The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was beyond doubt the most critical change in the country’s law and social systems. Ratified in 1865, this Amendment abolished slavery and any kind of involuntary servitude, granting freedom from their former masters to all African Americans. Soon after, in 1968, the Fourteenth Amendment formalized the rights to vote among the previously discriminated racial minority group.
Nevertheless, the new law was exclusively male-oriented and, according to it, women of any race did not receive the same right to participate in elections and influence political decision-making. It is worth noticing that the roots of the women’s rights movement are traced back to the middle of the 19th century as it gained momentum along with the anti-slavery sentiments. African American women actively advocated for racial and gender equality and stated that without granting equal rights to both Black men and women, the abolition of slavery would be incomplete.
The speech delivered by Sojourner Truth, one of the most prominent civil rights activists of that time, at the Women’s Rights Convention, Ohio, in 1851 substantially supported this statement. By critically evaluating the 19th-century laws, as well as the speeches and claims made by activists, it will be possible to see the major social and political trends of that period.
1865 was a crucial year in the fight against the enslavement of Black people in the United States as the Thirteenth Amendment signified an essential milestone on the way to social equality. It states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (“Primary Documents in American History”).
The consequent Amendment of 1968 was more detailed and clarified that all citizens, who were born and naturalized in the country, had a right to liberty and property and were protected by the law from any threat to life. Beyond dispute, these amendments reveal some positive social and political trends and shifts in the attitudes to race that occurred in the United States in the 19th century. However, Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment reveals that public views on gender were less progressive. It specifies that only male inhabitants of different states had a legal right to vote if they were twenty-one years of age.
It is possible to say that the very mention of race and gender in the United States Constitution was a sign of persistent discrimination. It implied that in different periods throughout history, some persons were more privileged than others merely by having particular multicultural characteristics. The members of the civil rights and women’s rights movements could agree with this assumption. One of the resolutions reported by Susan B.
Anthony, on behalf of the Executive Committee, during the first anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) in New York, 1867, translates the following idea: “as republican institutions are based on individual rights, and not on the rights of races or sexes, the first question for the American people to settle in the reconstruction of the government, is the RIGHTS OF INDIVIDUALS” (AERA). The emphasis on individual rights was a core element in activists’ agenda. It meant that women from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds should become involved in meaningful political and social activities to the same extent as men.
Notably, from the perspective of African American female activists, discrimination against women and the reluctance to provide them with rights to voting impeded the progress in the anti-slavery struggles. As Sojourner Truth had put it:
There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before (AERA).
Sojourner Truth was probably among the first people who made the logical link between racial discrimination and gender discrimination. Her statements demonstrate that even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the situation did not change substantially for African American women and they were still regarded as inferior by some members of their community and the law. However, in order to change that, Black women could not act alone and needed support from White women as well because a common, stereotypical association of womanhood with anything but politics and business similarly affected all of them.
Considering the abovementioned observation, it is important to look into the reasons why women were not granted equal rights as men. Frances D. B. Gage, a speaker in the AERA meeting in 1867, stated that for centuries, women had been taught that “they must not think about voting” (AERA). They were persuaded that, by some inherent qualities allegedly and wrongly believed to define womanhood, they could not engage in the same activities aimed to benefit the country as men (AERA).
However, women had proved otherwise during the American Civil War when they were asked to work for the government and the nation while men were fighting (AERA). Throughout that period, many American females diligently performed their duties as citizens of the United States. Many of them were eager to help and contribute to the welfare of the country. Thus, the presumption that women could not or did not want to have rights for participation in political endeavors seems invalid. Nevertheless, such an opinion was dominant in the mainstream culture and was supported by the law. In this way, it had negatively influenced the minds of males and females alike.
The provision of equal voting rights to all individuals could be a crucial step in the fight for social equality, and many civil rights activists and slavery abolitionists understood that. They advocated for further changes in the law that granted voting rights to adult African American men and insisted on the need to create opportunities for women to participate in elections. 19th-century activists refuted the widespread assumption that women were not capable of making valuable contributions to society and that it was not part of their essential interests. They advocated for providing political education to both boys and girls because they saw it as the basis for democracy.
However, the law analysis reveals that neither of the amendments ratified at the end of the 19th century acknowledged women’s inherent right to vote. It means that the majority of citizens and those in power, in particular, adhere to opposite ideas. Still, the desired change was ultimately achieved only at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is important to note that African American women were among the leaders in the fight for females’ rights in the United States.
American Equal Rights Association. Proceedings of the First Anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association, Held at the Church of the Puritans, New York, May 9 and 10, 1867. Phonographic Report by H.M. Parkhurst. 1867. Web.
“Primary Documents in American History.” The Library of Congress. 2018. Web.