How can it be revolutionary if it’s racist? Racism and Black Women in the Woman Suffrage Movement

As bell hooks asserts in her piece “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory,” feminism in the United States has never addressed the needs of those who “are the most victimized by sexist oppression.” [1] The woman suffrage movement epitomizes this statement. Though popular discourses project an image of the woman suffrage campaign as revolutionary, such an image disregards the racist practices its white leaders, followers, and funders embraced.[2] A study of white suffragettes’ actions shows that black women were systemically ostracized from the woman suffrage movement. Moreover, this ostracizing led to the exploitation of black folk for white women’s gain and the exclusion of black women from popular woman suffrage narratives.

The United States woman suffrage campaign is often framed around the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Though this event occurred at the height of the abolition movement it failed to address the racism and oppression that black women faced. The convention focused on the subordination of middle-class, white women within the institution of marriage without acknowledging systems that oppressed black women.[3] If enslaved black women lacked the freedom to choose whom they wanted to marry, how could a movement that centered a discourse about marriage be accessible to them? In addition the “white, middle-class women’s rights activists [at the Seneca Falls Convention] claimed to speak for universal womanhood.”[4] In making this claim these women coopted the woman suffrage movement for their own benefit and demonstrated that they were content with ostracizing black women.

Despite their racist actions white suffragettes could not deter the suffrage activism of black women. Unlike white women, who saw the enfranchisement of women as an issue of gender rather than race, black women suffragists centered the rights of black folk and women in their activism.[5]

Sojourner Truth, a prominent black suffrage activist in the woman suffrage campaign, pushed the movement to acknowledge that black women were a part of the population they were advocating for, regardless of whether or not they actively included black women in their activism.[6] Truth became well known in 1851 when she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech. This speech challenged the woman suffrage campaign’s claim that it represented all women if “it failed to represent” women of color.[7] However, Truth’s pleas for the inclusion of black women in the movement went unanswered. Truth appealed to her allies, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, to support black suffrage but they dismissed her request, turning a blind eye to black suffrage and, by extension, the needs of black folk.[8]

Author and activist Alice Walker reads Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman?” speech (Source: Youtube)

Though Sojourner Truth lends one example of white suffragettes’ racism, the exclusion of Frances E.W. Harper shows that these actions were systemic. Harper was an educated black poet, abolitionist, and suffrage leader, as well as an outspoken critic of the racism and classism of the woman suffrage movement. [9] Harper’s differing standpoint caused white women suffrage leaders to silence her activism, as she “did not fit the image of Black womanhood that these [white] feminists wanted to project.”[10] By attempting to silence Harper, Stanton and Anthony communicated that they saw no reason for black women to be included in their campaign.

Poem by Frances E. W. Harper (Source: ScholarlyEditing.org)

Unlike Truth and Harper, white women suffragettes did not see feminism as a way of fighting both sexist and racist oppression, but rather as a means to elevate their own position in society. In failing to include black women, the woman suffrage movement perpetuated systems of oppression that prioritized the advancement of white people over that of black folk.

Sources:

Adams, Jad. “The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history…” History Today 11, no. 65 (2015): 10–17. [7]

Buechler, Steven M. Women’s Movements in the United States: Woman Suffrage, Equal Rights, and Beyond. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990. [3][4]

Collier-Thomas, Bettye. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Abolitionist and Feminist Reformer 1825–1911.” In African American Women and the Vote 1837–1965, edited by Ann D. Gordon, 41–65. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. [9]

Davis, Angela. Women, Race & Gender. New York: Vintage Books, 1981. [2][5][8]

hooks, bell. “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory.” In The Black Feminist Reader, edited by Joy James, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, 132–145. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. [1]

Painter, Nell Irvin. “Voices of Suffrage: Sojourner Truth, Frances Watkins Harper, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage.” In Votes for Women, the struggle for suffrage revisited, edited by Jean H Baker, 42–55. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2002. [6][9]

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. “African American Women and the Vote: An Overview.” In African American Women and the Vote 1837–1965, edited by Ann D. Gordon, 10–23. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. [2]

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. [5] [10]