Valentine Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass
by Carol Crossed
These were remarks delivered by Carol Crossed at a February 18, 2018 event at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, a CLN member group.
This week is not only the birthday of Susan B. Anthony, but also the 200th birthday of her good friend Frederick Douglass.
Because of illiteracy, the birth dates of most slaves were not known by their families. And certainly not known by their masters. After all, as one slaver said, “Do we keep a record of when our cows birthed calves?” So Douglass knew 1818 was his birth year, but he did not know his date of birth. He chose February 14, since his mother called him “her little valentine.”
Anthony’s friendship with Douglass was portrayed on stage this fall in Rochester, NY. The performance was titled The Agitators. Colleen Janz [our executive director] and five of us on the Birthplace Museum Board of Directors attended the performance. We hung on every word.
Anthony broke with custom and tradition when she asked Douglass to give the eulogy at her father Daniel’s funeral in 1862. This was unheard of in the mid-19th century.
However, recent expansive research has given rise to questions about racism within the suffrage movement. The research is well founded to a limited extent. The Birthplace has a piece of ephemera depicting racial overtones.
Despite her friendship with Frederick, Susan was not exempt from contemporary accusations of racial bias. This primarily was because Susan opposed the 15th amendment, giving black men the right to vote. Her opposition was because voting rights did not expand to another class of human beings: She wanted rights [in the language of her day] for both the Negro and women, and would not go halfway.
Today this rift between feminists is seen in the pro-choice / pro-life divide. Pro-choice feminists want rights for women at all costs. Pro-life feminists see themselves as favoring universal rights, and refuse to deny the rights of what they consider another class of human beings. They do not want to go halfway.
Susan was the leader in this war of all or nothing: voting rights for all or voting rights for none. It was a racial split in the suffrage movement that lasted 22 years.
According to Elaine Weis, who has written about the anti-suffrage movement, this rift tried at the souls of Anthony and Douglass even after their deaths. In the final years of the passage of the 19th Amendment, their friendship was criticized by many who opposed suffrage and was used to attack Anthony in her grave. As a matter of fact, even before ratification, the first to call the 19th Amendment the Susan B. Anthony Amendment were not pro-suffragists, but the anti-suffragists, who wanted to taint the suffrage cause. They hoped that race connection, that friendship, would deter supporters of suffrage, particularly those representing the Southern states.
The connection even deterred many in the north, even in the city where Anthony and Douglass led their activist life, Rochester, NY. Yes, the state of New York voted for suffrage, but in the city of Rochester, suffrage was defeated. It brings to mind the old adage that a prophet is honored everywhere except her own home town.
Carol Crossed is President of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Board of Directors, and a Co-Founder of the Consistent Life Network.
See all our blog posts put in categories.