Women's Suffrage and the Question of Color

Neale McGoldrick

While women and African Americans have often had common political interests, the alliance of their movements has not always been easy. The prioritizing of competing goals, racism within the women's movement, and the pressures exerted by southern white women to block African American women's participation all produced many moments of friction and estrangement from 1848 to 1920.

Early Initiatives
The first legal opportunity for both African Americans and women to vote came in New Jersey, where the original state constitution granted the vote to anyone who had fifty pounds of property. Many widowed or unmarried women, some black men, and at least one black woman are recorded as having voted in local elections between 1780 and 1807. (Married women could not meet the property qualification for voting because all their property automatically belonged to their husbands.) This early franchise was lost after a hotly contested election in 1806 when charges were raised that married women, slaves, minors, and out-of-state residents had voted. In the name of "election reform," New Jersey changed its voting qualifications in 1807, extending the vote to all white male taxpayers and denying suffrage to women and blacks.
On July 14, 1848, Frederick Douglass advertised the Seneca Falls meeting, called to promote the cause of women's suffrage, in his newspaper The North Star. He then played a central role at the women's rights convention in supporting Elizabeth Cady Stanton's insistence on the inclusion of a demand for women's suffrage in the Declaration of Sentiments. The slogan, which appeared in every issue of The North Star, reflected Douglass's life-long belief that "Right is of No Sex."

Both Douglass and Sojourner Truth were present in 1850 at the First National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. At virtually every women's rights convention thereafter during the decade, Douglass was a featured speaker. In 1851, at one of these meetings in Akron, Ohio, Truth, a well-known abolitionist and former slave, delivered her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. Other black women such as Frances E. W. Harper and Sarah Redmond also participated actively in the women's rights movement during these first years. Many black temperance groups throughout the country were affiliated with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which, after 1876, was a strong voice for women's suffrage.

Tensions between African American leaders and the women's suffrage leadership arose after the Civil War when the 15th Amendment enfranchised African American males, but did not extend the vote to women. Douglass debated the women's rights advocates at the proceedings of the American Equal Rights Association Convention in New York in 1869, arguing that the race issue was the more urgent of the two causes.

Organizational Advances
The importance of the race issue was reflected in the outlook of African American women, who developed an extensive club movement in the late nineteenth century. Black women's clubs were established parallel to those of white women, partly because white women's clubs (with the exception of those in New England) did not allow black women to be members, but also because black women had somewhat different priorities for their organizations. In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper wrote the first book analyzing the condition of blacks and women from a feminist perspective, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman from the South. The book indicated her awareness that being black and being female required a dual focus.
A major development was the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1895. The movement's first president, Mary Church Terrell, applied the motto "Lifting as We Climb" to describe the crusade of these clubs for racial uplift. While African American club women were concerned with Victorian morality, temperance, political and economic rights, and access to education, like their white sisters, they also worked strenuously against lynching, the effects of Jim Crowism, race rioting, and the rape of African American women.

Within the black community, as in the white community, attitudes toward women's suffrage ranged from socially conservative to radical. A major forum for their views was the Woman's Era, the first periodical published in this country by black women, under the auspices of the NACW. The editors of the periodical included Terrell, Margaret Murray Washington, Ida Wells Barnett, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Josephine Silone Yates, all strong advocates of woman suffrage.

Terrell, whose autobiography documents her attendance at nearly every National American Woman Suffrage Association meeting in Washington, D.C., encouraged black women and men to support women's suffrage out of a sense of justice. In her book, she recalled how difficult it was in the 1890s to hold such a view when the majority of Americans, white and black, felt otherwise. In 1904, Terrell represented African American women in the American delegation to the International Council of Women in Berlin. She was the only American to give her speech in German, French, and English. The work of Terrell at the helm of NACW for the creation and institutionalization of kindergartens, day nurseries, and Mother's Clubs paralleled that of the white women's clubs and reflected her awareness of the large numbers of African American women in the work force.

Winning the Debate
In the black community, as in the white, women's suffrage was challenged on the grounds that it would take women out of the home. An articulate counter-argument was that made after the turn of the century by Alice Dunbar, wife of the poet Paul Dunbar and a leader in the NACW. She argued that suffrage would not take women out of the home any more than church activities had. She also made the unique argument that the limitations of life without public involvement prevented African American women from creating great literature or doing other great work.
Later black suffragists and club women included one of the founders of the NAACP, Grace Baxter Fenderson, and Florence Spearing Randolph, a black feminist, minister, and founder of the New Jersey Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (NJFCWC). Randolph also served as chaplain to the NACW, as an organizer and lecturer for the WCTU, and on the executive board of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association. Randolph encouraged the membership of the NJFCWC to use their influence to get publicity in the newspapers, to change laws, and to gain appointments on important boards in an effort to wipe out racism, sexism, and colonialism.

A typical local black suffragist initiative was the organization of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago by Ida Wells Barnett in 1910, after women there were granted the right to vote in local elections. The first effort of this club was the promotion of the candidacy of an African American as alderman. Later, the club worked against the campaign of white women in Illinois to pass a restricted suffrage proposal that would bar black women from voting.

The NAACP and W.E.B. DuBois, editor of its magazine The Crisis, gave intense coverage to the women's suffrage struggle from 1910 to 1934. He regularly wrote editorials in favor of women's suffrage, though he acknowledged that racism in the women's movement was a problem for African Americans. Special editions of The Crisis were devoted to the issue of women's suffrage in September 1912, August 1915, and November 1917. DuBois's basic argument was that women and African Americans shared the same problems and that they should have the right to vote because justice demanded it.

In the 1912 edition, DuBois suggested that the nineteenth-century alliance between African Americans and women should be continued in the twentieth. The cover of the magazine carried a portrait of Frederick Douglass. DuBois called the demand for women's suffrage "a great human question," that was not "uninteresting or unimportant to colored citizens of the world."

The 1915 special edition of The Crisis carried pictures of Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln on its cover, and reminded readers of the historic linkages between women and African Americans. This volume contained statements by twenty black men and women on women's suffrage and became a tremendous resource on the views of African Americans on this subject. Some quotations from the volume accompany this article.

The last special edition came on the eve of the enfranchisement of 75,000 African Americans in New York: DuBois encouraged black women to prepare themselves for the vote. Between 1917 and 1920, the left-leaning publication The Messenger, published in New York by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, also carried numerous pro-suffrage editorials and attacked African American publications that did not support the cause.

In contrast, a number of prominent African American men opposed giving women the vote. Not surprisingly, Booker T. Washington was one of them. In a 1909 editorial for The New York Times, he set out his reasons against women's suffrage. Some African American men, like Professor Kelly Miller of Howard University, and numerous black ministers opposed giving women the vote because they believed it was "unnaturaquot; to involve women in the public sphere, claiming it would greatly undermine their moral and domestic influence.

A range of views thus existed within the African American community on the subject of women's suffrage, but the historic relationship between women's issues and the question of color in American society was strengthened in the years leading up to the achievement of suffrage. n

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Neale McGoldrick is chair of the History Department at Brooklyn Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School, New York.