What the First Wave Feminism Lacked in the United States: The Exclusion of Women of Colour During the Suffrage Movement



This paper is about the historical and the current exclusion of Black women from the Suffrage movement in the United States. Even though the Suffrage movement marked the beginning of the first wave of Feminism, which paved the way for the second and third waves in the following centuries, it was nowhere close to true equality between men and women of all classes, races and backgrounds. White women were also divided within themselves, while some supported the abolitionist movement, others did not. However, one important element White women failed to notice all over was the role of the Black woman. Names such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, both of whom were Black women born into slavery later to be freed, played important roles in the Suffrage movement however, even today, this is being overlooked by scholars. This paper talks about Black women’s contributions to first-wave feminism, as well as examining the Race factor during the Suffrage movement.

Keywords: Suffrage Movement, Black Women, First Wave Feminism, Truth, Tubman.


Bu çalışma, siyahi kadınların Amerika Birleşik Devletleri’ndeki oy hakkı eylemlerinden geçmişte ve günümüzde mahrum bırakılması üzerine yoğunlaşıyor. Oy hakkı hareketi, sonraki yüzyıllarda ikinci ve üçüncü dalgaların yolunu açan birinci dalga feminizmin başlangıcı olsa da, her sınıftan, ırktan ve çevreden olan kadın ve erkekler arasındaki gerçek eşitliğe hiçbir şekilde yakınlaşamamıştır. Beyaz kadınlar dahi kendi içlerinde bölünmüş vaziyetteydi; bazıları kölelik karşıtı hareketi desteklerken bazıları karşı çıkıyordu. Fakat beyaz kadınların farkına varamadığı önemli bir etmen siyahi kadınların rolü idi. Sojourner Truth ve Harriet Tubman gibi köle olarak doğan ve sonradan özgürlüklerini kazanan siyahi kadınlar Oy hakkı hareketinde önemli rol oynamıştır. Buna rağmen, bugün bile bu durum konu üzerine çalışma yapan akademisyenler tarafından göz ardı ediliyor. Bu çalışma, siyahi kadınların ilk dalga feminizme katkılarından bahsederken ‘ırk’ faktörünün oy hakkı hareketi sırasındaki önemini de incelemektedir.

Anahtar Kelimeler: Oy Verme Hareketi, Siyahi Kadınlar, Birinci Dalga Feminizm, Truth, Tubman.



The focus of the First Wave Feminism was the right to vote for women, not only in the United States but all over the world. Thus, the First Wave Feminism is also called the Suffrage Movement. What makes the Suffrage Movement in the United States rather different than those in particularly European countries is the Race factor. While the Suffrage Movement was taking place, the Abolitionist Movement was also undergoing and while the Suffrage Movement concerned women, the Abolitionist Movement concerned African-American people, and the one group that fell under both of these categories was the African-American women. African-American women were seen as the lowest of the lowest class, and consequently, they were the most marginalised group amongst the marginalised groups in the United States. This resulted in their exclusion from the First Wave Feminism due to the colour of their skin, and from the Abolitionist Movement due to their gender. This paper will be focusing on their exclusion from, as well as their attempt to get involved in the Suffrage Movement.

1. The Conflict amongst White Women Regarding the Black Suffrage

In the United States, the Suffrage movement overlapped with the Abolitionist movement. This caused both conflicts and alliances to form within societies concerned with these movements. The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the US constitution were all focused on the rights of Black people. The thirteenth amendment made slavery illegal while the fourteenth amendment recognized every person born within the United States borders a citizen, regardless of their race. The fourteenth amendment was also the first amendment that has mentioned gender in it. With this amendment, only “male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State” were eligible to vote. This has angered White women of the middle and upper class, “educated white women were hugely insulted that illiterate, lower-class men could vote while they could not” (Miller, 2015, p. 449). This led some Suffragist women to work together with racist southerners, who did not want Black people of any kind to have a voice regarding the country’s politics. This caused yet another conflıct among the Middle and Upper-class white women. Those in favour of both Women’s Suffrage and Black Suffrage were met with opposition by those who only supported Suffrage for White people of both sexes. While those in favour of Suffrage for all US citizens formed the American Woman Suffrage Association while those who wanted those rights for white people only formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (Women’s Suffrage). However, no matter how much contradiction these two associations had, they both made a point of making sure they excluded Black women from their cause. This led Black women to form the National Association of Colored Women.

2. Even the Ones Supporting Abolition Were in Favour of Segregation Regarding Black Women

Although the First Wave Feminism was a big step for gender equality, it was only the beginning. It paved the way for contemporary feminism however, as a first-generation movement, it failed in many different areas; the most influential one being the exclusion of African-American women. Angela Y. Davis (1981), in her book Women, Race & Class, points out that one of the earliest protests voiced from the white women against gender discrimination was using slavery as a metaphor for their situation: “Well-situated women began to denounce their unfulfilling domestic lives by defining marriage as a form of slavery” (p. 24). This “affinity”, as Davis calls it, resulted in white middle-class women becoming involved in the Abolitionist movement. White women were able to oppose male authority by opposing slavery, however, even the most involved activists were concerned with abolishing slavery and not with the role of the Black woman within society. White women in Suffrage societies saw themselves fighting for Black men and women, by bodying the role of a “saviour”, but they never saw Black women fighting alongside them. The Grimkes sisters, two of the most influential white female anti-slavery activists of their time, “argued that women could never achieve their freedom independently of Black people” (Davis, 1981, p. 29) and while this argument, at first glance, is good and all, the exclusion of Black women is still visible. Feminist issues and Black issues had nothing in common for them, even though the Black women would withstand, and they did so.

