The Suffragists You May Not Know

[Library of Congress] A poster celebrating Sojourner Truth’s fight for suffrage, and commemorating her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech from the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention.
Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul—these are all recognizable icons of the women’s suffrage movement, but they were not alone in speaking out for women’s rights. While all of these women certainly belong in the annals of American women’s history, why don’t as many know such names as Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells-Barnett,  Nannie Burroughs, Anna Julia Cooper, or Mary Church Terrell? These were just some of the African American women who fought the double battle of racial and gender oppression; who, despite being sometimes marginalized from the wider women’s suffrage movement, persisted in speaking out, and in writing about, the importance of women’s political participation.

Birth of a Movement

The first wave of feminism had its roots in the antebellum women’s rights movement. These early women activists were largely white, middle-class women, many of whom had first become active in such other reform movements as abolition and temperance. Students of women’s history learn about the key events in the first wave that is often bookended by the meeting at the Seneca Falls Convention (1848) on one end and the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) on the other.  They learn of the luminaries in early women’s rights who, after being cast out of the abolition movement as second-class citizens, found their place in the emergent women’s rights movement. Along the way, names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Angelina Grimke, and Susan B. Anthony become part of the master narrative in women’s history.  Later, as the fight for suffrage continues during the 1910s, it is Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul who take the limelight, though with very different modes of action.

Suffrage from Women of Color

[Library of Congress] Mary Church Terrell, an African-American suffragist, was president of the National Association of Colored Women.
Running parallel to the mainstream feminist movement, at the end of the 19th century a vibrant milieu of black women activists sprung forth as the black women’s club movement.  Black women’s clubs, such as the nascent National Association of Colored Women (NACW) were initially fairly conservative with women focusing primarily on “racial uplift,” or the idea that black women and men must prove themselves as exemplary members of their black communities to garner respect from the mainstream world.

Led by Terrell, the NACW, founded in 1896, highlighted the need for voting, as black men had become largely disenfranchised  following the end of the short lived Reconstruction era. By the early 1900s, the NACW had also taken up the mantle of lynching and racial violence with reformer Ida Well-Barnett helping to draw additional attention to this important cause.

[Library of Congress] Educator and civil rights activist Anna Julia Cooper.
But even before the founding of the NACW, in the 1840s and 1850s former slave Sojourner Truth was one of the most powerful presences in the fight for equal rights for women. On the abolitionist lecture circuit, she used her considerable talents as a speaker to advance the women’s cause. Her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech—given at the Woman’s Rights Convention on May 29, 1851—famously adapted a term often used by early abolitionists to decry slavery, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, into “Ain’t I a woman” to decry the unequal status of women.

One of the best-known early black feminists was Anna Julia Cooper who was also involved in the black women’s club movement.  Cooper eloquently proclaimed black feminism in such publications as A Voice From the South (1892). In that work, Cooper showed the way in which race and gender interlocked in a fight for justice as she affirmed: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

About the Author

Marian PeralesMarian Perales is the Managing Editor for the American History, African American Experience, American Indian Experience, and Latino American Experience databases. She received her BA from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and her MA from The Claremont Graduate University. She completed doctoral coursework at Claremont Graduate University specializing in Chicano/a history, U.S. religious history, and 19th century U.S. intellectual history. Her articles have appeared in Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women’s West (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) edited by Elizabeth Jameson and Susan Armitage and Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, and Community (Oxford, 2005) edited by Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sanchez Korrol.

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