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  • Elizabeth Gramely

Intersectionality and the Women's Suffrage Movement

Intersectionality has recently and rightfully become a focus of the feminist movement. The concept of intersectionality, as defined by Kimberlè Crenshaw, is relatively new, dating back to 1989, and has, since then, been adopted into the mainstream of the modern feminist movement. Many modern feminists work to make the movement more inclusive - focused on the needs of womxn (women and/or those affected by misogyny and other women’s issues, including non-binary and gender queer people) of different races, classes, and sexualities - not only the white, middle class women that dominated both the first and second waves of feminism. While the movement has a long way to go before it is truly intersectional, the progress that has been made in recent years is still significant. Much of this progress is owed to the Black women who have worked with and apart from the movement for centuries, forging a path toward change. 

Racism has existed in the women’s rights and suffrage movements since their beginning. The women’s suffrage movement focused primarily on white middle and upper-middle class women. The leadership of the movement reflected that. Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott began their activism careers as abolitionists; however, they later opposed the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote, and actively rejected Black suffragettes in fear of offending white Southerners. However, this does not mean that Black women did not make significant contributions to the early suffrage movement. Rather, in spite of the discrimination they faced, these women made vital contributions to the women’s suffrage movement. 

One of the most well-known of these women was Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became a prominent suffragette. Truth spent much of her life traveling through the eastern U.S. advocating for women’s rights and delivering speeches, including her influential 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman.” Along with Truth were dozens of other women who were excluded from the mainstream suffrage movement but nevertheless worked tirelessly to secure women’s suffrage and other rights. Mary Ann Shadd Cary founded the Colored Woman’s Franchise Association in 1880, which used suffrage to advocate for political rights as well as economic and labor issues. Hattie Purvis, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Gertrude Bustill Mossel were all suffragettes who were active in the temperance movement alongside their fight for suffrage. Many Black women founded local suffrage clubs and later national suffrage associations, including the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the Alpha Suffrage Club, creating a national platform to advocate for their causes. In 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed, the fight for suffrage was over for white women. However, the disenfranchisement of Black men and women continued. The Black women who had fought for the 19th Amendment continued to fight, alongside a new generation, for their right to vote.

“Intersectional” is certainly not the word that comes to mind when describing first-wave feminism and the suffrage movement. Largely excluded from the movement, Black women continued to work parallel to it to fight for social justice beyond politics and the right to vote. However, their contributions are often left out of history textbooks and celebrations of the suffrage movement. This is in part because they reflect a side of the movement which some feel is uncomfortable to acknowledge. But without them, the fabric of American history would be missing many important threads. The story of women’s suffrage is incomplete without Black women, some remembered, many lost to history, who helped make women’s suffrage a reality.


African American Women Leaders in the Suffrage Movement, edited by Edith Mayo

African American Women and the 19th Amendment, by Sharon Harley

How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women, by Brent Staples

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