Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass discussion

Douglass' abolitionism sexist?

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message 1: by City Lights (new) - added it

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers "Davis dissects the strengths and pitfalls of how [Douglass:] defined freedom -- a definition that, Davis explains, leaves enslaved women behind as symbols of oppression, unable to achieve the "manhood" Douglass equates with his liberation." — Todd S. Burroughs

Do you feel that Davis' criticism is justified? Was Douglass' abolitionism somehow sexist? Can we pardon him for this crime, considering that his work opened the door for women's lib?

Lakishia Douglass' work was not at all sexist. As Douglass recounts his life as a slave, he wanted women to be free just as well as men. He was hurt by not being with his mother and he saw young girls who whose faces were disfigured because of the hand of the mistress. He wanted help for young girls and you could feel the sympathy in which he felt. He also had respect for many great women who were doing the work to create freedom for slaves.

BubblesTheMonkey sorry to disappoint you, but most human males are sexist... Even if they don't show it.

Iesha I have actually studied Douglass numerous of times and I do believe that Douglas seems a bit sexist at times. However, I do not feel as though it was intention. He just felt the need to emphasize black manhood and as a result he exploited the black female and her body, by using the abuse of black women to show the atrocities of slavery.

Lakishia BubblesTheMonkey wrote: "sorry to disappoint you, but most human males are sexist... Even if they don't show it."

I'm not disappointed it all. They are just opinions expressed.

BubblesTheMonkey Lakishia wrote: "BubblesTheMonkey wrote: "sorry to disappoint you, but most human males are sexist... Even if they don't show it."

I'm not disappointed it all. They are just opinions expressed."


message 7: by Minnie (last edited Jan 02, 2013 04:39PM) (new)

Minnie Sexist? He was a slave in the 1800s, reared by his slavemasters, (those were his role models) who magnified the male role in the family! He was a man of his times. A proud man determined to rise above his station in life and refused to let ANYONE stand in his way; right or wrong.

For those interested in slavery-times, may I suggest historical fiction written by African Americans? “Freeman” by Leonard Pitts Jr., a brave story; Bernice McFadden’s gutsy “Glorious”; honest historical fiction, “Douglass’ Women,” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and "Great Speeches by African Americans" (page 13). He gave a speech in 1852 about slavery.

He is still my hero.

Robert Benz Yes, to Minnie. The description of Douglass as sexist would be a nuance at best; a footnote in a life defined by a struggle to achieve equality for all. What we do know for sure is that Douglass was one of the first and most important Feminists.

Jeanne Gehret Douglass was, like many of us, a mixed figure. According to Susan B. Anthony's biography, he and other abolitionists during the Civil War asked the feminists (who had worked HARD for abolition) to put all their efforts to getting the vote for black MEN. Anthony and Stanton were bitterly disappointed but went along.

Jeanne Gehret I have written about this period in my novel The Truth About Daniel.

Robert Benz Interesting, Jeanne. We gotta revive this comment section.

message 12: by Amy (last edited Mar 17, 2017 04:32PM) (new)

Amy Manderino Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony--who betrayed whom?

Every year around this time, I am confounded by how many people so easily forgive Frederick Douglass his explicit sexism during Black History Month, yet universally condemn Susan B. Anthony as racist during Women's History Month when Douglass' sexist views were clearly more politically damaging in reality and Anthony's most widely cited "racist" quote isn't evidence of racism, at all. Quite the reverse. She was echoing the voices of black women of her day.

Both Douglass and Anthony worked tirelessly side by side for years advocating for the rights of both blacks and women, together. That is undeniable. However, when black men seemed to have a chance at suffrage in 1866, Douglass threw women--white and black--under the bus. Douglass stated that while suffrage for women was "desirable," for black men it was "vital" and refused to demand that women be included in the 15th Amendment. Anthony was outraged, and rightly so. It was not just a question of philosophy. It was a question of political expediency. Other black male leaders had explicitly stated their sexist opposition to women's suffrage--black or white. Women suffragists like Anthony believed that granting suffrage to these sexist black males would not only create a block of male voters that would oppose women's suffrage but also crush the momentum for women's suffrage, leading to Anthony's much quoted retort, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman."

This quote, taken out of context, is often used as evidence of Anthony's racism, but this quote was actually a response to black male sexism towards women of all colors. Anthony was saying, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro male FIRST who will vote AGAINST suffrage for all women."

