Men have always played a vital role in the pro-life movement and in the feminist cause. As we approach the Centennial Celebration of the 19th Amendment establishing women’s right to vote, we acknowledge the contributions of men who sought equality for women through suffrage—including some who also worked to protect women and children from abortion.
As FFL President Serrin Foster explained in her op-ed published by The Washington Examiner on the 99th anniversary of the 19th Amendment: “When male abolitionists attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 decided that females in attendance,” including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, “would be silent, William Lloyd Garrison decided that if women could not be heard, he would not speak.”
If women could not be heard, he would not speak.
Similarly, when Susan B. Anthony was denied the right to speak at a Quaker meeting in support of temperance, there were men who supported her.
Anthony also had a major supporter within her own family. Her brother Daniel Read Anthony was a staunch abolitionist and a supporter of full suffrage. He was known to be very fiery and hot-tempered; he fought against the Confederacy as a lieutenant colonel and fiercely resisted President Andrew Johnson’s policies after the war, almost landing him in prison. Like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass also correlated abolition with the demands of feminism, recognizing that equality with human beings in bondage was linked to equality of the sexes. Douglass openly supported the suffrage movement, proclaiming in 1848, “…that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to women the exercise of the elective franchise.”
Born a slave who became a major figure in the abolitionist movement, Douglass was an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln and a dear friend and ally to suffragists.
Douglass parted ways with Susan B. Anthony for a time when he determined that black men should achieve suffrage first, and Anthony, who had earlier signed a declaration in support of universal suffrage, chose to pursue women’s rights. Later in life, after the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution, they reunited as Douglass returned to champion women’s suffrage.
The New York Times reported that on the day Douglass died, he had attended a suffrage meeting and was allowed to stay during the secret business session. He was honored by the National Council of Women for being the only man invited to share the dais with the officers, and the Rev. Anna Howard Shaw and Anthony were asked to escort him to the platform. Later that night as he excitedly recounted the activities of the day to his wife, Douglass suffered a heart attack or stroke at their home in Anacostia Heights in Washington D.C. Upon hearing the news, Anthony was visibly shaken.
Another prominent suffragist, Henry Blackwell, even had his own wedding vows changed so that he could include the enfranchisement of women’s rights as a promise to his wife.
Male suffragists were not limited to the North. In 1918, Thetus W. Sims, a representative from Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District, had injured himself severely prior to a vote on suffrage. Despite his suffering, Sims managed to attend the vote and lobby his House colleagues to vote yes for women’s rights after a lengthy hearing, and indeed, it was Tennessee that put the 19th Amendment over the top, as the 36th of the then-48 states to do so. Sims’ incredible dedication to suffrage despite his pain is emblematic of the type of passion necessary to fight for the needs of women.
Later on in the movement, as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were marching for the right to vote, they experienced terrible vitriol from male counter-protesters who called the women brutes, threw bottles at them, and even had the police called against them. Some men, however, turned out to be unlikely allies. The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage walked in support of suffrage when it was unpopular or thought of as emasculating to do so.
Author Max Eastman was one of these men. He keenly observed, “People who demand neutrality in any situation are usually not neutral but in favor of the status quo.”
In today’s society, where sexual assault, economic disadvantage, racial disparity, and the promotion of abortion as a solution to women’s crises are seemingly everywhere in the news, it is time for men to step up as those before and to stop being neutral.
American men were not the only male suffragists. English philosopher, abolitionist, and supporter of women’s suffrage John Stuart Mill wrote in The Subjection of Women, “I consider it presumption in anyone to pretend to decide what women are or are not, can or cannot be, by natural constitution.” Mill recognized that society had no right whatsoever to assume that women by their nature were not capable of independence and autonomy. He, too, sternly reproached those who ignored the plights of both women and slaves in what was supposed to be a free new world.
Abolitionist and suffragist Parker Pillsbury, co-editor of The Revolution, explained the reason why the publication chose not to accept advertisements—including those for thinly disguised abortifacients, the most lucrative form of income for a periodical at the time: “Quack Medicine venders [sic], however rich, proud, and pretentious, Foeticides and Infanticides, should be classed together and regarded with shuddering horror by the whole human race.” Rather than betray their feminist principles when The Revolution fell into debt, Anthony filed for bankruptcy after just four years. But by then, Pillsbury along with Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and others, had documented the first wave feminists’ strong opposition to abortion.
Today, many of the male advocates of women’s suffrage have been forgotten, but their message lives on as we celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. In the United States, feminism remains a core philosophy whose definition is often obscured, denied, and debated. Yet men like Douglass, Garrison, Pillsbury and so many others remind us that upholding the tenets of equality between the sexes necessitates change in our own lives, including standing up for the vulnerable— and standing up to our peers.
By Damian J Geminder and Eric Hollenbeck
FFL Feminist History Course Quiz
To read more about our Feminist Foremothers, please purchase First Wave Feminists here.