Late 19th and Early 20th c. Black Feminists and the Suffragists

Ida B. Wells

In the first half of the 19th century, Maria W. Stewart had set the stage for other black activists to move out of the private domain and step into the public as speakers and politicians to extend their influence. She inspired the work of late 19th and early 20th century feminists to follow in her footsteps.1

Ida B. Wells was an outspoken social activist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She championed women’s suffrage and black civil rights, even against attacks and criticism from black male leaders of the time such as Booker T. Washington, who thought her ideas were too radical. Her contributions to theoretical analyses of race and gender were significant, and yet, she is often missing from or underemphasized in history books.2

Another prominent African American woman of the late 19th century is Anna J. Cooper, whose A Voice from the South is the earliest written work expressing black feminist ideology.  Her writing questioned notions of traditional femininity and conventional womanhood. She was critical of the educational system’s inability to address the specific needs of African American women.  She also challenged leaders of the women’s movement because they did not oppose racism.  Suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had voiced anti-black sentiments because they felt slighted by the passage of universal male suffrage when white women still could not vote, alienating black women from the women’s movement.3  Even though Cooper recognized the intersection of race and gender, she failed to recognize issues of socioeconomic class.   Her “bourgeois notions of respectability and genteel femininity[…]prevented her from recognizing the intellectual and leadership abilities of black women laborers“.4  Recognition of dimension of class in theorizing the black female experience would appear later in the 20th century.

Anna J. Cooper

References

1.  Evelyn M. Simien, Black Feminist Voices in Politics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006), 65-66.

2.  Ibid., 20.

3.  Ibid., 42.

4.  Ibid., 2-3.

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