We have enfranchised niggers, and yet refuse the ballots to our wives. Are they not as good and as intelligent as niggers? Certainly they are. Schools today are taught mostly by women—and yet it is said those who would teach our sons are unfit for the elective franchise. Women are the guiding spirit of mankind everywhere.
John McDonald, Democratic legislator, 1869
“The Honorable Abner Tibbetts,” reported the St. Paul Dispatch on February 5, 1869, “the only man who represented Wabasha County in the Legislature, was at home a day or two last week. He fought a good fight in the interest of Mr. Donnelly thereby carrying out the nearly unanimous wish of his constituents.” He had staunchly supported Donnelly’s failed attempt to unseat Ramsey for the U.S. Senate, undercut in large part by his ally, congressman-elect Morton S. Wilkinson, who had jumped late into the contest. Tibbetts, the article continued, “is an active working member of the Legislature and commands the respect and confidence of the people of his district.” So began a snapshot of the Republican House member, a forty-five-year-old married real estate agent from Lake City who three years before proposed land to a young Captain Montgomery from Le Sueur that could have been the site of a black colony. But on the day before the Dispatch profile appeared, Tibbetts had distinguished himself on another count when he introduced a new petition for women’s suffrage, “requesting that in any change or amendment of the constitution to extend or regulate suffrage, there shall be no distinction between men and women.” However, the motion to send it to the judiciary committee, where it could be reviewed, failed, 22 to 22, amid considerable mischievous jocularity by lawmakers from both parties.
Though the petition lost, it did not die. Only a handful of votes were needed to reverse the action. All that was needed was a little more help. This marked the continuation of a distinctively contentious legislative session. Three days later, the St. Paul Dispatch, the progressive rival of the Press and organ for reform, welcomed the arrival of Colonel Enos Stutsman, “the champion of female suffrage in Dakota.” A colorful lawyer, successful real estate agent, and powerful Democratic legislator from Pembina who had sponsored a bill for women’s suffrage in 1868, Stutsman was also well acquainted with discrimination since he was born without legs and an arm. It was hoped by the editor of the Dispatch that his presence would result “in the subject being brought before the Minnesota Legislature and it will receive more respectful treatment than the petition a few days since.”
As an eyewitness of the rejection of the Tibbetts petition, the Dispatch derided the men of the legislature—Democrats and Republicans alike—for toying with such an important matter. “Men may laugh and sneer but female suffrage is the coming political question, which, next to our finances will engross the attention of the pubic for the next few years. It numbers many of the best minds in the country among its advocates and all liberal men are its supporters. Those who look back through the struggle for negro suffrage see a lighter task in this new movement.” With a nod to Mrs. Stearns’s work taking hold of the state’s conscience, the paper added, “We say ‘new movement’ not in the sense that it has not been talked of and written about for years, but that it is now taking more definite shape and a momentum is gathering with ensured ultimate success.”
The Dispatch, born of reform-minded irreverence for the established Republican power base, began publishing in January 1868, just as Donnelly focused on a bid to replace Ramsey in the United States Senate. Donnelly, believing that it was impossible to campaign without the support of a metropolitan newspaper, determined that a new paper could satisfy this need. This was the St. Paul Dispatch, and it would be his own political organ to combat the Democratic press and the St. Paul Press, which supported the Ramsey-Marshall camp and was the chief editorial voice for black suffrage in Minnesota. In January, Donnelly became a silent partner of Harlan P. Hall. The Dispatch was initially a cheaply produced tabloid, which faced intense competition from its Democratic and Republican rivals, which sought to ruin it by publishing a special evening edition. “But the Dispatch persevered and, for the first time since the Minnesotan, Donnelly could count on the support from a friendly newspaper in the Twin Cities.” Though its support of the woman franchise was sincere, universal suffrage, which the Press adamantly opposed, also served as a proxy for the senatorial campaign. In this, the Dispatch found a dual purpose.
