The First Black Republican Feminist
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I wonder what my grandmother would have made of the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This isn’t idle speculation. Although largely forgotten today, during the 1930s and 1940s, Eunice Carter was one of the most prominent black women in the U.S. At a time when so much was closed to those of her race and gender, she accomplished extraordinary things. She was a prosecutor in New York City, where she helped convict Lucky Luciano, the nation’s most powerful mobster. She’s been much on my mind the past few years, because I’ve spent the past several years writing a book about her. She is, in a sense, in my head.
Here’s why I’m wondering where she would stand on Kavanaugh: Eunice was a tireless campaigner for women’s rights. She even warned of the evils of what we now call sexual harassment back in the 1930s, when few people imagined that the treatment of women in the workplace mattered.
At the same time, she was a prominent Republican, heavily involved in national and local campaigns. She could, literally, get GOP presidential candidates on the telephone. And before you recoil in partisan horror, let’s bear in mind the strange inversions of our tortured racial history. Eunice’s Republican Party was not the party of today. She was born in 1899, and for most of her life, the Republican Party was the pro-civil rights side, and the Democrats – who at one convention in the 1920s made black delegates sit behind chicken wire – manifestly were not.
Eunice’s mentor, Thomas Dewey, ran for president three times, twice gaining his party’s nomination. He lost each time. But he campaigned on the strongest civil rights plank either major party had ever adopted. He was the first presidential candidate in the nation’s history to openly and repeatedly court black voters. He was frequently photographed at black gatherings, and spoke proudly about employing and socializing with black folk – including my grandmother. (And this at a time, remember, when President Franklin Roosevelt, despite repeated requests, was unable to bestir himself to allow black reporters at his press conferences; and when FDR’s White House claimed falsely that the NAACP supported its policy of keeping the armed forces segregated.)
Eunice grew up at a time when nearly all black Americans voted Republican – the party of Lincoln! – but she had particular reasons for her partisan preference. She always suspected the motives of Democrats, whom she viewed as the party of racist mischief and dirty tricks. Her family had barely escaped the 1906 Atlanta riot – fomented by Southern Democratic politicians. In the 1920s, she had watched her friend Hubert Delany, a successful black lawyer, go down to defeat in a New York congressional race he was favored to win, after the city’s Democratic machine arranged for men in blackface to march through white precincts, asking voters whether they wanted to be represented by a Negro. And she despised the Democrats for the many long years during which they controlled Congress and the White House yet refused to so much as bring any civil rights legislation to a vote.
That’s all ancient history, of course, but it’s the history in which my grandmother’s politics were forged. It also explains why I’m quite sure she would have started out strongly in support of anyone nominated to the Supreme Court by a Republican president. Whatever attacks opponents launched, her first instinct would have been to dismiss them as more of the Democratic dirty tricks she had come to know so well. When the charges of sexual assault were raised, Eunice’s first reaction might well have been to join other conservative critics in lambasting the Democrats for keeping the allegations under wraps rather than raising them, as they should have, when they learned about them in July.
But I think that she would soon have changed her mind. Her mother had been a suffragist who also fought for better treatment of women by their own husbands. Eunice, who overcame her share of barriers to become a prosecutor, was a committed campaigner for women’s rights. In particular, at a time when hardly anybody spoke out on the subject, she worried about the plight of women who were mistreated at their jobs. Eunice herself had suffered discrimination as the only woman and the only person of color in an office with 19 white male prosecutors.
And she understood that there were forms of discrimination that were worse than what she’d experienced. In a May 1937 speech to the Howard University Alumnae Club, she described the treatment of women in the workplace as “one of the most vicious things in our economic and social order.” She added:
There are men who exact from women a personal relationship of a rather intimate nature in order that the women may feel secure in their jobs. Boiling in oil is just a little too good for those kind of men.
That’s not of course what was alleged against Kavanaugh, although both are horrific. But Eunice still would have been concerned, weighing her deep distrust of the Democrats against her deep commitment to the proper treatment of women. And, in the end, I suspect that the substance of the allegations would have outweighed everything else.
That the allegations were uncorroborated would not have deterred her. She had once prosecuted a he-said, she-said case, and fully understood that at times the woman’s allegations constitute the entirety of the evidence. At the very least, she would have called for an investigation – a deep and thorough one. Quite possibly she would have wound up in opposition to confirmation. It would not have been the first time she went against her party on a matter of principle.
That’s not to say that Eunice would have dismissed Kavanaugh’s confirmation as illegitimate or suggested that the Supreme Court was now tarnished. She had too much respect for our governing institutions – an attitude she had developed in the teeth of the segregationist tendencies of her day. And she believed in her own abilities. She would not have let the defeat slow her down. She would have cut her losses and moved on to other things, placing her faith as ever in the American people themselves to heal the wounds of the latest struggle.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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