Lessons from Lucy Stone: How the Coalition for Women’s Suffrage Crumbled

Monica Donovan 26 Aug 2020

I randomly picked up a book out of my friend’s car during a reprieve in the Adirondacks a week or two ago, looking for some light reading while we were hanging out by a swimming hole. The book was called Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. I skimmed the table of contents, and a chapter on the women’s suffrage movement jumped out at me.

I was interested in women’s equality, but what really intrigued me was Grant’s study of the schism that grew among members of the movement, and how that divide ultimately ended up setting back women’s suffrage by decades.

It was impossible to ignore the uncanny parallels in terms of the divide we see in Vermont’s movement for cannabis legalization today. This sent me down a rabbit hole of research and further reading in an earnest effort to understand how, and why, we got here.

Lucy Stone: A Total Badass

When modern public schools teach their students about the women’s suffrage movement, they typically include familiar names like Susan B. Anthony (who hailed from my native Rochester) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Field trips to the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House were pretty standard when I was growing up. But Lucy Stone, who probably did more for women’s suffrage than just about anyone, is often overlooked in mainstream history textbooks. Frankly, this was the first I’d heard of her.

Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone was the first woman in America to keep her own name after marrying. Hailing from Massachusetts, she was the first woman from that state to earn a bachelor’s degree. And she was the first American to become a full-time lecturer for women’s rights, mobilizing countless supporters and adeptly converting adversaries to rally around the movement. Stone launched the country’s foremost women’s newspaper, the Woman’s Journal, which ran for half a century, and led national conventions.

Because of Stone, the woman’s suffrage movement was a success. Her special skill was in keeping her message temperate, making sure the tone was just right so that it appealed to a broader coalition of people. Her adversaries became admirers – she later even managed to win over the highly conservative Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, who had formerly been alienated by Anthony and Stanton.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In 1851, Stone organized a women’s rights convention, but didn’t take the podium until people coaxed her into speaking on the last day. “We want to be something more than the appendages of society,” Stone pronounced, calling for women to petition state legislatures for the rights to vote and hold property. Her remarks became known as the speech that set the women’s rights movement on fire.

Stone’s fiery words made their way across the Atlantic, where they inspired British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill to publish a famous essay on the enfranchisement of women, helping to mobilize women’s suffrage activists in England.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wrote a glowing note to Anthony about Stone: “We have no woman who compares with her.”

In America, perhaps the most significant effect was on Susan B. Anthony, who was a teacher in Rochester at the time. Stone’s speech inspired her to join the suffrage movement. Two years later, the other great suffragist of the era, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wrote a glowing note to Anthony about Stone: “We have no woman who compares with her.”

For the next 15 years, Stone, Anthony, and Stanton collaborated, strategized, and became known as the renowned leaders of the women’s suffrage crusade. But long before they could realize their shared goal of equal voting rights for women, their coalition crumbled. How did this happen?

The Goldilocks Theory and Horizontal Hostility

In his book, Grant lays out his Goldilocks theory of coalition formation. The originals who start a movement will often be its most radical members, whose ideas and ideals will prove too hot for those who follow their lead. To form alliances with opposing groups, he says, it’s best to temper the cause, cooling it as much as possible. In order to draw allies into joining the cause itself, what’s needed is a moderately tempered message that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

Coalitions are powerful, Grant says, but they are also inherently unstable, depending heavily on the relationships among individual members. Lucy Stone’s conflict with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton shattered the most important alliance in the suffrage movement, and nearly led to its demise.

Most would assume that common goals bind groups together, but the tough reality is that they often drive those groups apart. Dartmouth psychologist Judith White describes a lens for understanding these fractures, the concept of horizontal hostility. Even though they share a fundamental objective, radical groups often disparage more mainstream groups as impostors and sellouts.

“It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them,” Sigmund Freud wrote a century ago.

When a deaf woman won the Miss America crown, instead of cheering her on as a trailblazer, deaf activists protested.

