Frederick Douglass on Women’s Right to Vote

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, best known as a strong advocate of the abolition of slavery, was also an early and outspoken supporter for women’s rights in general and especially women’s right to vote.

Observing woman’s agency, devotion, and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favourable attention to the subject of what is called “Woman’s Rights,” and caused me to be denominated a woman’s-rights-man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognising not sex, nor physical strength, but moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of Republican Government, to which all are alike subject, and bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex.

Douglass was one of “the gentlemen present in favor of the movement” at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention which resolved, among other things,

“That woman is man’s equal—was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.”

and

“That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

This relationship was jolted at the American Equal Rights Association Meeting in May, 1869, when delegates divided over the question of whether to support the proposed Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Douglass was among those who championed this amendment, while several leading women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued that women had an equal or greater right to be enfranchised. This led to the establishment of competing organizations promoting women’s suffrage, which did not reunite until 1890. On a personal level, Douglass had mended fences and hurt feelings with the leaders who opposed him on the question of freedmen or women first to the vote before his death in 1895.

After efforts to achieve the vote for women on a state by state basis, which had mixed results, the right to vote in state and national elections was codified by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.