Black feminism

How Black Women’s Clubs Started the Black Feminist Movement in the United States

When Reconstruction ended Black women started to create feminist organizations and institutions. Black women started getting educated, but still had to do domestic and menial work. White women benefited from the more profitable clerk and secretary jobs. By the 1880s Black women expressed that suffrage as a feminist issue didn’t address all of their concerns. To address their concerns, a number of Black women abolitionists and suffragettes founded their own clubs.

Scientific racism based on Darwin’s Origin of Species suggested industrialists were superior to poor people. At the same time, victims of lynching became predominately Black. Society had started to shift from a more paternalistic view of Black people to one that compared them to animals.

This racial hostility was often aimed at Black elites. While Black people’s status weakened, White women’s rose, though scientific theories oppressed them too. Black women got treated as inferior to White women and lacking in virtue. In response, Black woman’s morality became revolutionary.

The Black Women’s Club Movement

Black women started their own clubs after exclusion from the National Women’s Clubs from the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. Fannie Barrier Williams and Anna Julia Cooper did make an appearance to address issues of race, sexual harassment by White men, and racism from White women. Sexual exploitation, in particular, prompted many Black women to leave the South.

Many club women were daughters of former slaves having to grapple with white feminists who espoused racist and classist views:

What White feminists hardly realized was that Black women were providing them a means for their own liberation. For inherent in the Black women’s defense of their integrity was a challenge to the Victorian ideas that kept all women oppressed.1

Ida B. Wells went on an international speaking tour about antilynching exposing the racism of American liberals like Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) president Francis Willard to the British. Frances Ellen Harper was the only Black member of the WCTU executive office. International exposure gave leverage to Wells’ campaign and Memphis ultimately gave in, halting lynching for 20 years.

The backlash from the President of Missouri Press Association led 36 Black Women’s Clubs to form the National Federation of Afro-American Women. Margaret Murray Washington, the wife of Booker T., was president. The group later became the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) headed by Mary Church Terrell.

Unless otherwise stated all references documented here are from Paula Giddings 1984 book When and Where I Enter

  1. Giddings 1984: 445 ↩︎