Exhibit written and curated by Jessica Nelson

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 are echoing through history and are with us today. African American 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].

White feminism is a concept that describes feminist agitation which centers on the liberation of, and advocacy for, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual women [2]. By ignoring or minimizing issues that do not directly affect white women, this branch of feminism perpetuates the marginalization 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, gender privilege, and so on, in order to pursue multifaceted solutions for the liberation of diverse, multifaceted populations [3]. 


Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Photo from “Photographic Essay: African American Women Rhetors, When and Where They Entered,” in Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women by Jacqueline Jones Royster. (Photo courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)

It might come as little surprise 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.

The work of autobiographers and academics in researching and writing about the women’s suffrage movement is largely responsible for the focus on a few historical personalities involved in this work. That these are primarily white women is no accident. American tendencies to glorify white men in the making of their social and political triumphs is evidenced in textbooks, memorial construction, public history sites, and popular culture. Women and activists of color are mentioned infrequently, and often only as token representatives. That African American women’s suffrage activists are relegated to the deepest of archives and represented by the occasional mention of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells should come as no surprise. That the bright pink “pussy hats” of 2017’s nationwide women’s marches felt exclusive to some activists of color and some transgender or gender non-conforming activists, should also come as no surprise. The white-centering of feminist activism has moved from the past into the present.

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. There are some similarities between the experiences of black and white women in the woman suffrage movement and in the present day woman’s movement. 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]. As we move forward in the implementation of intersection feminist ideals, we must give more historical and modern activists of color a voice. In seeking to address the contentious state of modern feminist activism, the very state that led to a predominantly white Women’s March on Boston, it is beneficial to address some of the historical ways in which the women’s rights movement of Massachusetts has continuously divided itself along issues of race. 

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 in general, and she explicitly addressed her desire for the empowerment of African American women [7].  Her early lectures on the subject of race and gender illustrate the ways in which, even prior to the formation of the most well known  women’s rights advocacy groups, African American women were subject to silencing and erasure from within a movement that would have benefitted from inclusivity. 

Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, presented to the First African Baptist Church and Society of the City of Boston. Photo courtesy of The Digital Schomburg project, http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/digs/wwm9722/.

Left: Charlotte Forten Grimke. Photo from “Photographic Essay: African American Women Rhetors, When and Where They Entered,” in Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women by Jacqueline Jones Royster. (Photo courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)

Right: Charles Lenox Remond. Photo created by Samuel Broadbent (1810-1880), scanned by BPL, via Wikimedia Commons. originally posted to Flickr as Charles Lenox Remond, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lenox_Remond#/media/File:Charles_Lenox_Remond2.jpg. 

This desire for inclusivity was not limited to female participants of 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. 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 a writer of political essays and political 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. 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].

Support for women’s suffrage beyond the ranks of the abolitionists was minimal prior to the American Civil War; however, it was during the Antebellum period that the movement began to generate a 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 put a temporary halt to 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 activists pushed for a more “conservative” one [13]. These groups found their greatest point of contention to be the endorsement of African American male suffrage, as proposed by the Fifteenth Amendment. 

Broadsheet, “Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade: Instructions for Marchers,” October 16, 1915. From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=1892.

Broadsheet, “Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade: Instructions for Marchers,” October 16, 1915. From the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=1892.

 This issue split women’s suffrage organizers into two newly formed organizations, 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, it was the conservative Boston, Massachusetts group, the AWSA, who supported the Fifteenth Amendment and saw the need for universal male suffrage as a critical first step in achieving their goals [15]. 

Despite the antebellum rise of social movements that sought to gain equality among races, genders, and classes, the antagonisms created by America’s postwar political and economic delineations had an isolating affect on oppressed groups [16]. Many white suffragists, especially those who supported the women-first views of the NWSA, worried that the women’s suffrage movement would become diluted by the inclusion of African American voting rights issues [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, despite already having suffrage in a technical sense [18]. As the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were passed, individuals who had supported both the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage became increasingly alienated, depending on where their priorities stood. Generally speaking, activists either endured the sexist discrimination of the Fifteenth Amendment in order to further the cause of racial equality, or activists opposed the lack of gendered content and stood in opposition to 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 to support 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, Anthony, and the “liberal” activists of NWSA were representative of an increasingly large potion of those individuals who supported the movement for women’s suffrage.  These women and men were not focused in the least 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.