Identified by the national suffrage movement as a major St. Paul newspaper sympathetic to universal suffrage, the Dispatch received a telegram that parodied the fragile nature of suffragist sensibilities and reprinted “the following unwelcome intelligence” under the eye-catching headline “Failure of the Female Suffrage Movement”:
With much regret, we [the leaders of the Woman’s Suffrage Convention of Chicago] are compelled to announce the complete and premature failure of the movement of female suffrage. A copy of the St. Paul Press of yesterday having been forwarded to us by telegraph, we read an editorial therein as follows:
“There is good earnest work enough for women in the world without going to Women’s Rights Conventions to look for it—the holiest, noblest work that was ever given to mortals. They care for a home with a baby in it, would make politics impossible for a right-minded woman; and with two or three or half a dozen babies in it, the sacred duties of maternity almost supplant society. For these are duties which no good mother can delegate.”
We have all along been solicitous relative to the course of this journal and knowing that it could not be controlled, made no deposit of bonds for that purpose, but hoped it would be liberal enough to favor us. Feeling that any further efforts to secure suffrage would be useless with the St. Paul Press opposed to us, we are reluctantly compelled to abandon the entire movement, and request our friends to do likewise. Though contrary to our previous intentions we now feel compelled to attend to “a home” and perform these duties which cannot be “delegated.”
The letter was “weepingly” signed by Stanton, Anthony, Parker Pillsbury, Mrs. M. S. Livermore, Anna Dickinson, and George Francis Train on February 13, 1869.
Supporters of women’s suffrage in the House, resolved in the wake of the failure to send the Tibbetts petition to committee, thereby effectively killing it before it received a thorough reading, pressed the matter when, four days later, a formal bill to amend section 1, article 7 was introduced. John Lathrop, a married Republican farmer from Rochester and supporter of the Tibbetts petition, was the bill’s sponsor. This was the first bill for women’s suffrage to be proposed in the legislature. On February 19, the Committee of the Whole recommended that it be passed on for a second reading. The next day, Representative D. Pile, a married Republican physician from Glencoe, proposed HF Bill No. 91, a resolution for a special hearing for February 25, “and that ladies be invited to seats on the floor, with the privilege of expressing their views on the subject.” From here, the legislative road grew bumpy when Representative John C. Rudolph, a married Republican banker from New Ulm, moved the resolution be tabled, and his motion prevailed. The House then adjourned for the evening.
On February 24, supporters moved to hold a special session where Bill No. 91 could be voted up or down. The men of the House debated the measure before a chamber that “was densely crowded, and the lobbies were filled with gentlemen.”
The clerk read the proposed amendment to the Constitution, allowing females to vote.
Mr. McDonald (Democrat) moved to go into Committee of the Whole on the bill.
Mr. Chewning (Democrat) moved to indefinitely postpone the bill.
Mr. McDonald asked what reason he had for such a move.
Mr. Chewning asked what reasons he (McDonald) had for supporting the bill.
Mr. Lathrop (Republican) said what we’re here for, and hoped the gentlemen in favor of the bill would speak out and perhaps the scales would fall from the eyes of those opposed to the bill.
Mr. Chewning’s motion was lost.
Mr. McDonald said that the one reason why he argued against the bill was, the ladies do not desire it. He called on Mr. Pyle to read a petition from his constituents.
Mr. Pyle (Republican) rose and commenced his remarks amid breathless silence. He said the first argument against the bill was based on rebukes and lies. He remembered that when he spoke in favor of the amendment twenty years earlier, he was “rotten egged.” Such “gentlemen” who threw the eggs then were still “lurking around” to oppose the measure, “and smut mills in this city are firing off their snubs at me.” He said that the reason that prevented the ladies from coming up in one band and asking for this measure was simple cowardice. They had been trained from infancy to shirk from it. Epithets were thrown at them. Some men were manly enough to come out in favor of it, others opposed it openly, and a third class sneered at and ridiculed it. “We can find no reason in the fitness of things why any distinction should be made in the eye of the law. Females should have the same means of vindication as men have. There are grievous wrongs daily perpetrated on females in this country for which there is no remedy but the ballot. See that mother who once unwittingly bestowed to a being unworthy of her—pleading for her infant child in court—away from the brute who had stolen her food to sell for grog.” (This point caused a stir in the gallery.) “These reasons long ago convinced us that the only way to fight those wrongs is to give the ballot to the other sex. They can’t be kept under any longer.” Dr. Pyle resumed his seat amid loud applause.
