The African American Women’s Suffrage Movement, a Lesson to Us All

When we think of the women’s suffrage movement many of us think of proud women marching, linking their arms, supporting women’s right to vote. The picture in their minds of many will be only of white women. That is often the image portrayed in the media and in history texts. It may be a surprise to some but there was an active and vibrant African American women’s suffrage movement. The African American community of women did not achieve full suffrage until the 1960s and even after that there were formidable barriers to full participation in voting. Today more than ever we see the need for women of all backgrounds to come together and assert the right to vote. The following (taken from Wikipedia) details the African American women’s suffrage movement which struggled to have the voice, that all of us deserve, in our nation’s political life. “As the women’s suffrage movement gained popularity through the nineteenth century, African American women were increasingly marginalized. African American women dealt not only with the sexism of being withheld the vote but also the political concerns of white suffragists who knew they needed the votes of some southern state legislatures and southern U.S. senators and congressmen. The struggle for the vote did not end with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In some Southern states, African American women were unable to freely exercise their right to vote until the 1960s. However, these difficulties did not deter African American women in their effort to secure the vote. The racism that defined the early twentieth century made it so black women were oppressed from every side: first, for their status as women, and then again for their race. Many politically engaged African American women were primarily invested in matters of racial equality, with suffrage later materializing as a secondary goal. The Seneca Falls Convention, widely lauded as the first women’s rights convention, is often considered the precursor to the racial schism within the women’s suffrage movement; the Seneca Falls Declaration put forth a political analysis of the condition of upper-class, married women, but did not address the struggles of working-class white women or black women. Well into the twentieth century, a pattern emerged of segregated political activism, as black and white women organized separately due to class and racial tensions within the overall movement, and a fundamental difference in movement goals and political consciousness. Black women engaged in multi-pronged activism, as they did not often separate the goal of obtaining the franchise from other goals, and wide-scale racism added to the urgency of their more multifaceted activism. Most black women who supported the expansion of the franchise sought to better the lives of black women alongside black men and children, which radically set them apart from their white counterparts. While white women communities overall, rather than their individual betterment exclusively as women. In Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis explains that ‘black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered…and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s,’ which highlights the source of their more holistic activism. Following the civil war, many African American women struggled to keep their interests at the forefront of the political sphere, as many reformers tended to assume in their rhetoric assuming “black to be male and women to be white. The women’s suffrage movement began with women such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and it progressed to women like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, and many others. All of these women played very important roles, such as contributing to the growing progress and effort to end African American women’s disenfranchisement. These women were discriminated against, abused, and raped by white southerners and northerners, yet they remained strong and persistent, and that strength has been passed down from generation to generation. It is still carried on in African American families today. ‘African American women, have been political activists for their entire history on the American continent but long denied the right to vote and hold office, have resorted to nontraditional politics.’ In June 1892 the Colored Women’s League (CWL) was founded in Washington D.C. Under their president, Helen Cook, the CWL fought for black suffrage and held night classes. A Boston-based group under the leadership of Margaret Murray Washington and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin called the National Federation of AfroAmerican Women joined the Colored Women’s League out of Washington D.C. In 1896, both groups combined to form the National Association of Colored Women under the leadership of Mary Church Terrell. Terrell was a college educated woman and was named the first president. This group did many things to contribute to the betterment of black women, as well as many other smaller groups who are not named.”

In reviewing the above material you can see the path to women’s full representation in our democracy has been especially problematic for the African American community, yet their struggle and their achievements have led to a better reality, if not a perfect reality. Their perseverance and courage are lessons to all women that no matter what the barriers, we must continue to work to have a place to fully express our wishes for this country through the vote. Women of all backgrounds, cultures, and experiences cannot be silent! Such is the historic struggle in which we must continue to engage. Failure is not an option. All women must have a voice and it cannot and should not be silenced!

Fondly Submitted for the Diversity Committee



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