One of the most solid Democratic Party voting blocs we have today is composed of African-American women. That fact is not an accident and is deeply rooted in history—a history of organizing and struggle that illustrates the intersections and conflicts within the socio-political categories of race and gender.
Just as the abolition movement spawned a struggle for women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement was the impetus for both second wave feminism and LGBT rights, the historical role of black women in the context of the suffrage movement is a key to understanding the founding of black women's clubs, sororities and political organizations. That history also explains the roots of the racial contradictions of second and third wave feminism and the development of black feminism.
History repeats itself. The southern strategy the late-20th century Republican Party instituted by the forces arrayed against integration and desegregation was not the first wielding of the tool of racism to retard forces on the left. That same southern strategy was first used in the battle for women's suffrage.
Many of the staunchest advocates for women's suffrage were initially abolitionists. The World's Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 was followed in 1848 by the Seneca Falls Convention, which included the participation of many of the leading lights of the American anti-slavery movement—including staunch feminist Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned speech to include women's suffrage helped carry the day against those opponents of women gaining the right to the ballot.
Frederick Douglass, the only African American at the meeting, stood and spoke eloquently in favor; he said that he could not accept the right to vote himself as a black man if woman could not also claim that right. Douglass projected that the world would be a better place if women were involved in the political sphere. "In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world." Douglass's powerful words rang true with many in attendance, and the resolution passed by a large majority.
But when a full-fledged suffrage movement was underway, spearheaded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the specter of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which would give black men the franchise, but not women, became a major sticking point and split the movement.
One of the videos that many women's studies programs use to document the struggle for women's suffrage is Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, produced by Ken Burns and Paul Barnes and written by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Rebecca Edwards, in The Journal for MultiMedia History has written an interesting critique and review that speaks to the problems engendered by racism that played a part in that split and spurred the development of a movement of Negro women's suffrage, separate and apart from the larger movement.
What is missing from this documentary is a sense of the complexity of Anthony and Stanton's thought, on both suffrage and its relationship to other issues. This is especially true in its treatment of the early years of Reconstruction when—fresh from an astonishing victory over slavery—so much seemed possible to these radicals; yet the window for reform quickly shut. Distressingly, the film makes no mention of NWSA leaders' 1867 alliance with racist Democrat George Train. It does portray a debate between Stanton and Frederick Douglass, a staunch supporter of women's rights who condemned his ally's description of black men as "Sambos." But Stanton and Anthony's positions are softened here, the implications brushed aside. The filmmakers state, for example, that Anthony warned the nation about the dangers of disfranchising black men—without explaining that she herself had campaigned against enfranchising them. On Anthony's later role in excluding Douglass from a suffrage conference in Atlanta, a move calculated to attract white Southern women, they report only that she "kept silent." Her visit to South Dakota to dedicate a statue to Sacajawea is presented—with no mention of NWSA leaders' earlier speeches, during a Dakota suffrage campaign, denouncing the enfranchisement of "blanketed Indians." To miss this point is to oversimplify the post-Civil War struggles over how women (and which women) were to be enfranchised, and who could properly claim to speak for American womanhood.
William Lloyd Garrison printed a scathing attack against Anthony's association with Train in the Revolution:
January 4th 
Dear Miss Anthony:
In all friendliness, and with the highest regard for the Woman's Rights movement, I cannot refrain from expressing my regret and astonishment that you and Mrs. Stanton should have taken such leave of good sense, and departed so far from true self respect, as to be travelling companions and associate lecturers with that crack-brained harlequin and semi-lunatic, George Francis Train! ... The colored people and their advocates have not a more abusive assailant before him, to whom he delights to ring the changes upon the 'nigger,' 'nigger’ ad nauseam. He is as destitute of principle as he is of sense, and is fast gravitating toward a lunatic asylum. He may be of use in drawing an audience; but so would a kangaroo, a gorilla, or a hippopotamus. It seems you are looking to the Democratic party, and not to the Republican, to give success politically to your movement! I should as soon think of looking to the Great Adversary to espouse the cause of righteousness. The Democratic party is the 'anti nigger' party, and composed of all that is vile and brutal on the land with very little that is decent and commendable.
So where did this leave black women?
They were forced to undertake a struggle within a struggle.
Ida Wells Barnett
Unwelcome in the mainstream suffrage movement, African American women formed their own suffrage organizations. They viewed the ballot as a powerful tool for improving their lives and communities. They also wanted to reclaim the political power lost by Black men in Southern states that were violating their constitutionally protected right to vote. By the early 1900s, Black women’s suffrage clubs had sprung up across the country, from New York and Massachusetts to Texas. Club members organized voter education campaigns in their communities, circulated petitions calling for women’s suffrage, worked in political campaigns and voted in states where they had the ballot. Ida B. Wells Barnett, a journalist and anti-lynching crusader, was a guiding spirit in the African American women’s suffrage movement. Petite in stature but a powerhouse of courage and determination, she lectured up and down the East Coast, establishing anti-lynching organizations and Black women’s clubs. In 1913, she organized the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first African American women’s suffrage group in Illinois, where Wells- Barnett lived.
Not all white women took the segregationist position to heart. Just as Lucy Stone sided with Douglass, Ida Wells Barnett actively organized along with her white colleague, Viola Belle Squire.
In Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930, author Patricia A. Schechter reports:
In an event that showcased her media instincts, Wells-Barnett protested the jim-crowing of African American women to the back of a major pro-woman-suffrage parade held in Washington, D.C., in March 1913. The parade was a national event that drew thousands of women from across the country. Several white women from the Illinois suffrage delegation supported Wells-Barnett's anti-segregation position at the parade. During the women's confrontation with parade organizers, a reporter caught Wells-Barnett talking through tears. The Chicago Tribune described a "Plea by Mrs. Barnett” in which her voice "trembled with emotion and two large tears coursed their way down her cheeks before she could raise her veil and wipe them away. ” The Illinois women lost their protest, but Wells-Barnett, ever the astute judge of a political and theatrical moment, devised another plan. On parade day, she stepped from the sidelines to join the Illinois delegation at the head of the procession. This dramatic gesture required not just confidence in her colleagues' support (the Illinois women did not know of her plan ahead of time) but also personal courage.
Black women began to organize their own movement, starting with clubs like the Alpha Club, that grew into national organizations.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
The National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC) was established in Washington, D.C., USA, by the merger in 1896 of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, the Women's Era Club of Boston, and the National League of Colored Women of Washington, DC, as well as smaller organizations that had arisen from the African-American women's club movement.
Founders of the NACWC included Harriet Tubman, Margaret Murray Washington, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. Its two leading members were Josephine Ruffin and Mary Church Terrell. Their original intention was "to furnish evidence of the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women". The NACW came about as a result of a letter written by James Jacks, the president of the Missouri Press Association, challenging the respectability of African American women, referring to them as thieves and prostitutes.
During the next ten years, the NACW became involved in campaigns in favor of women's suffrage and against lynching and Jim Crow laws. They also led efforts to improve education, and care for both children and the elderly. By 1918, when the United States entered the First World War, membership in the NACW had grown to an extraordinary 300,000 nationwide.
Mary Church Terrell
As more black women began to attend historically black colleges, sororities were founded.
Birthed at a time in history when the traditional roles of women were being challenged, the founders of the first Black sororities had to overcome the stereotypical views of sexism and racism as well. These young people were considered exceptional in their own considering that a college education was not easily accessible to African Americans. By contrast, within mainstream society they were subject to rejection because of the color of their skin, having to prove their capabilities in the intellectual environment of the collegiate world. The need arose to organize a support system, the horizontal ties known as sisterhood. Destined to become leaders, nine women stood strong and formed the first African American sorority in 1908.
Now over a quarter of a million women belong to Black sororities with numbers increasing yearly. These women make a lifetime commitment to continue the legacy of building social capital and uphold the strong ideals of education, integrity, public service and activism
These sororities, though often viewed as solely social in nature, had strong ties to national black women's organizations and to party politics—initially Republican, but now primarily Democratic. Almost every black female elected official is a member of one of these sororities (for example Delta Sigma Theta).
Feminist scholarship did not feature many of these groups or movements until recently. Fortunately, that is changing. To begin to understand that history, I highly recommend reading African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920, by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn.
This study of African American women's roles in the suffrage movement breaks new ground. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn draws from many original documents to take a comprehensive look at the African American women who sought the right to vote. She discovers numerous Black suffragists previously unknown. Analyzing the women's own stories, she examines why they joined the woman suffrage movement in the United States and how they participated in it - with white women, Black men, as members of African American women's organizations, or simultaneously in all three. Terborg-Penn further discusses their various levels of interaction and types of feminist philosophy. Noting that not all African American woman suffragists were from elite circles, Terborg-Penn finds representation from working-class and professional women as well.They came from all parts of the nation. Some employed radical, others conservative means to gain the right to vote. Black women, however, were unified in working to use the ballot to improve not only their own status, but the lives of Black people in their communities. Drawing from innumerable sources, Terborg-Penn argues that sexism and racism prevented African American women from voting and from full participation in the national suffrage movement. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, state governments in the South, enacted policies which disfranchised African American women, with many white suffragists closing their eyes to the discriminatory acts. Despite efforts to keep Black women politically powerless, Terborg-Penn contends that the Black suffrage was a source of empowerment. Every political and racial effort to keep African American women disfranchised met with their active resistance until Black women achieved full citizenship
Anna Julia Cooper
Another woman who spoke out with a strong voice for equality and justice was Anna Julia Cooper.
On May 18, 1893, Anna Julia Cooper delivered an address at the World's Congress of Representative Women then meeting in Chicago. Cooper’s speech to this predominately white audience described the progress of African American women since slavery. Cooper in many ways epitomized that progress. Born into slavery in North Carolina in 1858, she earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oberlin and in 1925 at that age of 67 she received a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris. Cooper spent much of her career at an instructor of Latin and mathematics at M Street (later Dunbar) High School in Washington, D.C. She died in 1964.
Her speech to the convention was titled "Women's Cause is One and Universal." Delivered in 1893, her words still ring true today:
Now, I think if I could crystallize the sentiment of my constituency, and deliver it as a message to this congress of women, it would be something like this: Let woman's claim be as broad in the concrete as in the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain be broken, the chain is broken. A bridge is no stronger than its weakest part, and a cause is not worthier an its weakest element. Least of all can woman's cause afford to decry the weak. We want, then, as toilers for the universal triumph of justice and human rights, to go to our homes from this Congress, demanding an entrance not through a gateway for ourselves, our race, our sex, or our sect, but a grand highway for humanity. The colored woman feels that woman's cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman's lesson taught and woman's cause won—not the white woman's, nor the black woman's, not the red woman's, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. Woman's wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with undefended woe, and the acquirement of her "rights" will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of earth.
The ballot is still our ticket for defeating the war being waged against women. But it will only be effective if we ensure that "women" includes black women and other women of color.
We aren't there yet.
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