Mr. McDonald said this was an important question and he had sustained it so far. The question of suffrage had been “greatly extended” the past few years, and he was “going for the whole figure.” (Applause.) It was asserted that it would degrade and unsex the woman. Mr. McDonald strongly disagreed, reading “an eloquent and heartfelt appeal from a lady” whose name he chose to withhold.
Mr. Smith, a Democrat from Dakota County, called for the name.
Mr. McDonald refused to read it.
Mr. Smith objected to reading any more anonymous letters before them. (Laughter.)
Mr. McDonald proceeded: “We have enfranchised niggers, and yet refuse the ballots to our wives. Are they not as good and as intelligent as niggers? Certainly they are. Schools today are taught mostly by women—and yet it is said those who would teach our sons are unfit for the elective franchise. Women are the guiding spirit of mankind everywhere. What, Mr. President, would the world be without women? It would be a universe without a man—the heavens without the polar star of our being.” (Terrific applause.) “We ask every man who votes against this bill tonight to remember he votes to declare his mother, daughter, and sister an inferior being.”
Mr. McGrew, a Republican from Fillmore County, said that because “no one seemed willing to [argue against the measure],” he would “venture briefly to give some reasons why he felt that he could not support the measure.” He rejected the measure because women would be eligible to run for office and that it was “unnatural to place ladies in any such position. . . . Can they go through our heated campaigns, where candidates’ characters are always assailed? Who could wish his wife or mother or daughter to pass such an ordeal?” He did not believe that women wanted the law, and viewed it as “a violation of the laws of nature, [nothing that] the Creator evidently designed.” There were, however, rights that women should have: the right to own property. “Property rights are far more important to their comfort and happiness than suffrage rights.”
As to women in office, Mr. McDonald said that McGrew was wrong about women not having the physical capacity to hold office, and referred to the fact that there were female postmasters. “The State Librarian is a lady, and no objection was made to this.”
Mr. Folsom (Republican) said he believed in equality before the law. “How many women carry on business in their own name?” It was a rhetorical question, for Stearns had been writing about female business owners since 1866. “God made women like men—with the same minds and brains, and yet we see them today under the iron heel of the tyrant man.”
Mr. L. Smith (Democrat) said he differed with the advocates of the measure. They had not convinced him, and he now desired to hear from the ladies themselves. (Applause.) He understood there was a lady present who was willing to address the house, and moved that she be called upon. The motion was unanimously carried. (Someone inquired about her name; Mr. Smith did not know it.) At this point, Mrs. Dr. Addie J. Ballou, of St. Paul, and an ally of Stearns, arose and said:
As I have heard my name called, I rise to respond. I came here to listen, not to speak, but will endeavor to give our reasons for asking for suffrage. I am not a citizen of Minnesota, as I am denied the ballot. Yet that starry banner, which is an emblem of this country, is just as clear to me as to anyone (applause) and I have in common with my sisters, I ask to have a voice in the Government. The argument of the gentleman from Fillmore, is very lame. Does he wish to withhold from us the ballot because we may compete with him for office? Then he is not a gentleman, but a coward.
If, as he says, not more than one in twenty will vote if allowed, what harm is done? Why not give us the chance? Even if they so stump the State, they might as well do that as to use their tongues so freely at home. Give women something to do higher than spring fashions, and they will not run after the Grecian bend and such follies.
