that the Negro “problem” could be solved by requiring a literacy test for voting.

“In the development of our complex political society, we have today two great bodies of illiterate citizens: in the North, people of foreign birth; in the South, people of the African race and a considerable portion of the white population. Against foreigners and Negroes as such, we would not discriminate. But in every state save one, there are more educated white women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign.” [xxiii]

This argument and many like it were used to show white Southerners that women’s suffrage had great advantages for white supremacy. In 1893 the NWSA passed the following racist and xenophobic resolution.

Resolved. That without expressing any opinion on the proper qualifications for voting, we call attention to the significant facts that in every State there are more women who can read and write than the whole number of illiterate male voters; more white women who can read and write than all negro voters; more American women who can read and write than all foreign voters; so the enfranchisement of such women would settle the vexed question of rule by illiteracy, whether home grown or foreign-born production.”[xxiv]

The Role of Capitalism

The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a troubled time for working people and especially people of color. Monopoly capitalism was in full swing; US Steel was founded in 1901 with a capitalization of $1.4 billion, making it the first billion dollar corporation; the railroad, oil, sugar, and other trusts did anything they wanted. The United States expanded its imperialist program, easily defeating Spain during the Spanish-American war of 1898 and gobbling up Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines as colonies or semi-colonies. Regular politicians at the highest levels spoke openly about white supremacy. Finally, there were violent labor wars.  Two scholars of American labor violence concluded, “There is no episode in American labor history in which violence was as systematically used by employers as in the Colorado labor war of 1903 and 1904.”[xxv] In response, the Western Federation of Miners as well embraced more violent strike tactics, and “entered into the one of the most insurgent and violent stages that American labor history had ever seen.[xxvi]

The white suffrage movement, however, refused to involve itself in questioning the role of large corporations. During the 1899 convention of the NWSA, a black suffragist, Lottie Wilson Jackson was admitted to the convention because the host state was Michigan, one of the few chapters that welcomed black women. During the train trip to the convention she had suffered the indignities of the railroad’s segregationist policies, and she introduced a resolution “that colored women ought not to be compelled to ride in smoking cars and that suitable accommodations should be provided for them.” Here is Susan B. Anthony’s response, which ensured the certain defeat of the resolution.[xxvii]

                     We women are a helpless disenfranchised class. Our hands are         tied. While we are in this condition, it is not for us to go passing resolutions against railroad corporations or anybody          else.[xxviii]

This is very profound. It goes much deeper than the unwillingness of the NWSA to help a black woman. It pushes white supremacy at exactly the time of the black people’s greatest suffering, and it encouraged white supremacy in the ranks of the NWSA.

Between 1890 and 1910, conditions for workers became even worse because the enormous influx of immigrant labor allowed employers to become increasingly exploitative. As a result, there were a number of labor wars during this period and beyond (see The Battle of Blair Mountain: Labor Struggles and the Bosses’ State, on this blog for a spectacular example of labor solidarity in the face of violence). Racist and sexist propaganda was rampant and even infected so-called “progressive” circles. Worse yet, there was the emergence of the Eugenics movement that gave the racist garbage a pseudo-scientific justification. In political speech, there was little distinction between “the race” and “Anglo-Saxon race.”

New Leadership, Same as the Old – and Worse.

Susan B. Anthony resigned the Presidency of the NWSA in 1900. The 1901 convention was chaired by the new President, Carrie Chapman Catt, who wanted to send a message that nothing was going to change vis-à-vis the racist and xenophobic views espoused by the NWSA. She pointed to three “great obstacles” to woman suffrage: Militarism, Prostitution, and

“… the inertia in the growth of democracy which has come as a reaction following the aggressive movements that with possibly ill advised haste enfranchised the foreigner, the negro and the Indian. Perilous conditions seeming to follow from the introduction into the body politic vast numbers of irresponsible citizens have made the nation timid.” [xxix]

