At the dawn of the suffrage movement, no known African-American women attended the famous Seneca Falls Convention, despite the abolitionist sentiments that gave birth to the campaign for women’s rights.
White women, who were still powerless in many ways, needed to influence men to attain the vote. Susan B. Anthony had signed a declaration for universal suffrage, but when her dear friend Frederick Douglass—who shared the vision for women’s suffrage—determined men should go first, she felt utterly betrayed. Others like Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt women superior to men because of women’s life giving capacity. “It was sex v. race, and black women were caught in a double bind. Today, we have women’s groups who support abortion as if our own children were the enemy. Who is hurt most? Women and children of color,” said FFL President Serrin Foster. “One day people will look back at this generation and grimace when considering this form of discrimination and violence. We wished they had all refused to choose.”
Later in the movement, some, including Alice Paul, felt the appearance of black women at the 1913 suffrage march could be distracting. But the suffrage leadership rightfully determined that black women were welcome to join the march. Black suffragists from Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, and New York participated. Sadly, few photos depict their participation, perhaps reflecting the racism by the photographers or publishers.
Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, most black women organized in groups like the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). While being marginalized by some white women within the suffragist movement, black women also enjoyed autonomy to run their own organizations and speak for themselves.
While much research remains to be done to reveal the contributions of these forgotten suffragists, such as Nannie Helen Burroughs and Fannie Barrier Williams, many stood out and have taken their rightful place in history.
From the beginning of the 19th century, black feminists took bold, significant steps to achieve their basic human rights. One of these feminists was Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree. Truth spent a large part of her life in slavery before escaping from her third slave master along with her newborn daughter. In 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered her scathing “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. This was a landmark speech for women’s rights and specifically the rights of African-American women. In it, Sojourner Truth equated the abilities of women and men and advocated for the unique talents and gifts of women.
A former slave like Truth, Harriet Tubman is a famous figure of both African-American and feminist history. After Tubman’s escape in 1849, she became the “Moses” of black slaves, guiding them to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Tubman later worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. During her later life, she focused her efforts on promoting women’s suffrage and worked side by side with Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. Tubman was the keynote speaker of the first meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women and won many awards throughout her life as a result of her important contributions to the feminist movement.
Another icon of African-American equality was Ida B. Wells, later Ida B. Wells-Barnett. A founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Wells was born a slave and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. After being freed, Wells eventually came to co-own and write for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, where she vigorously combated the appalling practice of lynching. Because of the dangerous backlash the paper received, Wells was forced to move to Chicago and continue her work there. In Chicago, Wells increasingly focused on the suffragist cause. She refused to be sidelined because of her race and had a few public disagreements with white feminists, such as Frances Willard. Wells insisted on keeping the suffragist movement accountable to the black community.
Anna Julia Cooper was another influential black suffragist and like Truth, Tubman, and Wells, a former slave whose father was a slaveholder. Cooper transcended many societal barriers to women and minorities and, through grit and intellectual acuity, attained a master’s degree in mathematics by 1887. Apart from her personal achievements, she spoke out against the inequities she saw and experienced in society. Cooper was one of two women to speak at the Pan-African Conference in 1890 and one of the few African Americans to speak at the 1893 World Congress of Representative Women. Cooper was unafraid to criticize the racism of the broader feminist movement; rather, she was outspoken in her insistence that the feminist movement not overshadow other issues of equality and human dignity.
But Cooper was not all talk. She lived out her care and concern for justice in all facets of society. Despite the death of her dear husband two years into their marriage, Cooper served as a foster mother and housed many orphaned children throughout her life. Later in life, Cooper actually chose to pause her doctoral work at Columbia University in order to adopt five young children. Through valuing the dignity of every person, regardless of age, Cooper exhibited true selflessness and an unwavering commitment to justice. She declared, “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”
This philosophy of cherishing motherhood flowed throughout the community of feminists of color. Later, during the age of the Harlem Renaissance, Angelina Weld Grimké wrote, “Ah, gift of Motherhood! Ah, precious boon to woman, reaping priceless joy, through weary pain!” Grimké, of mixed racial background, never had any children herself but recognized motherhood as a
bond between both white women and women of color:
“If anything can make all women sisters beneath their skin, it is motherhood. If, then the white women of this country could, see, feel, understand just what effect their prejudice and the prejudice of their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons were having on the souls of the colored mothers everywhere, and upon the mothers that are to be, a great power to effect public opinion would be set free and the battle would be half won.”
A few of Grimké’s writings feature gruesome portrayals of abortion during her day and age. Abortion was depicted as one of the most horrible tools used by white men to exploit and torture women of color. During a difficult pregnancy, one of Grimké’s characters warns, “There is a time coming—and soon—when no colored man—no colored woman—no colored child, born or unborn—will be safe—in this country.” Grimké considered the unborn a source of hope and growth, especially for people of color—and she considered the taking of unborn life a sign of terrible injustice and oppression.
Feminists of color faced similar issues years later in the 1960s and 1970s. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of these women. Hamer struggled through repeated efforts on the part of white people to sabotage and marginalize her family. One of 20 siblings, Hamer was deprived of an education because of the work that needed to be done in the cotton fields as a result of the discrimination against the black family’s products. After years of trying to conceive a child, Hamer was forcibly sterilized by a white doctor—a common procedure colloquially known as a “Mississippi appendectomy”—devastating her and her husband as it did many African-American women during that time. Hamer challenged the racism of the feminist movement while being outspoken in her opposition to abortion.
Not only did she denounce abortion as “legal murder,” but she took action to support and advocate for single mothers in her community whom society tried to coerce to abort.
“We still love those children,” Hamer said. “And after these babies are born we are not going to disband these children from our families… I think these children have a right to live. And I think that these mothers have a right to support them in a decent way… We are dealing with human beings.”
Throughout feminist history, dozens of heroes of color have arisen and fought for true fairness and equality for all. These trailblazers advocated for their fellow women and minorities, but out of this hunger for justice came a drive to support the dignity of all human life. These women adamantly insisted on being granted their God-given rights to equality, education, and trouble-free motherhood, setting an unsurpassed example for women today who continue to advocate for the rights we have achieved but are still often denied and for those whose voices cannot be heard.