Suffrage and Anti-Slavery by Martha Gruening

Racism and the Suffrage Movement

Martha Gruening passing out suffrage literature, 1912
Martha Gruening passing out suffrage literature, 1912. Paul Thompson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the September 1912 issue of The Crisis, a journal considered one of the leading forces in the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, addressing a failure on the part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to support a resolution condemning the Southern disenfranchisement of African Americans, in law and in practice. It addresses the historical ties of the suffrage movement to the anti-slavery movement and regrets the later move away from defending racial justice.

Martha Gruening, a white woman, was a contributor to The Crisis. She worked for such causes as racial justice and peace. She served for a time as secretary to Herbert Seligmann, the director of public relations for the NAACP.

Language of the original article (and the summary) is the language of the time.


Summary of Article:

  • Gruening traces the beginning of the woman suffrage movement in England and America to the beginning of the anti-slavery movement, not only correlating in time, but actually growing out of that movement.
  • Skills developed in the anti-slavery movement were used by early women's rights advocates.
  • Working for freedom of the Negro inspired married women to work for their own freedom. Both groups had no legal existence; they were not entitled to their own property, earnings, or children; they had economic and employment "disabilities"; women did not have the right to free speech even when among abolitionists.
  • She particularly roots the woman suffrage movement in the experience of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the 1840 World's Antislavery Convention, where they had to sit apart from their fellow (male) delegates, and where William Lloyd Garrison joined them in protest.  This led to the Seneca Falls convention of 1848.
  • She quotes extensively from the recollections of Fanny Gage of the Akron Woman's Rights Convention where Sojourner Truth spoke.
  • Gruening acknowledges that, while both groups are still deprived of basic human rights, the temptation of both groups has been to ignore the rights of the other in their own struggle.
  • She condemns the recent event where a woman's rights convention "refused to pass a universal suffrage resolution."
  • She draws out the irony: "It is strange to see so many suffragists who point with pride to the action of Garrison in withdrawing from the anti-slavery convention, blind to the larger significance of that action. Stranger still to see them following, not Garrison's lead, but that of the convention in their attitude toward colored people, and forgetting that no cause is great to the exclusion of every other."
  • Gruening quotes Robert Purvis who stood with women's rights after the Civil War, and calls on the suffragists of the present to see that all suffragists, "whatever their sex or color" "have a common cause." 


The next year, a major suffrage march in Washington asked black women to march at the back of the march.  Ida B. Wells-Barnett had another idea.

The article above followed publication by an earlier article, also in The Crisis, by W.E.B. Du Bois: Suffering Suffragettes