The 1903 convention of the NWSA was hosted by the Southern city of New Orleans. White supremacist arguments dominated the proceedings and threatened to take hold of the organization. This took a particularly ugly turn with the speech given by Belle Kearney of Mississippi, who referred to black population of the South as 4,500,00 illiterate and semi-barbarous ex-slaves. She said that the enfranchisement of black men was a dead weight that the South had to labor under for nearly 40 years. She said that she was concerned that the black universities and colleges would train certain black men to rule the South and would cause the ruin of poor white men. And then she predicted that there would be race riots as a result. The enfranchisement of women would put a stop to this because “in every Southern state but one, there are more educated women than all the illiterate voters, white and black, native and foreign combined.”

At almost the same time, such ideas were being discussed in the United States Senate. There had been massacres of black people in Wilmington, North Carolina and Phoenix, South Carolina in 1898. There would be race riots in Atlanta, Brownsville, Texas, and Springfield, Ohio. The Federal government did nothing to stop such massacres and race riots.

The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was caught in a trap of its own making. By pandering to racist women, it was caught up by the increased racism encouraged by the industrial capitalists during their period of ascension in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The non-stop racist filth they put forward never came to an end during the remaining history of the NWSA. In one of the ugliest incidents the NWSA organized a parade in Washington, DC on March 3, 1913. The black suffragists were asked to march in a contingent at the rear of the line of march, so as not to offend white Southern politicians. Ida B. Wells famously refused to do this and marched with the Illinois contingent instead.

March 3, 1913. Women suffragists marching on Pennsylvania Avenue led by Mrs. Richard Coke Burleson (center on horseback); U.S. Capitol in background. Source: Library of Congress.

In what amounts to the greatest irony, when it came time to ratify the 19th amendment (Women’s Suffrage) in 1919 and 1920, the southern states rejected the amendment; demonstrating that the NWSA’s political opportunism and racism never worked!

Is Voting Important? Do We Need to Vote?

Can you reform capitalism by voting? Putting it another way, can you make any profound reforms in the way the government or the economy is managed, by voting? The famous anarchist Lucy Parsons said:

“Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.”

Parsons opposed electoral politics, arguing that elections maintained capitalism. She refused to participate in any political campaigns or endorse any candidates, even those who identified as socialists. She consistently argued that capitalism was the problem, not political parties or politicians. “…so-called laws” were not “worth the paper they are written on because capitalists had the power to do as they wanted even if “the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise” (see Lucy Parsons, Working Class Anarchist on this blog).

There is a similar view by Rosa Luxemburg that spells out exactly why voting won’t work – among other things.

It is sheer insanity to believe that capitalists would goodhumoredly obey the socialist verdict of a parliament or of a national assembly, that they would calmly renounce property, profit, the right to exploit. All ruling classes fought to the end, with tenacious energy, to preserve their privileges. The Roman patricians and the medieval feudal barons alike, the English cavaliers and the American slaveowners, the Walachian boyars and the Lyonnais silk manufacturers – all shed rivers of blood, they all marched over corpses, committed murder, and arson, instigated civil war and treason, in order to defend their privileges and their power.

There is much we can learn from this quotation. Even if capitalist politicians have disagreements over tactics or may represent different interests within the capitalist class, they all believe in preserving the system. And capitalism depends on weakening the class consciousness of workers through racist and sexist divisions, as well as maintaining profits by super-exploiting women and non-white workers. If their rule is threatened, as it was by the election of even tame, “socialistic,” governments as in South and Central America, those “legal” governments were overthrown with U.S. backing. The same brute force would be used to counter revolt at home that could not be weakened by concessions, as happened when the New Deal was adopted to counter mass Communist-led labor organizing in the 1930s.

The police, whose origin is as slave-catchers, are also not a neutral force that will keep the peace or defend the weak. Their job is to maintain social control, and they are only accountable to the capitalist class. – and to no one else. The racist murders the cops commit, without consequence, and other atrocities they commit on a daily basis, are a normal part of life under capitalism. The cops cannot be reformed. The armed forces, on the other hand are made up of workers whose loyalty may shift, as it did during the war in Vietnam, bringing that war to a close and causing the rulers to fear reinstituting a military draft. Ultimately workers and soldiers have tremendous power, if united.