Women are certainly as capable of following some occupations as men. She teaches school as well, and yet only received one-third or one-half as much as men do, while the expenses are the same. A woman never embarks in any business to earn a living without creating scandal. [I am] sorry to say much of it came from women; but give them suffrage and employment, and they will backbite their sisters less. Today women are educated, what for? For any useful stations in life? No, they are taught French, and music, and drawing, and other almost useless accomplishments, and not taught to earn their own living. Labor seems disgraceful to most of them. Who ever saw an American girl employed as a domestic? But every woman should be independent of a man. We are told we are so much better off if independent. But a woman feels degraded when dependent. It gives the man power over her he should not have. But give her suffrage and she can protect herself. I demand the ballot. (Applause.)
I shall offer it at the next election whether you pass this bill or not. If you refuse me, then I am not a citizen. But I demand a voice in the laws which govern me. You say men are protectors, but they do not protect us more than we protect them.
Women will not be less women for having the ballot. They are called strong-minded—but . . . this is no reproach. She needs to be strong-minded and strong-muscled too, to earn her own living. Women have a hard enough time anyway. Give her the ballot to help her along. It is only a matter of time. It must be given to her sooner or later. It has been given to the negro—why not her? Is she inferior to the negro? It will gratify her much to have Minnesota the first state to adopt it. (Mrs. Ballou resumed her seat amid much applause.)
Mrs. M. R. Smith, state librarian, said she had been requested to speak on the subject, but would decline such an honor, and leave it in the hands of the husbands and brothers of the women—hoping that whichever way the question was decided, it would be for the advantage of her sex.
There was a loud call for the question. Mr. Egan (Democrat) moved to call the roll. Five members were absent (including Chewning), and the sergeant at arms reported that they could not be found. Mr. Aaker (Republican) moved to suspend further proceedings and Mr. Gilman (Democrat) moved to adjourn, but he was ruled out of order for not standing by his seat. Mr. Clarke (Republican) moved the previous question to take up passage of the bill. The motion failed, 21 to 22, with McDonald voting “nay.”
From here on, the suffrage measure began to twist in the wind, as legislators—predominately Democratic—played with the emotions of suffrage supporters by moving to bring the measure forward, then voting the motion down, ultimately to be tabled. That evening, the Dispatch reported, “the hour for attacking the proposition with ridicule, sneering, or expressions of startled amazement has passed away. Whatever reasons this Legislature may assign for rejecting it, the people will not permanently accept the judgment. It will recur again and again in politics, each time gathering greater strength, until it becomes law of our land.”
On February 26, Charles Clarke, a married Republican farmer from Minneapolis, moved to take the bill from the table and offer it for a third reading, normally the last stage of a bill before it was finally decided. The motion prevailed. At last, the questions on the passage of the bill would be presented to the House. Weighing in the balance was whether the women of Minnesota would once and for all get a chance to gain suffrage rights. The next day, February 27, the vote was taken and the measure failed, 21 to 25. Twenty Republicans and one Democrat (Fridley) voted for suffrage. Fifteen Republicans formed the majority to defeat it. “So the bill was lost.”
“[Women] have the right of politics and until they exercise that right in their own behalf, the Legislature is not called upon to meddle in that subject,” wrote the Pioneer. “The members of the Legislature can occupy their time quite well in the endeavors to uplift the burdens of all class of taxpayer, as in futile efforts to redress wrongs which exist only in imaginations.” Later in session, the body was regaled by a poetry recitation from Harriet Bishop, titled “Minnesota, Then and Now,” just recently published by D. D. Merrill Publishing Company.
* * * * *
When, in February 1869, Congress passed a version of the Fifteenth Amendment, the schism within the suffragist community widened even more. The New England Woman Suffrage Association supported the amendment and urged its ratification. The National Woman Suffrage Association did not. In fact, they refused to endorse the Fifteenth Amendment unless it was “redeemed” by a Sixteenth Amendment that would be submitted simultaneously for ratification. Republican congressman George Julian of Indiana, a longtime supporter of women’s suffrage since 1844, introduced a bill for a sixteenth amendment and Anthony pressed for its passage, insistently denying her endorsement of the Fifteenth Amendment. The New England suffragists charged that the national association was racist.