White noticed horizontal hostility everywhere. When a deaf woman won the Miss America crown, instead of cheering her on as a trailblazer, deaf activists protested. Since she spoke orally rather than using sign language, she wasn’t “deaf enough.” When a light-skinned woman of color was appointed as a law professor at one university, its Black Students Association objected on the grounds that she wasn’t “black enough.”

Heather Whitestone, first deaf Miss America title holder. Deaf activists protested, saying she wasn’t “deaf enough” to earn that credential. 

It was this very same horizontal hostility that caused Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to split off from Lucy Stone. Anthony and Stanton were relatively radical; Stone was more mainstream. This ideological divide worsened in 1866, when Anthony and Stanton partnered with a known racist, George Francis Train, who supported women’s suffrage because he believed women could help to curtail the political influence of African Americans. Stone was livid when she saw them campaigning with Train and allowing him to bankroll their efforts.

The fault line only grew wider when Anthony and Stanton opposed the Fifteenth Amendment proposal to grant African-American men the right to vote. They drew a hard line: if women weren’t given the right to vote, other minority groups shouldn’t be allowed it, either. Their position was radical not only because it was inflexible, but also because they had been trying to reach liberal constituents who favored the amendment.

Stone was more sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. At an equal rights convention, she attempted to build a bridge between black activists and Anthony and Stanton, announcing her support for a continued alliance:

“Both are perhaps right…. Woman has an ocean of wrongs too deep for any plummet, and the negro too has an ocean of wrongs that cannot be fathomed…. I thank God for the Fifteenth Amendment, and hope that it will be adopted in every state. I will be thankful in my soul if anybody can get out of that terrible pit.”

Anthony and Stanton viewed Stone’s support of voting rights for men of color as a betrayal of the women’s cause. They reneged on their commitment to a joint organization and announced the formation of their own national women’s suffrage organization the following week, in May 1869.

Stone and a group of colleagues published a letter calling for a more comprehensive organization, to no avail. By the fall, they had little choice but to form their own group. For more than two decades, they maintained their distance, working independently in some cases and at cross-purposes in others.

Parallels in Vermont Cannabis Advocacy

Looking at Vermont cannabis advocates through the lens of horizontal hostility, it’s clear that we share a common goal: That cannabis can be freely enjoyed by everyone, without fear of retribution or reprisal. But beyond that shared ground, there are both minor and major philosophical differences.

There are those that approach it from a purely racial justice perspective, and who argue that without decriminalization and regulation, people of color will continue to suffer from discrimination by law enforcement and higher incarceration rates.

There are some who would prefer to see no legalized market at all, decrying that any form of commercialized cannabis is naturally beholden to corporate whims.

There are the enthusiastic entrepreneurs, people who have either enjoyed cannabis and are eager to make it their livelihood, or people who see that their skill set and experience fits well with the budding industry. In a fledgling industry fraught with political chaos and constant policy change, advocacy is an unspoken necessity for members of the cannabis industry.

And there is much fear that small business people and farmers, part of the lifeblood of the Vermont economy, will be shut out of this market.

Within the Vermont hemp and cannabis industry, those philosophical differences run the gamut. Our state is well-known for its small-business driven, high-quality craft goods – fresh organic produce, artisanal food, craft beer, home furnishings.

There is a great deal of anticipation and expectation that craft cannabis will be the next thing on this list. And there is much fear that small business people and farmers, part of the lifeblood of the Vermont economy, will be shut out of this market.

How we get from here to there is complicated, something made abundantly clear by looking back at the last five years of failed legislation, and the long road to decriminalization and the legalization of medical cannabis before that. It requires not only an understanding of the nuances of policymaking, but also a commitment to growing a cannabis industry that meshes well with Green Mountain sensibilities. And finally, it requires a coalition of advocates willing to look past their differences to achieve a greater common goal.