The Contemporary Women’s Movement

Most of the discussion from the women’s groups of today seem to be related to personal advancement for female executives. They speak of how difficult it is for women to advance in Corporate America, although some advances have been made. There is also pushback on the policies of conservatives to limit or eliminate access to abortion and birth control. As in the 19th and early 20th century, there is very little, if any, discussion about the advancement of working-class women or black women.

The views of women of color differ from those of white women on some issues. Many women of color are very wary of birth control and abortion, because, in their opinion, they are a thinly disguised form of genocide. They feel that the overall goal is to substantially decrease the number of people of color. Historically, there has been, a problem with the sterilization of women of color:

         U.S. women of color have historically been the victims of forced sterilization. Some women were sterilized during Cesarean sections and never told; others were threatened with termination of welfare benefits or denial of medical care if they didn’t “consent” to the procedure; others received unnecessary hysterectomies at teaching hospitals as practice for medical residents. In the South it was such a widespread practice that it had a euphemism: a “Mississippi appendectomy.”[xxx]

There continues to be a large pay gap between men and women, with significant differences based on race and ethnicity:

Women’s Earnings as a Percentage of White Men’s Earnings, by Race/Ethnicity, 2017
Hispanic or Latina 53%
Black or African American 61%
White (non-Hispanic) 77%
Asian 85%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2018a, 2018b)

Black, Latin and immigrant men also suffer similar pay gaps as compared to white men.


Demonstration of Front de Gauche, May 2013. Photo: Philippe Leroyer

The only genuine path to liberation is through a multi-racial, multi-cultural, anti-capitalist movement of both men and women. This movement has to be class-based in nature, not at all like the amorphous marches of recent years. The movement must take as its central and guiding focus the needs and aspirations of the entire working class. To achieve this, there cannot be any divisions based on sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, and whatever else the bosses will come up with to divide us. This is our way forward

[i] Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis. Copyright 1981 by Angela Y. Davis. Vintage books edition ISBN 978-0-394-71351-9. Page 34.

[ii] Ibid page 37.

[iii] Ibid page 37.

[iv] Ibid page 38.

[v] Ibid page 41.

[vi] Charles Remond, “The World Anti-Slavery Conference, 1840” Liberator October 16, 1840. Reprint in Aptheker, A Documentary History Vol 1, page 196.

[vii] Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis page 50.

[viii] Ibid page 52.

[ix] Ibid page 53.

[x] Ibid page 54.

[xi] Ibid page 55.


[xiii] Ibid page 70.

[xiv]Century of Struggle. The Women’s Rights Movement in the US by Eleanor Flexnor. New York, Anthenum 1973. Page 144.

[xv] Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. DuBois, Meridian Books 1964. Page 672.

[xvi] Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis page 77.

[xvii] Ibid page 78.


[xix] Black Reconstruction in America, DuBois Page 698.


[xxi] Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by Alfred M. Duster. University of Chicago Press, 1970. Page 230.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] History of Women’s Suffrage Vol 4, Susan B. Anthony, Ida Husted Harper, editors. Page 246.

[xxiv] Ibid Page 246 (note).

[xxv] Philip Taft and Philip Ross, “American Labor Violence: Its Causes, Character, and Outcome,” The History of Violence in America: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, ed. Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, 1969

[xxvi] William Philpott, The Lessons of Leadville, Colorado Historical Society, Monograph 10, 1994.

[xxvii] Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis. Page 118.

[xxviii] Ideas of the Women’s Suffrage Movement Aileen S. Kraditor (Doubleday/Anchor) 1971. Page 143.

[xxix] History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 5, Ida Husted Harper 1902, Page 6.


How Racism Weakens the Fight for Women’s Suffrage: Multiracial Unity Is Crucial to Stopping Sexism

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