Women’s Suffrage

African American Women and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender

By Linda. T. Wynn, Assistant Director for State Programs

Tennessee captured national attention in the summer of 1920, as the Suffragists who sought the right of franchise and their Anti-Suffragists opposition descended on the Volunteer State to campaign for their respective positions. Thirty-five of the thirty-six states needed had already ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which would give women the right to participatory democracy by granting them the right to vote. Eight states rejected the amendment, three refused to act, leaving the undecided states of North Carolina and Tennessee to make the Nineteenth Amendment a reality. Most southern states rejected women’s suffrage with the racialist calculation that the entitlement would also include African American women. Anti-Suffragists used this bigoted reasoning in Tennessee.

The issue of Women’s Rights emerged during the American Revolution, when Abigail Adams warned her husband, John Adams (2nd U.S. president and founding father), not to adopt the repressive code of common law, or the ladies were “bound to foment a rebellion.” In some colonies women voted, but all women lost the right to vote with each state constitution drafted between 1777 and 1807.

19th century Suffragists maintained that they were not asking for a new right, but the restitution of a right their foremothers possessed. By the 1830s and 40s, women began to champion diverse social reforms that questioned women’s subservience to men.  Two southern sisters, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, called for women to “participate in the freeing and educating of slaves” as other white women rallied around the abolitionist movement as a way of calling attention to all human rights. African American women found ways to work in abolitionist movements, aiming to end institutional enslavement and gain freedom for their families and themselves.

It is important to recognize the African American women and men who were involved in nearly a century of effort to gain the right of franchise for women and realize how they were rendered invisible as control of this movement’s narrative was appropriated by Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their six-volume History of Women’s Suffrage. Recent historians have exposed Stanton as a racially prejudiced liberal who embraced fairness in the abstract while publicly enunciating bigoted views of African American men. As the suffrage struggle acquiesced to white supremacy, selling out the interest of African American women when able to do so, African American women faithfully acted on their convictions that they had just as strong right to full citizenship as white women. 

In general, African Americans maintained a political philosophy of universal suffrage, while Whites advocated a limited, educated suffrage after the Civil War. Notable support came from Black men and major church leaders Henry McNeal Turner and John Mussolini Brown, as well as the leading feminist of his time, W.E.B. Du Bois. Along with March Church Terrell, a native Tennessean, their views reflected the consensus: Political empowerment of the race required the participation of Black women. As early as 1832, Bostonian Maria Stewart, an African American activist, was the first woman of any race to address a mix-gendered audience, spoke out for both the rights of African Americans and women and shattered long-standing proscriptions against women speaking about political issues. Stewart sparked debate, questioning the nature of female influence on public life and movements to abolish enslavement and earn civil rights, convinced that the future for African Americans was bound with the woman question.  

In 1848, at the nation’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the only African American and one of the few men in attendance, Frederick Douglass, argued that “the ballot was the guarantor of all other rights, the key to liberty, and women must be bold.” In 1866, with Stanton and Anthony, this formerly enslaved man co-founded the American Equal Rights Association. In 1867, the renowned abolitionist and formerly enslaved Black woman, Sojourner Truth, addressed the first annual meeting of that association and the essence of coverture, saying, “If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women and it will be just as bad as it was before.” The 14th Amendment, passed the following year, defined “citizens” and “voters” exclusively as male. Two years later, the 15th Amendment granted African American men, but not women, the right to vote. With that, the women’s question continued into the 20th century.

Former Tennesseans Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell worked assiduously with other African American women to establish organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Established in 1896, NACW grew to 28 federations with more than a thousand clubs and fifty thousand members. Women like Mary Church Terrell, the inaugural president of NACW, protested lynching, decried racist double standards in the criminal justice system, fought for women’s suffrage, and started voter-education clubs. African American women established clubs within churches, such as the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention and the first woman-run society within the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), called the Woman’s Connectional Missionary Council. Calling out white hypocrisy, they made the protection and elevation of African American woman a chief priority as they fought stereotypes that denigrated women of their race as lacking morality. They also founded Greek-letter organizations such as Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (est. 1908), and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (est. 1913).

