Exhibit written and curated by Jessica Nelson and Varun Jhamvar


In light of the recent Women’s March on Boston and the affiliated marches across the globe, the issue of racial exclusion by white social justice activists has resurfaced. The long-term implications of the exclusionary tactics used by white women’s suffragists have and continued to echo throughout history. Black women were often intentionally excluded from the women’s suffrage movement by the white women’s suffrage community. Historic exclusion from public feminist and women’s rights movements has, understandably, left many modern women of color hyper-aware of white feminism and skeptical of feminist activists and organizations that do not practice intersectional feminism.1

Shrub Ellen, “Combahee River Collective Protests,” 1979, Boston, MA, Photograph.

Intersectional Critique of White Feminism

White feminism is a concept that describes feminist agitation which centers on the liberation of, and advocacy for, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual women.2 By ignoring or minimizing issues that do not directly affect white women, this branch of feminism perpetuates the marginalisation of people of color, LGBTQ+ identifying individuals, disabled individuals, and people of the American lower class. Intersectional feminism, meanwhile, accepts that a person can experience an intersection of multiple oppressions, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability; therefore, intersectional feminists examine concepts such as race privilege and gender privilege to pursue multifaceted solutions for the liberation of diverse, multifaceted populations.3 It acknowledges the interconnectedness of various social identities (such as race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) and recognizes that women's experiences and struggles are not monolithic.

It might be a little surprising that modern feminists of color are wary of social justice activists who practice white feminism or are frustrated by those who inauthentically practice intersectional feminism. It can seem as though, all too often, feminist organizations or demonstrations that do not advocate for intersectional solutions to the problems faced by people who find themselves susceptible to multiple forms of social, economic, or political injustice are featured front and center in public discourses. When the media is saturated with the white, upper- and middle-class demands of celebrity activists like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, the needs of the most vulnerable communities are overlooked in favor of popular debates, the outcomes of which benefit the few rather than the many.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, "Ida B. Wells," 1893, Photograph, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Sojourner Truth,” ca. 1864, Photograph.

Academics and autobiographers oftentimes write about a few historic white women when looking at the women’s suffrage movement. This bias reflects broader American tendencies to glorify white men in social and political achievements, evident in educational materials, memorials, public history sites, and popular culture. Women and activists of color are often mentioned sparingly and often as token representatives. Unsurprisingly, African American women's suffrage activists are often erased, with only occasional mentions of figures like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. Additionally, the bright pink "pussy hats" during the 2017 women's marches created a sense of exclusion for some activists of color and transgender or gender non-conforming activists, highlighting the ongoing white-centred focus of feminist activism in historical and contemporary contexts.

As Rosalyn M. Terborg-Penn notes in her dissertation:

Afro-Americans in the Struggle for Woman Suffrage,” “The struggle for the rights of black women has always been a  two-pronged fight against sexism on one hand and racism on the other [...] Although there are problems common to both black and white women in the contemporary move­ment, black women remain suspicious of the motives and priorities of white women, which do not always corres­pond to the interests of blacks.4

Historical Exclusion of Women’s Rights 

It is essential to give historical and modern activists of color a place to be seen and heard. To address the controversial state of modern feminist activism, the very state that led to a predominantly white Women’s March on Boston, it is helpful to address some of the historical ways in which Massachusetts's women’s rights movement has continuously divided itself along issues of race.

 Stewart, Maria W, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, presented to the First African Baptist Church and Society of the City of Boston, 1835, Boston  Published by friends of freedom and virtue, Book.

Early in the nineteenth century, an African American woman named Maria W. Stewart became the first American woman to speak in public to a multiracial and multi-gendered crowd.5 In 1831, her address to the First African Baptist Church and Society of Boston contained a scathing indictment of white patriarchy and the ways in which the elite white females of America, who would ultimately form many of the most prominent women’s suffrage organizations, benefited from the exploitation of African American labor and the suppression of African American rights.6 She argued passionately for the equality of African Americans and explicitly addressed her desire to empower them.7 Even before forming the most prominent women's rights advocacy groups, her early lectures on race and gender demonstrated how African-American women were silenced and erased within a movement that could have significantly benefited from inclusivity. This desire for inclusivity was not limited to female participants in social justice movements, nor was this desire limited to women’s rights. Maria W. Stewart’s call for racial equality was echoed in the work of other racial equality activists.

 Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, "Lottie Grimke,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, Photograph

Charlotte Forten Grimke, a graduate of Salem Normal School in Salem, MA, was one of the first African-American women to complete her post-secondary education.8 She became an anti-slavery activist and writer of political essays and poetry.9 Although her activism was more race-specific than gender-specific, many African-American abolitionists saw the cause of liberation as one that encompassed battles against multiple forms of oppression, including the marginalization of women. 

 Broadbent, S. (Samuel), "Charles Lenox Remond,"Philadelphia: Broadbent Studio, [ca. 1851–1856], Digital Commonwealth,  Photograph.

Salem and Boston-based abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond elegantly illustrated this early form of intersectionality when he said, in a letter to Charlotte Forten Grimke, “Women are practically as enslaved as black men, and if I believe in freedom for my race, I am as much committed to free­dom for every underprivileged individual, black or white, male or female.10 Likewise, the much-lauded Frederick Douglass made public the connections between women’s suffrage and the oppression of African Americans.11 Frederick Douglass demonstrated an early form of intersectional thinking by acknowledging the connectedness of various forms of oppression and advocating for the rights of both African Americans and women. These historical figures demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity and acknowledged the interlocking nature of various forms of discrimination and oppression. Their advocacy laid the groundwork for the development of intersectionality in social justice movements in the years to come.

The Antebellum Rise of Women's Suffrage 

Support for women’s suffrage beyond the ranks of the abolitionists was minimal before the American Civil War; however, during the Antebellum period, the movement began to generate broader public interest. The first kernels of interest manifested in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, a women’s rights convention popularly portrayed as the birth of the women’s rights movement in America.12 Although the Civil War temporarily halted women’s rights and women’s suffrage activism, political participation by women saw a dramatic increase after its conclusion in the mid-1860s. However, this participation was marked by a noticeable fracture within the women’s rights community. In 1869, New York activists embraced a “radical” agenda while Massachusetts pushed for a more “conservative” one.13 These groups found their most significant point of contention to be the endorsement of African-American male suffrage, as proposed by the Fifteenth Amendment.

 "Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade : Instructions for Marchers," 1915,  Digital Commonwealth, Document.

This issue split women’s suffrage organisers into two newly formed organisations, with the more liberal New York activists forming the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the relatively conservative Massachusetts activists forming the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).14 Interestingly, the conservative Boston, Massachusetts group, the AWSA, supported the Fifteenth Amendment and saw the need for universal male suffrage as a critical first step in achieving their goals.15

Post-war Activism and Tension

Despite the antebellum rise of social movements seeking equality among races, genders, and classes, the friction created by America’s postwar political and economic representations isolated oppressed groups.16 Some white suffragists were concerned that openly aligning themselves with the fight for African-American voting rights might hinder their primary goal of achieving women's suffrage. This reflects a tension between intersectionality (recognizing the interconnected nature of various forms of discrimination) and a more narrow focus on a specific cause.17 This worry centered not only on the right of African American women to vote but also on legal and practical assurances that African American men would be able to vote.18  As the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were passed, individuals who supported the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage became increasingly alienated based on where their priorities stood. These amendments, while significant steps toward equality, sparked debates among activists. Some suffragists, particularly those associated with the NWSA, were disappointed that the amendments did not explicitly address women's right to vote.

Generally speaking, activists either endured the sexist discrimination of the Fifteenth Amendment to further the cause of racial equality, or activists opposed the lack of gendered content and opposed an Amendment intended to secure racial equality but not gender equality.19 While there were obviously cases in which this particular line in the sand was blurred, the split within the activist community became increasingly vast as race and gender issues shifted organizers’ primary concerns. The refusal of activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan. B. Anthony's support of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as a necessary foothold on the metaphoric ladder of women’s liberation was “the first step toward an increasingly racist position.20

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton Paper,” 1840, Manuscript/Mixed Material.

Conversely, Stanton, Anthony, and the “liberal” activists of NWSA represented an increasingly large portion of those individuals who supported the movement for women’s suffrage. These individuals were not focused on issues of racial discrimination, nor did they intend to center “the plight of the disfranchised black woman” within their calls for social reform.21 Unlike the black suffragists and re­formers of the day, white suffragists often ignored the arguments of their African-American counterparts or opposed the inclusion of black women in their organizations and demonstrations.

 “Three women standing in front of the parade headquarters of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association,” Suffrage at Simmons, 1914, Boston MA, Photograph.