The assertion was not without good reason. The tactics the Anthony-Stantonites used to advance their cause were often racist. “In particular,” Ellen Dubois writes, “they began to use arguments that exploited white women’s fear and hatred of black people. To challenge the Fifteenth Amendment, Stanton argued the position that it was wrong to elevate an ignorant and politically irresponsible class of men over the heads of women of wealth and culture, whose fitness for citizenship was obvious. ‘American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement,’ she wrote in behalf of a sixteenth amendment, ‘if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters . . . to dictate not only the civil, but moral codes by which you shall be governed, awake to the danger of your present position and demand that women, too, shall be represented in the government.’ Such arguments slandered the freedmen by implying that poor black men were more responsible for women’s disenfranchisement than rich white ones.” On June 8, 1869, Stanton wrote:
When a mighty nation, with a scratch of the pen, frames the base ideas of the lower orders into constitutions and statute laws, and declares every serf, peasant, and slave the rightful sovereigns of all womankind, they not only degrade every woman in her own eyes, but in that of every man on the footstool. A cultivated lady in Baltimore writes us a description of a colored republican reunion, held in that city a few evenings since, in which a colored gentleman offered the following toast: “Our wives and daughters—May the women of our race never unsex themselves by becoming strong-minded.”
A month later, Stearns reprinted from the Pioneer its account of a black man from St. Paul who had raped a white woman. It was the first time she printed this kind of story, the first time she reprinted anything racially charged from the Pioneer or any Democratic paper.
As provocative as their rhetoric had come to be in demonizing the black man, the black woman was nothing more than a convenient symbol. By 1869 Anthony and Stanton made no effort or expressed any interest to bring black women into the rank and file of the movement, cultivate prospective leaders, or even share the stage with black women speakers. Not since 1866 when the Equal Rights Association began, did suffragists grapple with the black woman’s double disenfranchisement, which, as Dubois writes, “transcended the hostility that Reconstruction politics were generating between the black and white suffrage movements.”
However, Frances Gage, who after the war served as chief agent of the Washington, D.C., Freedman’s Bureau, specifically advocated for the political rights of the freedwoman. More than any other white leader of the Equal Rights Association, she was immersed within the black community. Soon other leaders took her lead, but only by degree. She still viewed black men with hostility. Using information Gage had collected, Anthony claimed that freedwomen, who had shared equally in the suffering of slavery, were refusing legal marriage and the submission to men that emancipation seemed to require. Anthony added that the black man, trained in the ways “of tyranny and despotism,” might be expected to take exceptionally well to the privileges of being a husband. Similarly, Stanton argued that unless the freedwoman received the franchise, she would be doomed to “triple bondage that man never knows.” Olympia Brown likewise argued that black women “needed the ballot more than anyone in the world.”
But the attention paid to black women was more rhetorical than real. Their overall participation during the three years the Equal Rights Association existed was as minimal as that of black men. Among the more than fifty national officers and speakers at organization conventions, only five black women, the same number as black men, played any role at all. Hattie Purvis and Sarah Redmond were the daughter and sister, respectively, of Robert Purvis and Charles Louis Redmond, two of the half-dozen black men prominent in white abolitionist circles. In addition, Frances Watkins Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Hattie Smith, all ex-slaves and orators, were active, though in no case did they hold positions of leadership. “This sparse record is not surprising,” Dubois notes. “Before the war the slave woman had been a central symbol in antislavery propaganda, but blacks of both sexes had been relegated to a peripheral role in the management of the national antislavery movement. . . . As the possibilities for a joint struggle for black and woman suffrage evaporated, and as the woman suffrage forces became increasingly independent of abolitionism, the image of the black woman—for she had never been much more than an image—receded into the background.” No longer relevant to this phase of the movement other than as props to denigrate black men, black women held no value in the rhetoric of universal suffrage as leaders worked to expand the ranks among native-born, middle-, and upper-class white women, and especially when they, as leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association did, sought to ally themselves with the Democrats.