An apology to Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“…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. . . .

“Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”

I can’t remember exactly when I first read these quotes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but I think it was my last year at college.  I knew there are many far worse racial quotes from 19th Century American feminists (actually, they got nastier in the early 20th Century), so I didn’t exactly fixate on them, nor was I shocked by them.  However, I never really felt drawn to the US Women’s Suffrage Movement as a topic of close or in-depth study.  These quotes, as well as hazy ideas of figures like Ma Ferguson, Lurlene Wallace, et. al. always made me view American 19th Century Feminism as well….American.  Politics once again tainted with race.  I dismissed Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who I knew very little about, really) as another prejudiced product of her time.  I also own up to possessing a weird American Exceptionalism bias when it comes to American racial history (those little only-in-America moments like Robert Byrd endorsing Obama in 2008, etc).  The woman’s struggle for the vote? Interesting and important to be sure, but how different to the same struggle in the UK? Or Australia? Or Canada? If anything the US state-to-state battles were more uniquely American to me, as the Western states adopted suffrage before the “civilized” east.

Four or five months ago I had the chance to read Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s quotes Elizabeth-Cady-Stantonverbatim.  They stuck with me.  Why? I had long known their racial jist, why were they making me ponder so much now.  Then I realized: I owe Elizabeth Cady Stanton an apology. Her statements–misguided for sure–were not crude race-baiting.  What she was engaging in is not praise-worthy, but it’s a debate technique I’ve used myself.  She’s trying to make a point about the ridiculousness of a position (allowing no woman to vote as the nation debates the suffrage of freed male slaves) by evoking imagery she assumes will play to the other side’s own prejudices on other issues. Those who know me know that I am a bit of a political message board junky. One time circa 2005 (not long after President Bush called for a Constitutional Amendment to deny marriage or marriage-like benefits to gays) I was debating same-sex marriage with someone online.  This person was not a rabid fundamentalist but seemed conservative and a bit jingoistic if I recall right, he had problems with (of all things!) the immigration implications of gay marriage.  To me this argument made absolutely NO sense and so I shared my own situation to make a point.  I can’t recall exactly how I worded it, but it was something along the lines of “my partner is a British citizen, here on a work visa, and pays thousands of dollars to this country in taxes! We have been in a committed relationship for years. How is it fair a college student who gets wasted drunk in Mexico and marries a local girl he’s known for all of 3 days has more legal standing for spouse immigration than us?”

Let’s face it, I was getting in a cheap shot about “good immigrants” (professional, English-speaking) vs. “bad immigrants” (Mexican) as a tool to make a point about the absurdity of being against gay spousal rights for US immigration policy.   While I certainly don’t actually possess any animosity toward Mexican immigrants (or alcohol as a mating lubricator whilst on vacation!) part of me assumed that someone who was anti-gay marriage probably would.  So, I strategically made an argument tailored to their (assumed) prejudices.

Back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton: when I re-read her quotes this year I saw she was obviously using the same technique.  She knew the post-Civil War population–North and South–was uncertain and apprehensive about the new amendments which would give full citizenship (14th) and voting rights (15th) to freed (male) slaves and African-Americans in those northern states that still didn’t have the vote (some didn’t yet).  Her quotes about “Sambo” not knowing the difference between a monarchy and republic were not to disparage African-Americans as a whole (she supported black suffrage 100%), but to shine a light on the absurdity of passing over this once-in-a-century opportunity to define citizenship to include women.  She was tailoring her argument to wider assumed prejudices….just like I did.

One might be tempted to say “oh but Jason, you didn’t say “dirty spics from Mexico” Elizabeth Cady Stanton actually called blacks SAMBO!”.  “Sambo” is an offensive racial slur, make no bones about it.  However, linguistically it would not have carried the same offensive punch in 1870 as it does now.  Little Black Sambo was not published until 1899, and the American restaurant chain was not around until the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1870 “Sambo” was not the outright derogatory slur as we understand it, but it certainly was a lazy racial short-hand for “black”.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) has a minor character named Sambo and that probably contributed to its ubiquity. The equivalent today would be something like “So Shaniqua from Detroit gets a scholarship….”.  Is there anything intrinsically wrong with the name Shaniqua? Or Detroit? No. However the source and context is everything.  If Rush Limbaugh were to make a crack about “Shaniqua from Detroit” or “Jose from El Paso” benefitting from Affirmative Action we’d all know what snide racial implication he is making.  From the second quote above it’s also clear that Stanton used this dubious technique with other

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and daughter Eva.

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and daughter Eva.

ethnicities too: Hans (German), Patrick (Irish) and Yung Tung (Chinese).  She was writing about extending the vote in a period when many Americans were concerned about immigrants who didn’t speak English–or were illiterate–voting en masse.  Stanton is playing to that too: calling out the irony of the men of the USA debating the implications of illiterate Irishmen and freed slaves voting when there were already millions of educated, American-born adults waiting to cast that ballot: women. Was that an admirable debate technique? Probably not. However it also isn’t the potent racism I read it as 10-odd years ago.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton not only supported votes for African-American men and women, she approved of interracial marriage.  In 1884 she wrote a congratulatory letter to Frederick Douglass upon his marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman.  Again, this is in 1884. Other feminists at the time pleaded with her not to publicly admit to endorsing interracial marriage, as they felt it would taint their cause with radicalism and sexual deviancy.

We can read the arguments, discussions and speculations about suffrage between Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and other intellectuals during Reconstruction.  I can only imagine the debates among the ordinary thinkers (people like me) during the 1870s. The US was attempting a true non-racial democracy while simultaneously back-burnering women’s’ suffrage as a national issue for another 50 years. In the future I suspect the historians will view the timeline when the debate on same-sex marriage was the most dynamic as February 25th, 2004 through May 9th, 2012.  On the first date a sitting American president called on Congress to amend a 200 year old document to deny something to a group of Americans, and on the latter date a sitting American president said he believed said group of Americans deserve equality.  The issue certainly hasn’t been settled completely (and there was some debate pre-2004) but it’s my belief that this period will be viewed as America’s era of national dialogue on this issue: politicians using it as a wedge-issue, coworkers hashing out arguments over the water cooler, families arguing at the dinner table….and a gay guy in Seattle having an online debate on a message board.  In the midst of national debates people make sweeping overstatements, desperate slippery-slope arguments, and misguided juxtapositions aimed at others’ prejudices.

So, Elizabeth Cady Stanton–142 years after you wrote your comment, 110 years after your death, and 17 years after I arrogantly and flippantly dismissed you–I apologize!

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One response to “An apology to Elizabeth Cady Stanton

  1. I’m glad you were able to ascertain what she meant. I wish we all could go back in time to juxtapose our interpretations of inflammatory language into well meaning methods of debate! What a talent!

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