An example that illustrated omission-based suppression can be observed in the success of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) members in 1879. Omission-based suppression refers to the act of deliberately leaving out or excluding certain rights or opportunities from a group, often to keep them from achieving equal participation and influence. During this year, they effectively secured voting rights and the opportunity to participate in local school committees.22 As their focus changed from the state legislature’s enactment of a women’s suffrage amendment to the “more expedient” School Suffrage Law, so did the racial implications and intentions of the MWSA.23 Capitalising on racial and gender perceptions held by white men in power, MWSA activists focused on illustrating a particularly feminine ability to fight the rising tide of  Massachusetts political corruption and the difficult influx of industrial immigration.24 As a result, women’s suffrage at the local, school-specific level became a reality. However, in their attempts to transform a minor victory into a broader municipal victory, white women’s suffragists drew power from the racist and classist anxieties of the Massachusetts Elite in the late nineteenth century. 

This coalition between white women and Massachusetts conservative anxiety did not go entirely unchecked. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, founding editor of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) newspaper, Woman’s Era, was a prominent African-American suffragist.25 She established the National Conference of the Colored Women of America in Boston on July 29, 1895.26 Present at the conference were members of the Colored Women’s League of Washington, the Colored Women’s League of Kansas City, the Women’s Loyal Unions of New York and Brooklyn, the Women’s Clubs of Omaha, Jefferson City, and Los Angeles, the Ida B. Wells Club of Chicago, the Women’s Afro-American Union of  Flushing, and representative from areas surrounding Boston.27 These women understood that their priorities, and the MWSA's, were different.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. "Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin" New York Public Library Digital Collections, Photograph.

In essence, African-American suffragists recognized the need to address both racial and gender inequalities, whereas some white suffragists remained more focused on their own goals. This tension highlights the challenges of achieving a united front within a movement encompassing multiple, often conflicting, agendas.

Emergence of New Suffrage Groups 

With the turn of the 20th century, fresh suffrage organizations emerged. Groups such as the Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government (BESAGG) and the College Equal Suffrage League (CESL) were formed by elite local women who had the financial means and the free time necessary to work alongside the MSWA.28 The class divide within these organizations often resulted in a situation where even though their goals might not have been explicitly focused on race, their leadership frequently exhibited racial specificity. The primary audience for CESL was largely white, given the college-oriented nature and the Radcliffe-specific founding of the CESL.29 This is particularly true because the first African-American woman, Alberta Virginia Scott, graduated from Radcliffe in 1898.

Notman Photographic Co., producer, "Portrait of Alberta Virginia Scott,” circa 1898, Radcliffe College Archives, Harvard University, Photograph

It should be noted that despite the elite inception of these organizations, by 1903, the MWSA and CESL eventually allied themselves with “organized labor, consumers, ethnic groups, and progressive reformers” for the greater good of gender equality.30 It's important to realize that gaining power for upper-class white Americans sometimes involves exploiting the economic lower class and different ethnic groups. These influential individuals would form alliances that might appear advantageous, but it's crucial to consider their actual motives. Sadly, after succeeding, they often reverted to mistreating people and maintaining the unjust status quo. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in Congress and ratified by the States in 1920, African-American women were routinely banned from voting in the South, just like their male counterparts.31

Bridges Alicia, “Gillie Chartier and Stephanie Davreux’s  Appropriated Lyrics from Beyoncé songs,” 2017, CBS News, Boston MA, Photograph

 “Angela Peoples Protesting,” 2017, Boston MA, Photograph

The resurgence of the oppressive status quo is not a trace of the antebellum era, the Industrial Revolution, or the civil rights movement. Despite diverse social justice movements in these periods, white privilege has and continues to exist. This privilege remains prevalent today, casting its influence over the endeavors of numerous activists. This privilege further materializes in the prominence of pink “pussy hats” rather than slogans or symbols encompassing a more inclusive and diverse feminism, moving beyond a perspective centered solely on white, cisgendered experiences.


In conclusion, the history of the women's suffrage movement in Boston reveals a complex interplay of race, class, and gender dynamics that continues to resonate in today's struggles for equality. The exclusion of African American women from the early suffrage movement reflects the deep-rooted issues of white feminism, which often centred on the experiences of privileged, cisgendered white women. The tension between the pursuit of racial and gender equality within the suffrage movement highlights the challenges of intersectional activism, where different agendas sometimes clash. However, amidst these challenges, remarkable figures like Maria W. Stewart and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin championed racial and gender equality, paving the way for a more inclusive approach. As we reflect on history, it's essential to recognize that the fight for women's rights is inseparable from the broader struggles for justice and equity across diverse communities. With an increased awareness of the historical exclusion of marginalized groups such as women of color, activists might be able to come to terms with the historical roots of white feminism, see how it has failed women in the past, and move toward a more inclusive and liberated future.

