As we celebrate this Centennial Year of women in the U.S. having the right to vote, as well as our League of Women Voters’ 100th anniversary, historians are reflecting on the contributions of Black women to the movement. At the time, these contributions were not always recognized, and Black women were often excluded, sometimes under the pretext that Southern white women would not be in favor of the vote if it also applied to Black women. As we in the League work on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we need to acknowledge the negative aspects of our history. One of our realizations is that we must be actively anti-racist, working against prejudice in ourselves as well as in our culture. One facet of this is a re-evaluation of what votes for women meant to Afro-Americans and how they participated in the woman suffrage movement.
Fortunately, historians have been at work on this question. Increasingly, the general works on the movement include Black leaders. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are well-known from the first generation, and many are aware of the journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and perhaps of Mary Church Terrell, but others are harder to find in the historical records. In 1998 Rosalyn Terborg-Penn published African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. By going through primary sources including letters, petitions, membership lists, and newspaper accounts, she and other historians have uncovered many African-American women who actively supported woman suffrage in many ways.
Terborg-Penn points out that life for these women was different from the conditions that affected the middle-class white women who launched the push for votes. The vast majority of them worked outside their homes, whether in professions or as household help, and cared for their own homes and children in their scant non-working hours. Before and following the Civil War, however, there were African-American families that thrived economically, and even some that became wealthy, and their daughters were educated and then used their relative privilege to start schools and teach, to become physicians, to campaign for an end to atrocities against Black people, especially lynching, in short, as they said, to work for “the improvement of the race.” In an astonishingly short time, after being forcibly deprived of formal education, African-Americans were prepared to integrate into the mainstream, but of course they faced extra barriers even beyond what the poor European immigrants of the time were dealing with. While many middle-class white women who lived privileged lives were recruited to the anti-suffrage movement, their African-American counterparts always knew that they needed the vote to accomplish the reforms needed for their people, women and men.
African-American women were sometimes able to join the major woman suffrage organizations, but in many instances they were not welcomed. So they formed their own organizations. Terborg-Penn points out, “Segregated unions allowed African American women the autonomy and leadership opportunities they would not have had if they were integrated into mainstream unions; nonetheless, segregation as a policy, nation-wide, perpetuated the aura of Blacks as second-class citizens, which was how many white Americans perceived African American women.” (page 86) Over the decades from the 14th to the 19th Amendments, Black women formed a dense network of associations to reform conditions for themselves and their people, which supported woman suffrage among their other issues.
As we know, even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, white supremacists managed by various stratagems to deprive Black women and men of actual access to the vote. Don’t we all wish this were simply a problem of the distant past?