Black Women in the Suffrage Movement
The following biographical vignettes highlight some of the most influential black women in the women’s suffrage movement – who broke gender and racial barriers to gain equity. These bold women were educators, journalists, wives and, mothers. While many of them were the ‘first’ – walking in their shoes as black, female suffragists was not easy. In their personal and professional lives, they faced adversity for the color of their skin and their gender. And amongst other suffragists, they found their demands and work often overshadowed by prominent white suffragists of the time who often used discriminatory acts and language in furthering their cause and prioritized their own over bettering the conditions for all women.
New York Times writer Brent Staples (2018) writes of the contentious relationship between white and black suffragists. Staples describes the often racist and bigoted language used in describing black men, perpetuating dark stereotypes, and asserting the belief that the ratification of the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote degraded white women. Also, white suffragists often scapegoated black women when it would be beneficial for their cause. For example, Staples (2018) recounts the experience of black suffragist and journalist Ida B. Wells who, after being invited to march in a 1913 suffragist parade in Washington, was ordered along with other black suffragists to march in the back of the parade. Wells refused. Whispers amongst other black suffragists suggested that some believed that their white counterparts might attempt to exclude them from the passing of the 19th amendment if it suited them.
In the face of discrimination and hypocrisy, black suffragists persisted. They chartered their own clubs, such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs, and more. They also founded missions like the White Rose Mission and the Dorcas Home Missionary Society which offered enrichment to black girls within their local communities. Their legacies will not be forgotten, and the work that black suffragists of the 19th and 20th centuries did has paved the way for all black women.