The president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Nellie M. Quander, wrote to Alice Paul seeking assurances of racial nondiscrimination from parade organizers who planned the march that took place the day before Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 presidential inauguration. The National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) procession was designed to help win passage of the Susan B. Anthony amendment which had come up for a vote only once in 35 years and failed. NAWSA was reluctant to include African American women’s concerns on their agenda or public demonstrations, due to racialist attitudes by some in their ranks and for political expediency with racist congressmen. Before the parade commenced, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was told she and her Alpha Suffrage Club could not march with the Whites from Illinois. Wells-Barnett refused to march at the rear of the line and waited on Pennsylvania Avenue until the Illinois group approached. She and two white allies stepped in front of the Illinois delegation and continued in the procession. Urged by Mary Church Terrell, author of the official oath of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 22 members of the fledgling sorority participated in the march, while members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. did not.

The first NACW convention was held in Nashville in September of 1897, with President Mary Church Terrell presiding and Nettie Langston Napier serving as treasurer. Also present were Minnie Lou Croswaite, physicians Dr. Josie E. Wells and Dr. Mattie E. Coleman, plus Juno Frankie Pierce, Hattie S Smith Jackson, and Georgia Bradford Boyd. Pierce, a founder of the Nashville Federation of Colored Women’s Club, also founded and presided over the Negro Women’s Reconstruction League. During World War I, Coleman, a founder of the Women’s Connectional Missionary Council, championed women’s leadership positions in the CME church and led national defense fund drives and health programs for soldiers. Coleman supported the reforms of white activists, reminding them that “12,000 negro [sic] of the state are organized and are seeking a vocational school for their girls.” Pierce and Coleman made girl’s vocational education part of the program of the Tennessee Women’s Suffrage Movement.

African American women’s clubs worked with white suffrage organizations to get out the vote in municipal elections that passed in the state’s General Assembly on April 14, 1919. This limited suffrage act permitted women to vote only in presidential and municipal elections. During that year they helped to get 2,500 African American women to the polls in the city’s first election in which Black women were eligible to vote. The chair of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League, Catherine Kenny, was awed with Pierce’s organizational skills and invited Pierce to address the first convention of the Tennessee League of Women Voters in the State Capitol’s lower chamber in May 1920. “What will the Negro women do with the vote?” the daughter of a free father and an enslaved mother asked her audience. “We will stand by the white women…We are asking only one thing—a square deal…We want recognition in all forms of this government. We want a state vocational school and a child welfare department of the state, and more room in state schools.” 

After the resolution passed the Tennessee State Senate, both Suffragist and Anti-Suffragist desperately lobbied to secure votes in the House of Representatives, where the vote was close. Speaker of the House Seth Walker, originally thought to be a supporter of women’s suffrage, changed his position and announced his opposition. Playing the race card, Walker exclaimed, “This is a white man’s country!” and further proclaimed that if women won the vote, southern Blacks would also demand the vote. Representative Harry T. Burn of Niota made history by changing his vote to support ratification and breaking the tie. The Tennessee General Assembly passed the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution on August 18, 1920, and on the 24th, Governor Albert H. Roberts certified Tennessee’s ratification. Tennessee provided the 36th and final state needed to ratify the Constitutional amendment.  

For Further Reading

David Blight. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Beverly Greene Bond and Sarah Wilkerson Freeman. Eds. Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Faye E. Dudden. Fighting Chance: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Anita Shafer Goodstein. “A Rare Alliance: African American and White Women in the Tennessee Elections of 1919-1920,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 64. No.2 (1998) pp. 219-246.

Ann D. Gordon and Bettye Collier-Thomas, eds. African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1968. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Martha S. Jones. All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005, and Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Kate Clarke Lemay. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Nell Irvin Painter. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Susan Ware. Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote. Belknap Press:  Massachusetts, 2019.

Elaine Weiss. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.