Monday, August 1, 2011

Faye E. Dudden's "Fighting Chance"

Faye E. Dudden is Professor of History at Colgate University. Her books include Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America and Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences, 1790-1870, which won the George Freedley Memorial Prize.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America, and reported the following:
How could she do it? Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the founding mothers of the U.S. women’s movement, a friend of Frederick Douglass, and a vigorous advocate of equal rights regardless of sex or race. And yet in the late 1860s she descended into appalling racism. Why did this former heroine of equal rights, in company with her friend and fellow agitator Susan B. Anthony, develop such feet of clay? There is no one-word answer, though if I had to pick two words they would be “politics” and “money.” I tell a story that reflects Stanton and Anthony’s belief that they really did have a “fighting chance” to win votes for women at that historical moment—if only they could put together the resources to campaign, and if only they could take advantage of the fluid politics of Reconstruction.

Page 99 falls in the midst of describing a contentious meeting of activists in May 1867 when Stanton was attacked by the African-American leader George Downing for failing to concede that black men‘s voting rights should take priority over those of women. Stanton had long argued that activists should claim equal rights for all and not fall into the mistake of prioritizing, but at this point she abandoned the high ground and made a nasty crack about the freedmen’s “ignorance, poverty, and vice.”

The backstory about politics and money helps explain what was happening. Downing was feeling testy because black men had just been enfranchised in the South under Radical Reconstruction, but in the North black men like himself were still disenfranchised. And Stanton was feeling testy about money. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips controlled a bequest designed to support agitation for abolition and women’s rights, and the donor’s will stipulated that, if slavery was abolished, the remaining funds went to women’s rights. Though slavery had been abolished, Phillips was ignoring the will and withholding money from women’s rights, directing it instead to agitation for black men’s voting rights. Of course Stanton and Anthony resented this shabby behavior and eventually their resentment about resources began to spill over from Phillips to the black men whose cause he championed.

Later, after the women lost their best fighting chance to win woman suffrage in Kansas, Stanton and Anthony would compromise more and more on their egalitarian principles in order to accept funding from a new (racist) donor and to seize the moment before Reconstruction’s window of political opportunity closed. Page 99 cannot stand in for the full story of their bitterness, frustration, failure, and betrayal, but it does gesture toward its most important elements—politics and money.
Read more about Fighting Chance at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue