Frederick Douglass' involvement in the women's rights movement of the nineteenth century, and where Douglass stood on women's rights. Douglass was an orator, a statesman, and an outspoken proponent of civil rights for all who were oppressed, even women. His stand on rights and dignity for all mankind has made him one of the most enduring freedom fighters Americans have ever known. He worked hard for women's freedom as well as freedom for blacks in the South.
Frederick Douglass was a former slave living as a free man in the Northern United States, and a staunch advocate for civil rights and the ending of slavery before and during the Civil War. He escaped from a plantation in Maryland and made his way to New York, where he worked as a shipbuilder and eventually gained his freedom. He traveled the world calling out for an end to slavery in the United States, and he worked tirelessly for the freedom of all people, including women. One of his biographers writes,
In 1846 British supporters purchased his freedom from his former master. So, the following year, Douglass returned to America and settled in Rochester, New York. There he started a weekly newspaper called the North Star. He wrote scathing editorials on a variety of topics, slavery being just one of his targets. About the need to be adamantly concerned about the plight of slaves, he wrote, "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground" (Connery 156).
Women were just beginning to fight for their own rights in the 1850s, and Douglass supported their fight in many ways. He believed all people should be free, no matter their color, gender, or beliefs. He had lived as a slave and knew the hardships slaves faced at the hands of their masters, and so, he hoped to make the world a better place for everyone. However, he was not without his own controversies on occasion. For example, Douglass came under disapproval by many people because his friends had ultimately purchased his freedom from his owner, so he no longer faced the very real danger of capture and return to slavery. Some abolitionists felt that no man had the right to hold people as property, and so no man had the right to sell another man, and so Douglass' purchase, even by his friends, dishonored the very moral fiber of what they believed in (Huggins 34). Because Douglass knew controversy, he also was able to identify with others embroiled in controversy, which made him more open to their suffering and their hopes for reform.
The women's rights movement did not really begin in American until the mid-1800s, although there had been talk about women's rights even before the Revolutionary War, by American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. John Adams fought to include women as part of the voting majority during the Revolutionary War, but was voted down by his colleagues in 1776 (Langley and Fox 20-25). Other early Americans also recognized that women should not be treated as the minority, but were always overruled. And so, women began to fight their second-class citizenship early on in American history.
For example, women textile workers in Lowell Massachusetts walked out from their jobs in 1830 as a protest to their working conditions. Their strike is the first women's strike recorded in American history. Things came to a head after the factory agents reduced wages, and the "factory girls" protested their loss of income. Feminist historians Langley and Fox note, "The strike or 'turn-out' originated in the Lowell mills in 1830 when agents reduced wages because of a sluggish market. The 'girls' claimed this action to be unjust and demeaning to their status as daughters of freemen" (Langley and Fox 56). By 1845 these women had formed a union and were actively working for fewer working hours per day and more educational and professional options in their employment (Langley and Fox 56). By the 1850s, women's rights movements were springing up in many areas of the United States, and Frederick Douglass sympathized with their cause. Even though he was tirelessly working for civil rights, he also took time to advocate rights for women in his speeches and his writings. Douglass formed the North Star newspaper in 1847, and he often wrote about women's rights in this abolitionist inspired paper.
Most people believe the organized women's rights movement began in America in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Women's Convention. The organizers would become known as some of the most influential and vocal women in the women's rights movement, as authors Langley and Fox note,
The convention was organized by five women, all of whom were married and had children. Four were Quakers and abolitionists: Lucretia Mott, Jane Hunt, Martha Coffin Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock. The fifth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was Presbyterian and an abolitionist, wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, a title borrowed from the American Anti-Slavery Association (Langley and Fox 82).
The women's Declaration of Sentiments asked for equal treatment in all areas of American life. At the time, women could not vote, could only own property in very select circumstances, gave up almost all her rights when she married, including her property, and could only divorce in very rare circumstances. The women wanted things like this rectified, so men and women could be more equal and laws were more equitable toward women. While their ideas might seem "quaint" today, when women know many more rights than these women even thought of, it was work by women like these that gave women the rights they enjoy and even take for granted today.
Douglass attended the Convention and this was the beginning of his strong belief that women's rights were as important to America as freedom for the slaves. One of his biographers writes, "In 1848 Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Women's Convention, where he began to advocate equal rights and the vote for women. He considered the handling of women as practically chattel almost as horrific as the inhumane treatment of slaves" (Connery 156). When he returned from the convention, he spoke of his own feelings and experiences in his newspaper. In an editorial regarding the Convention, he wrote, "Standing as we do upon the watch-tower of human freedom, we can not be deterred from an expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character of any members of the human family" (Langley and Fox 86). Thus, he made his position on women's rights clear from the very start of the movement, and he continued to support it in varying degrees throughout his lifetime. In fact, he also called himself a "women's rights man" in his newspaper (Strauss 176), and supported women because so many of them had supported the abolition of slavery.
Douglass often wrote about the rights of women for many publications, and he also included his support in his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which historian Strauss quotes in her book,
When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been preeminently women's cause. . . . Observing woman's agency, devotion and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable 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 (Strauss 176).
Douglass believed in the rights of all, and overlooked differences to find commonalities among races, among the sexes, and among people everywhere. Douglass was also one of very few men who actually openly supported the movement (Kolmer), which is another reason his support is still remembered and honored to this day.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, black slaves were freed around the country. Women, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others had openly supported the Republican government of Abraham Lincoln, which advocated freedom for blacks as one of the tenants of the Civil War. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution guaranteed blacks their freedom and the ability to vote, but they ignored the women who had supported them during the war, and many of the women were bitterly disappointed. Another historian writes, "Suffragists had actively supported the Republican Party during the Civil War and had expected to be rewarded with the franchise afterward. But this had not happened" (Newman 4). This made the women bitter but increased their determination to gain their own freedom and rights.
In addition, a rift grew between many women and other freedom fighters, such as Frederick Douglass, because they felt they had been forgotten by the men. Stanton wavered in her support from Douglass after his second marriage was to a white woman, but famous…