Black feminism

Women of the Universal Negro Improvement Association

Despite the predominance of men in the organization’s senior echelons, Black women had a leadership role in the UNIA from the outset.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, born in Jamaica in 1887, created the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Committees League (UNIA-ACL) in 1914. Garvey and his supporters adopted Pan-Africanism, which advocated conscious identification with Africa, political and economic resistance to European domination and racism, and solidarity across the African diaspora with the African continent. Slavery, colonialism, racism, and discrimination in the Americas and across the diaspora shaped this philosophy.

The largest Pan-African organization of the 20th century, the UNIA connected the needs and interests of afrodescendant people in the diaspora to Africans on the continent because of their shared identity. Garvey’s philosophy also stressed the need for global economic interdependence to liberate Africans from European colonists. Women helped start and grow the UNIA. Women including Garvey’s wives, Amy Ashwood and Amy Jacques, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, and Henrietta Vinton Davis set the blueprint for Garveyite women as leaders in the UNIA.

Women as leaders in the UNIA

The organizational structure of the UNIA, I suspect, contributes to its historical omission from discussions of Black feminism. Garvey established New York as the major seat of the organization in 1918, after arriving in the United States in 1916. The UNIA would eventually found local branches that spanned continents. Garvey was designated “Provisional President of Africa” at the UNIA’s First International Convention in August 1920, while the UNIA Constitution bestowed additional high official posts on a number of male signatories, including Gabriel Johnson, G. O. Marke, J. W. H. Eason, and R.H. Tobitt.

Local branches would reflect this structure by electing prominent men of their communities to the presidency. Similarly, men would dominate in the hierarchies for the UNIA’s other endeavors including the newspaper The Negro World, edited by people such as T. Thomas Fortune, and the Black Star Line, which was overseen by Garvey as its first president and Jeremiah Certain as its first vice president.

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Nonetheless, despite the predominance of men in the organization’s senior echelons, Black women had a leadership role in the UNIA from the outset. For example, Amy Ashwood, Garvey’s first wife, is credited for the organization’s dual-gender structure of separate but parallel women’s and men’s auxiliaries such as the Ladies Division, which later became the Black Cross Nurses, and the Universal African Legions. Ashwood also was an editor for the Negro World.

Garvey’s second wife, Amy Jacques, transformed from his personal secretary into a vital leader within the organization. In her role as associate editor the Negro World, she introduced a page, “Our Women and What They Think,” through which she encouraged UNIA women to work both as political agents and helpmates to their men. When her husband was imprisoned, Jacques-Garvey edited and published two volumes of Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey to raise funds and salvage his reputation. However, Garvey’s wives were not the only women leaders in the UNIA and Garvey movement. Other influential women include Henrietta Vinton Davis and Maymie Lena Turpeau De Mena. Their leadership at the international level attests to the breadth of influence women had in early Pan-Africanism.

UNIA women’s community activism

Women also made up the rank and file of some local chapters, however histories give more detail about their leadership responsibilities as chapter presidents or secretaries. Due to the UNIA’s gender-segregated structure, women influenced one another and their broader communities in the promotion of black pride, economic empowerment, and self-determination for afrodescendant individuals from within these organizations. One such group was the Women’s Universal African Motor Corps:

The Universal African Motor Corps was a female auxiliary whose units were affiliated with local divisions and associated with the paramilitary African Legion, the membership of which was exclusively male. While the head of the Motor Corps, who was given the title Brigadier General, was a woman, the officers and commanders of the units were men. Members of the Corps were trained in military discipline and automobile driving and repair.

The Black Cross Nurses were another women-led group that left a profound impact on the Black Atlantic. Similar to the Black club women of the U.S., this group of mostly middle-class women carried out social welfare programs centered on the uplift of the poor and working class.

While popular opinion regards Pan Africanism and feminism as incompatible, Garveyite women practiced community feminism, which focused on the collective needs and ambitions of women within their unique community. They highlighted women’s responsibilities as nurturers and caregivers as well as activists and leaders, adopting a vision of the self as communal, interdependent, and relational. Contrary to western feminist notions of women in patriarchal societies, community feminism contends the helpmate role benefits society and provides women the ability to exercise influence over men.

Challenges faced by women in the UNIA

As “race women,” the UNIA’s helpmate-leaders occupied the traditional role of wives and caregivers while also participating as leaders in Pan African political and social movements. Nevertheless, despite their major contributions to the UNIA, women members often experienced marginalization or sexism from the Garvey movement’s male adherents. This sexism and misogyny resulted in part from the historical construction of women’s role within nationalist movements as one in which they must reinforce patriarchal power dynamics. Ultimately, this created atmosphere in which women had limited leadership opportunities in the UNIA due to the deprioritization of initiatives centered on them and their issues.

However, UNIA women did not accept sexist standards without push back, choosing to advocate for greater representation and equality within the larger organization, particularly through women’s divisions. For example, Amy Jacques Garvey emphasized equality between men and women. In addition, Jacques-Garvey confronted masculinist notions of the intellectual inferiority of women through her “Our Women and What They Think” column in the Negro World. Further, she took on a leadership role and maintained UNIA affairs during Garvey’s incarceration, including compiling and publishing volumes of his writing and speeches in Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.

The emphasis on militant masculinity propogated by Garvey indicates the tensions between centering Black nationalism and pursuing women’s rights. UNIA women navigated these challenges through open critique of the patriarchal aspects of Pan Africanism. For example, during the Fifth Pan-African International Congress in 1945, Amy Ashwood Garvey, along with fellow Jamaican Alma La Badie, were the only two women presenters. Garvey used the opportunity to call out the absence of women’s issues and voices. Additionally, the resolutions proposed by the West Indies delegation were the sole clauses propositioned about women’s issues including equal pay for equal work, employment opportunities for married women, and raising the age of consent.

Conclusion

Despite the patriarchal structure of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, women played a crucial role as leaders in the organization and as advocates for women’s issues. Women like Amy Ashwood, Amy Jacques, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Henrietta Vinton Davis, and Maymie Lena Turpeau De Mena set the blueprint for Garveyite women as leaders in the UNIA.

While sexism and misogyny persisted within the organization, UNIA women pushed back against these attitudes through open critique and advocacy for greater representation and equality. The community feminism practiced by Garveyite women emphasized the collective needs and ambitions of women within their unique community. Ultimately, the contributions of UNIA women to the organization and to the broader Pan-African movement demonstrate the importance of recognizing the diversity of leadership roles and perspectives within social and political movements.