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When Women and Blacks Fight to Get First in Line They Both Suffer

One of the recurring undercurrents in arguments over who deserves to win this historic Democratic Party primary race has been the question of which group needs advancement more – blacks or women. Gloria Steinem has argued that voting for a woman is critical, because sexism is still taken less seriously than racism. A female Obama supporter recently countered in Time that race must trump gender, because as long as African-Americans remain so disadvantaged in income, health care, and education, electing a black man is “a matter of life and death.” Talk show callers argue over which represents worse discrimination: the fact that men can raise a sign at a Hillary Clinton rally saying "Iron My Shirt" without facing mass outrage or that rightwing Christians are forwarding messages chain messages saying that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

This isn't the first time progressives have debated each other over whether a black man or a white woman needs electoral power more -- and it is a debate that serves nobody's interests except those who don't think EITHER racism or sexism needs addressing.

Prior to the Civil War, black abolitionists and white women rights’ activists were strong allies who anticipated that a victory for either cause would be a victory for the other. In 1839, more than 14,000 women signed a petition to the Massachusetts legislature demanding the repeal of laws that discriminated against Blacks and prohibited interracial marriage. Feminist and abolitionist Abby Kelley wrote: “We have good cause to be grateful to the slave for the benefit we have received to ourselves in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely, that we were manacled ourselves.”

African-American abolitionists returned the sentiment. Former slave Frederick Douglass was a vigorous defender of women’s rights. ‘Right is of no sex,” declared the first issue of his abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, in December 1847. The black abolitionist leader Francies Maria Steward insisted that the struggles for racial and sexual equality were inextricably intertwined.

But after the Civil War, in 1866, Republicans proposed the Fourteenth Amendment, penalizing any state that denied suffrage to its male citizens, and in 1868, the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade states from denying suffrage “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Senator Charles Sumner later wrote that in drafting the Fourteenth Amendment, he had filled nineteen pages in an attempt to avoid using the word male, but his effort came to naught. Many northern Republicans were willing to tolerate Black men voting, which would only minimally affect their districts, but not women. In response, southern Democrats suddenly began to support woman suffrage, but only insofar as it could be used to defeat black male suffrage.

Originally, abolitionists and feminists had opposed separating the issue of Negro suffrage and female suffrage, but now they faced a difficult dilemma. Should they support black male suffrage, in Frederick Douglass’s words, “as the culmination of one-half of our demands,” or should they, as Sojourner Truth urged, press for universal suffrage “while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again”?

There were eloquent arguments and honest tactical differences on both sides. But but in arguing for their positions, some individuals utilized prejudices that would seriously hamper future unity. Douglass wrote that female suffrage was not urgent, because “woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton retorted that women ought not to “stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.” And Susan B. Anthony suggested that “if you will not give the whole load of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first.... Let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”

The self-defeating nature of these attempts to prove that one group “deserved” more consideration than the other was demonstrated in Kansas in 1867, when the Republican legislature proposed two separate amendments to the Constitution, one for woman suffrage and one for Negro suffrage. Originally, the legislature urged a vote for both. As the campaign progressed, however, the Republican leadership took the position that both measures could not pass, and actively worked against female suffrage. In retaliation, Stanton and Anthony accepted the support of a notorious racist, George Francis Train, publishing his anti-Negro comments in their pro-woman suffrage paper. In the end, both measures were defeated, and it took twenty years to repair the breach between the leaders of each side of the debate -- twenty years of stagnation for both causes.

Neither Obama nor Clinton has maintained that women or African-Americans are less worthy of advancement, but when their supporters suggest that one group “needs” the presidency more, they resort to a divisive tactic that has historically backfired against everyone who struggles for equality and social justice. This was not just true of the woman suffrage and black suffrage movements of the 19th century. The same divisiveness bedeviled the struggle of workers for a living wage and the 40-hour work week. When white working-class men urged the exclusion of blacks and women from jobs and union membership, they weakened their own position and opened the door for these groups to be used to break strikes and oppose union organizing efforts.

History clearly shows that the advancement of one group need not and should not come at the expense of another. We would do well to recall the nineteenth-century black abolitionist Charles Remond’s plea for unity between supporters of woman suffrage and Negro suffrage. “Do not moral principles, like water,” he asked, “seek a common level?”