One example of this type of silencing by omission is evidenced in the way in which Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) members succeeded in 1879 in their attempt to obtain voting rights for, and the ability to serve on, local school committees [22]. As their  focus changed from state legislature’s enactment of a women’s suffrage amendment to the “more expedient” School Suffrage Law, so too did the racial implications and intentions of the MWSA [23]. Capitalizing 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 onerous influx of industrial immigration [24]. In this way 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 held by Massachusetts’ elite in the late nineteenth century. 

Thankfully, 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 priorities of the MWSA, were not one and the same. 

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Photo from “Photographic Essay: African American Women Rhetors, When and Where They Entered,” in Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women by Jacqueline Jones Royster. (Photo courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)

Alberta Virginia Scott, Class of 1898. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger Library.

As the nineteenth century became the twentieth century, new suffrage groups sprang into existence. 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 inherent in such organizations meant that, although their agendas might not have necessarily been race specific, their leadership often was. Likewise their membership; given the college-oriented nature and the Radcliffe-specific founding of the CESL, and given that only two years prior the very first African American woman, Alberta Virginia Scott, graduated from Radcliffe, the primary audience for CESL activism was largely white [29].

It should be noted that despite the elite inception of these organizations, by 1903 the MWSA and CESL did eventually ally themselves with “organized labor, consumers, ethnic groups, and progressive reformers” for the greater good of gender equality [30]. However, it must also be noted that the exploitation of the economic lower class and the exploitation of “ethnic groups” is a common means of gaining power for upper class white Americans; therefore, the motivations behind these partnerships must be considered carefully in light of other historical events in which white Americans have breached the racial gap for a supposed greater good, only to succeed in their goals and then return to the oppressive status quo. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in Congress and ratified by the States in 1920, for example, African American women were routinely banned from voting in the South, just like their male counterparts [31]. 

This return to the oppressive status quo is not a relic of the antebellum period, the industrial revolution, or the civil rights movement, though in each case white privilege continued to prevail in the face of  diverse social justice movements. This privilege is still in play today, and it still affects the social justice work of many activists. It manifests in the initial exclusion of women of color from the planning of the Women’s March on Washington and the affiliated marches such as the Women’s March on Boston [32]. It manifests in white appropriation of Beyonce lyrics to make pop-culture protest signs. It manifests in the betrayal felt by African American activists who voiced frustration at the white female majority that helped to elect Donald Trump in 2016. It manifests  in pink “pussy hats” instead of slogans or symbols that represent a less white, cisgendered feminism. 

The fractures that divide modern social justice activism are deep. The Women’s March on Boston, like the AWSA’s 1915 Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade, was a problematic step in the march toward intersectional equality. With an increased awareness of the historic exclusion of marginalized groups such as women of color, activists might be able to come to terms with historical roots of white feminism, see how it has failed women in the past, and move toward a more inclusive and more liberated future.

Left: Gillie Chartier and Stephanie Davreux, in Saskatoon, showed their support for the Women’s March through appropriated lyrics from Beyoncé songs. Photo by Alicia Bridges/CBC News. https://i.cbc.ca/1.3946674.1485026017!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_620/womens-march-beyonce-signs.jpg.

Right: Angela Peoples, pictured above in the white hat, voices frustration with white feminism. Photo taken from http://www.healthyblackwoman.com/white-women-voted-for-trump-woman-speaks-out/.

Works Cited

[1] Sherri Williams, “Historic Exclusion  from Feminist Spaces Leaves Black Women Skeptical of March,” NBC News, January 21, 2017, accessed April 10, 2017,  http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/decades-exclusion-leave-black-women-skeptical-womens-march-n710216.

[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, accessed April 10, 2017, https://extranewsfeed.com/what-is-white-feminism-8f376360a59.

[3] Alli Maloney, “New Survey on Feminism Spotlights Issues of Exclusion,” New York Times, March 11, 2016, accessed April 20, 2016, http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/03/11/new-survey-on-feminism-spotlights-issues-of-exclusion/.

[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) 16, http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/digs/wwm9722/.

[7] Stewart, Productions, 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, accessed February 8, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25793145.

[17] Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 6.

[18] Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 6.

[19] Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 6.

[20] Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 6.

[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, accessed February 8, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1903256.

[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, accessed April 21, 2017, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[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, accessed April 20, 2017, https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/item/alberta-virginia-scott.

[30] Strong, “Leadership,” 304.

[31] Nelson, “Women Suffrage,” 22.

[32] Xiao, “The White Feminism.”