American Equal Rights Association
The American Equal Rights Association (AERA), also known as the Equal Rights Association, was an organization formed by women's rights and black rights activists in 1866 in the United States. Its goal was to join the cause of gender equality with that of racial equality. Tensions between proponents of the dissimilar goals caused the AERA to split apart in 1869.
Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony proposed the idea at an American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston in January 1866. Stone had been involved with abolitionism through the American Anti-Slavery Society for 18 years, and had shifted her energies mainly to women's rights issues. Anthony's focus was primarily women's suffrage. The goal was to unite the energies of the two movements and focus on the common goal of universal suffrage. Anthony, Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass founded the group.
Three weeks prior to the first AERA meeting, on May 10, 1866 in New York City, the eleventh National Women's Rights Convention was called to order by Stanton. A stirring speech against racial discrimination was given by African-American activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in which she said "...You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me..." Anthony and Stanton had begun to be perceived by some as elitist or racist, as being less concerned with the underprivileged.
1866 in Boston
Over the course of the next few years, the debates between feminists and black rights activists focused on two of the fundamental disagreements between the two movements. The first was the dependability of the political establishment, especially political parties. Feminist groups moved away from the Republican Party and in fact the entire political party system, while the black rights movement aligned itself even more closely with the Republicans. The second issue was based on differences over the understanding of the function and necessity of suffrage. By 1869, each movement no longer respected the other's legitimacy. Much of the women's suffrage leadership considered that the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment accomplished the goal of black male suffrage at the expense of a combined amendment that would have provided universal suffrage, and few black activists could ignore the important demands made on their energies by the critical needs of the post-Civil War community of former slaves.
1867 in New York
Sojourner Truth, 80 years old, spoke at the second annual (first anniversary) AERA meeting in New York City on May 9, 1867. She noted how difficult it was for men to give women the vote, saying "I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife."
Lucretia Mott presided over the meeting. In regard to the upcoming ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which would give African-American men the right to vote, Mott said that "woman had a right to be jealous of the addition of so large a number of men to the voting class, for the colored men would naturally throw all their strength upon the side of those opposed to woman's enfranchisement." She was questioned as to whether she was opposed to the "colored man" getting the vote unless women received the same right at the same time. Stanton fielded the question, saying "...I would not trust [the colored man] with all my rights; degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are." She demanded the ballot for all. Susan B. Anthony spoke to say "some think this is harvest time for the black man, and seed-sowing for woman. Others, with whom I agree, think we have been sowing the seed of individual rights, the foundation idea of a republic for the last century, and that this is the harvest time for all citizens who pay taxes, obey the laws and are loyal to government."
Abby Kelley Foster then spoke for giving the freed slave his right to vote. Henry Ward Beecher argued for the convention to pass a resolution demanding universal suffrage, and to be satisfied if by doing so they were able to win only suffrage for African-American men.
1869 in New York
At a meeting in May, 1869, striking differences emerged between activists from Boston and those from New York. After Stanton, as president, gave an opening address, Stephen Symonds Foster accused Stanton of advocating "Educated Suffrage"—the right of upper-class white women to vote. Foster implied strongly that Stanton should step down as president. Henry Brown Blackwell tried to calm the waters by saying that all present, including Stanton and Anthony, believed in "negro suffrage". Frederick Douglass widened the gap when he stood up and stated his position against Stanton's use in her address of the pejorative term 'Sambo' and her denigration of lower-class people such as gardeners and boot-blacks. He said he couldn't see how "the daughters of Jefferson and Washington" were different than any other daughters. In this way a major split separated women's rights activists into two camps; those like Stanton and Anthony who felt that educated women deserved the right to vote before or at the same time as uneducated men, and those like Stone, Douglass and Foster who felt that the political situation called for a drive to achieve suffrage for the African-American man, followed by a new focus on suffrage for women of all races.
The American Equal Rights Association disbanded after that; no large-scale effort to fuse the causes of black and women's civil rights activism took place until Lucy Stone proposed it in 1887. Plans were drawn up, and, at the annual meetings of AWSA and NWSA, propositions were heard and voted on, then passed to the other group for evaluation. Stone's daughter Alice Stone Blackwell served as a go-between to help bring about resolution. By 1890, the organizations resolved their differences and merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Stone was too weak with heart problems and respiratory illness to attend its first convention, but was elected to chair the executive committee.
The brief existence and ultimate failure of the AERA is significant, as it marks the separation of the women's and black rights movements after their successful collaboration in abolitionism before and during the Civil War. In the immediate aftermath of the AERA, woman suffrage activists founded two competing groups. Stanton, Anthony, and other former abolitionists created the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in a meeting two days after the AERA convention. The all-female NWSA did not involve the issue of race in its mission. Those who believed that black and women’s suffrage were not mutually exclusive, including Lucy Stone, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Its members continued to work for equal rights for both races and sexes, in the more traditional vein of the abolitionist movement. The impasse between the two groups continued for twenty years, until they combined as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. NAWSA was guided much more strongly by NWSA'a brand of women’s suffrage than Stone and Harper’s, partly in response to the progress toward parity in voting rights for black men after the passage and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the issue of race was less emphasized in popular American feminism until the mid-20th century.
- History of women's suffrage in the United States
- List of suffragists and suffragettes
- List of women's rights activists
- List of women's rights organizations
- Timeline of women's suffrage
- Timeline of women's rights (other than voting)
- Voting rights in the United States
- Women's suffrage organizations
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