Douglass' betrayal was devastating to Anthony. Imagine working side by side and then having your ally betray you in this way, knowing that granting the vote to sexist black men who opposed women's suffrage and not simultaneously granting suffrage to women was going to make your goal of women's suffrage that much harder. Anthony was against black male suffrage without women's suffrage because she was well aware that patriarchal male supremacy was alive and well in both black and white male culture. In proper context, her remark was not evidence of her race bias, it was her valid response to sexism in the black male community.

And she was echoing the sentiments of black female suffragists at the time like Sojourner Truth who also forcibly argued for including women in the 15th Amendment for the same reasons. Truth believed, "...if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.” It is ironic that black women today often reject Anthony’s widely cited quote as racist, when Anthony was actually in agreement with the voices of black women like Truth that were Anthony's contemporaries.

Clearly Anthony was not opposed to black male suffrage--she had publicly campaigned for it for years--she was opposed to black male suffrage WITHOUT women's suffrage--and with good reason. History proved her correct. After Douglass split the coalition suffrage movement advocating for both blacks and women to advance black men it would take another 50 years before women won their suffrage in 1920 and, after dedicating decades of her long life to women's suffrage, Anthony would die before reaching her goal, but not before declaring "Failure is impossible."

While white women are regularly vilified when they choose "race over gender," contemporary black women are also choosing race over gender when they do not call out Douglass for his betrayal of black women. The reasoning goes something like, "We will side with and honor the male heroes of our race, even when they have overtly denied us our full equality with explicit male supremacist views. After all, that's politics. Advancing black men first leads to eventually advancing black women."

But Anthony does not get the same pass. We do not say that advancing white women first because of the political climate of the time eventually leads to advancing black women, even though that is also true. We assume good faith with regard to the intentions of black men to liberate black women (even in the face of their explicit male supremacist views) and nefarious bigotry on the part of white women for exercising the same political strategy. That double standard of holding women of history to a higher standard than men is internalized misogyny.

What is also ignored is that even after that betrayal, Anthony spoke loudly and repeatedly for the rest of her life against race oppression, continued to work with Douglass and even delivered the eulogy at his funeral. So, if we are going to forgive Douglass his "historical" male supremacist views, then we need to correct the record about Anthony, who was responding to the sexism of black men and the reality of her historical context. We do her a grave injustice when we cherry pick quotes made in the heat of life and death political battles and interpret them out of context while ignoring her lifelong advocacy not only for women, but also against race oppression.

Did Anthony pander to the racist views of her time in some of her rhetoric for political expediency? Yep. AFTER black male leaders betrayed women's suffrage with their male supremacist rhetoric for why women should not have the vote, which is conveniently left out of the historical record.

We champion Douglass as an advocate for women's rights and chastise Anthony as a racist. But the reality is that Douglass and Anthony both worked for and believed in black and women's rights and both were capable of less than noble sentiments in the advancement of their causes. And both are American heroes to whose sacrifices, advocacy and legacies we are all indebted. But we know for sure that, when the prize of black male suffrage was within his grasp, Douglass prioritized men’s advancement over women’s—including black women.

In fact, all of our most highly deified white AND black male heroes of history have all echoed the male supremacy of their time. Case in point, Alexander Hamilton, who championed the abolition of slavery, but was also a male supremacist who did not support the emancipation of women, was an adulterer and left his wife and eight children destitute fighting a duel to preserve his "manhood." Yet you can't even get a ticket to a Broadway musical celebrating his demonstrably conflicted legacy.

Even now, we forgive men their historical complexities while erasing women from their rightful place of honor in history by applying a sexist double standard that both reflects and enables today's misogyny. When we paint Anthony with one brush, we unwittingly become a link in the chain of male supremacy.

message 13: by Heather (new)

Heather Richards Well said.

message 14: by Luis (new) - rated it 4 stars

Luis Perez I have couple of problems with this discussion

1. The term ‘sexist’ did not even exist in Dougglas’ time and in Anthony’s case, the term ‘racist’ also did not exist. So to label them such seems trivial and unfair, and takes me to my second point

2. We shouldn’t use our knowledge and current foresight to categorise both with modern labels that they had no knowledge of.

In conclusion, it has to be fair to say that both did incredible work in the abolitionist movement and bringing suffrage to black men, and laying the foundation women’s suffrage. And obviously like every historical figure, we can look back and learn and/or criticise them but let’s not forget these were couple of the ‘good apples’ of history

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