Shub Ellen, “Combahee River Collective March Third World Women Poster,” 1979, Boston MA, Photograph. 

  1. Sherri Williams, “Historic Exclusion from Feminist Spaces Leaves Black Women Skeptical of March,” NBC News, January 21, 2017
  2. Jessica Xiao, “The White Feminism of the Women’s March is Still on My Mind: Are You Thinking About it Too,” ExtraNewsfeed, March 6, 2017
  3. Alli Maloney, “New Survey on Feminism Spotlights Issues of Exclusion,” New York Times, March 11, 2016.
  4. Rosalyn M. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans in the Struggle for Woman Suffrage” (PhD diss., Howard University, 1977), 17.
  5. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 24-25.
  6. Maria W. Stewart, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (Boston, MA; Friends of Freedom and Virtue,1835)
  7. Ibid, 17-18.
  8. Jacqueline Jones Royster, “Photographic Essay: African American Women Rhetors, When and Where They Enter,” in Traces of a Stream, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 242.
  9. Royster, “Photographic Essay,” 242.
  10. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 28.
  11. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 30.
  12. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 1.
  13. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 7.
  14. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 7-8.
  15. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 8.
  16. Marjorie Nelson, “Women Suffrage and Race,” Off Our Backs 9, no. 10 (November 1979): 6
  17. Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 6.
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid
  21. Terborg-Penn, “Afro-Americans,” 16.
  22. Sharon Hartman Strong, “Leadership and Tactics in the American Woman Suffrage Movement: A New Perspective from Massachusetts,” The Journal of American History 62, no.2 (September 1975): 299
  23. Strong, “Leadership,” 298-299.
  24. Strong, “Leadership,” 299.
  25. Royster, “Photographic Essay,” 248.
  26. “Colored Women in Conference: National Association for Their Betterment Formed in Boston,” New York Times, July 20, 1895
  27. “Colored Women.”
  28. Strong, “Leadership,” 301.
  29. “Alberta Virginia Scott,” in It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard, Radcliffe Archives at the Schlesinger Library
  30. Strong, “Leadership,” 304.
  31. Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 22.


Works Cited 

“Colored Women in Conference: National Association for Their Betterment Formed in Boston,” New York Times, July 20, 1895. https://www.nytimes.com/1895/07/30/archives/colored-women-in-conference-national-association-for-their.html

Hartman Strong, Sharon. “Leadership and Tactics in the American Woman Suffrage Movement: A New Perspective from Massachusetts,” The Journal of American History 62, no. 2, (September, 1975): 299 https://www.jstor.org/stable/1903256

Keng, Shao-Hsun, Chun-Hung Lin, and Peter F. Orazem. “Expanding College Access in Taiwan, 1978–2014: Effects on Graduate Quality and Income Inequality.” Journal of Human Capital 11, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1086/690235.

Maloney, Alli. “New Survey on Feminism Spotlights Issues of Exclusion,” New York Times, March 11, 2016.

Nelson, Marjorie. “Women Suffrage and Race.”Off Our Backs 9, no. 10 (November 1979): 6. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25793145

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “Photographic Essay: African American Women Rhetors, When and Where They Enter.” In Traces of a Stream, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000, 242.

Stewart, Maria W. Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. Boston, MA: Friends of Freedom and Virtue, 1835, 16. 

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn M. “Afro-Americans in the Struggle for Woman Suffrage” PhD diss., Howard University, 1977, 17.

Virginia Scott, Alberta. It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard, Radcliffe. Exhibition. Archives at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliff Institute. 2012 https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/event/2012-its-complicated-exhibition

Williams, Sherri. “Historic Exclusion from Feminist Spaces Leaves Black Women Skeptical of March.” NBC News, January 21, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/decades-exclusion-leave-black-women-skeptical-womens-march-n710216

Xiao, Jessica. “The White Feminism of the Women’s March Is Still on My Mind: Are You Thinking About It Too.” ExtraNewsfeed, March 6, 2017. https://medium.com/the-establishment/why-the-white-feminism-of-the-womens-march-is-still-on-my-mind-bb08d3279f14