The Narcissism of Small Differences

Lucy Stone recognized that common goals weren’t sufficient for a coalition to prosper, saying, “People will differ as to what they consider the best methods & means.” Stanton, for her part, “pointed to the difference in methods as the ‘essential issue’ dividing the two associations.”

George Francis Stone, whose alliance with Susan B. Anthony was one of the factors that drove the women’s suffrage coalition apart.

Stone was committed to campaigning at the state level; Anthony and Stanton wanted a federal constitutional amendment. Stone involved men in her organization; Anthony and Stanton favored an exclusively female membership. Stone sought to inspire change through speaking and meetings; Anthony and Stanton were more confrontational, with Anthony voting illegally and encouraging other women to follow suit.

In the women’s suffrage movement, the narcissism of small differences reared its ugly head. When Anthony and Stanton partnered with the known racist Train, Stone wrote that Train’s support of suffrage was “enough to condemn it in the minds of all persons not already convinced,” and her husband warned Anthony that the alliance would mean “irreparable harm to the cause of votes for women and blacks.”

But Anthony would not budge from her radical conviction that if women couldn’t gain the right to vote, blacks shouldn’t, either. She campaigned with Train throughout Kansas and accepted his funding to create a suffrage newspaper.

The alliance proved costly: Kansas had a chance to become the first state to adopt suffrage, but ended up losing the vote–and the black suffrage proposal lost as well.

The alliance proved costly: Kansas had a chance to become the first state to adopt suffrage, but ended up losing the vote–and the black suffrage proposal lost as well. Many insiders held the alliance with Train accountable for both defeats.

The message here is clear: The narcissism of small differences deepens the schism amongst Vermont cannabis advocates, and does a disservice to our cause. The divide between Stone and Anthony and Stanton set the movement back decades. Stone passed away in 1893, a full 27 years before the Nineteenth Amendment passed. How long will Vermont’s fight last before we finally reach our common goal?

Reaching Across the Aisle

Our instinct is to sever our bad relationships and salvage the ambivalent ones. But the evidence suggests we ought to do the opposite: Keep our frenemies at a distance and attempt to convert our enemies.

In efforts to challenge the status quo, originals often ignore their opponents. If someone is already resisting a change, the logic says there’s no point in wasting your time on him. Instead, focus on strengthening your ties with people who already support you. Our best allies, Grant says, aren’t the people who have supported us all along. They’re the ones who started out against us and then came around to our side.

Instead of ignoring [the heckler], Lucy Stone addressed him directly in her speech, and the audience roared with applause.

In 1855, a heckler disrupted a convention by describing suffragists as unfit for marriage, disparaging the movement as “a few disappointed women.” Instead of ignoring him, Lucy Stone addressed him directly in her speech, and the audience roared with applause.

Grant argues that, most importantly, it is our former adversaries who are the most effective at persuading others to join our movements. They can marshal better arguments on our behalf, because they understand the doubts and misgivings of resistors and fence-sitters. And they’re a more credible source, because they haven’t just been “yes men” and Pollyanna followers all along.

There’s a lot more to unpack, but at the risk of writing a book-length dissertation on this subject, I’ll stop myself here.

The final takeaway is this: We all want the same thing, and Lucy Stone had the right idea when it came to crafting her message carefully for different audiences, building diverse coalitions to achieve a common goal, and reaching out across the aisle to her enemies. She has changed my own ideas on how to approach this complex web of ideologies, people and policies that are a part of the legalization effort in Vermont.

Whether S.54 passes or fails, the work won’t end there, nor will the abundance of opportunity to build a strong coalition that fights together for a cannabis industry that truly represents Vermont.

Lucy Stone rocks. I encourage you all to learn more about this fiery, dedicated suffragette as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day and continue our work to end cannabis prohibition and ensure that everyone, no matter their gender or color, can enjoy this plant without fear.

An undated photo of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone. Source: Corbis—Getty Images

Pass this post:

Related Posts