3. Black Women Withstood and Rebelled

In In Quest of African American Political Woman, Prestage (1991) says “African American women are simultaneously members of the two groups that have suffered the nation’s most blatant exclusion from the normal channels of access to civic life, African Americans and women” (p. 89) and this is exactly why the existence of Black women have been political since the very beginning. While white women fought for their rights as women and chose to support the abolitionist movement, black women were in the middle of both of these struggles involuntarily. Prestage (1991) points out that Black women were indeed a part of the Suffrage movement and mentions Sojourner Truth, who was also “a strong force in the abolitionist movement” (p. 91). Truth and the likes of her were influential parts of the Suffrage movement even though “Black woman’s contribution to the suffrage campaign is rarely written about” (Giddings, 1984, p. 192), so it seems as though they have contributed very little. Another issue was the segregation between White and Black women. This was inevitable in the sense that their lives differed massively even though they were both female Americans. And this segregation issue was not only an issue of race but also class. Black women “whose education and wealth exceeded that of white women” were tolerated in these movements “dominated by white women”, however, “the question of mass black participation was a matter of bitter conflict” (Prestage, 1991, p. 92). This meant that for a Black woman to be seen even remotely close to a White woman of the middle class, she needed to be a lot wealthier than her. So, there was a constant struggle to block Black people from entering Suffragist societies, because “practices associated with white supremacy, segregation, nativism and elitism resurfaced everywhere, including within the woman suffrage movement” (Jung, 2020, p. 210). However, of course, these racist ideas “did not go unchallenged” (Jung, 2020, p. 211) and this gave birth to activists such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech reflects the struggles of being both female and Black at the time. Some extracts from the speech are as followed:

“I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them”.

This speech in its entirety is a great testimony for its time. Truth knew that Black women were the most exploited part of society. Even as a free Black woman, she questioned her and other Black women’s place in society, which was always inferior to the whites of both sexes and male African Americans. Both Truth and Tubman are women worth writing conventionally large books for, which Milton Sernett did with his book Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History in 2007 and Margaret Washington with Sojourner Truth’s America in 2009. Both of these women were seen as “superwoman” as Hobson (2014) defines. However, what made these women special was their entire existence. Hobson (2014), while talking about Tubman’s profession as an Underground Railroad conductor, makes an important point that she “validated the struggle for women’s rights” just by being herself (p. 4). Just by existing as a Black woman, Tubman was a reminder that if she “could transgress the raced and gendered limitations that forbade women from navigating the world… then surely women deserved the right to vote and the rights to full citizenship” (p. 4). This was a role assigned to Black women at birth, a role they could not choose and when they were brave enough to defy it like Tubman or Truth, they were seen as “superhuman”.

4. Erasing Black Women from the Narrative

Black women were excluded from the mainstream Suffrage movement, their feminist struggles were not given a priority, which can still be felt today. This issue of excluding Black women from the Suffrage movement is not a thing of the past. Vivian M. May (2014), in her article Under-Theorized and Under-Cut: Re-examining Harriet Tubman’s Place in Women’s Studies sheds light on this issue with a specific focus on Tubman. In feminist studies today, Tubman’s years of active participation in various social issues is overlooked and “her labors for women’s suffrage are under-acknowledged” (p. 35). The issue of invisibility for Black women is not only seen in Feminist studies. This issue was also highlighted by one of the most influential abolitionist activists of their time, Frederick Douglass. May points out that Douglass, as a Black man, knew that it was important to put emphasis on the “gendered differences that must be noted when comparing their (Douglass and Tubman’s) public visibility” (p. 43). In a letter he wrote to Tubman, Douglass voices this same concern; “I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night” (Douglass, 1868, as cited in May, 2014). Douglass’ letter is an authentic testament to the ill-treatment of Black women for their gender in Black circles during the Abolitionist movement.

5. Black Women as the “Other”

These two incidents solidify the “otherness” of Black women within these two movements. They were the “other” during the Suffrage movement due to the colour of their skin, and they were the “other” during the Abolitionist movement due to their womanhood. Although both were quite different from each other, the end result was always the alienation and the othering of Black women. As it can be seen in Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman”, Black women were not happy with the position they were assigned to as the “other”. Deborah King (1988), an African-American female scholar, explains this masterfully in Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology: “women have long recognized the special circumstances of our lives in the United States: the commonalities that we share with all women, as well as the bonds that connect us to the men of our race. We have also realized that the interactive oppressions that circumscribe our lives provide a distinctive context for black womanhood. For us, the notion of double jeopardy is not a new one” (p. 42).

This is a struggle Black women have been resonating with since the very beginning. The National Association of Colored Women was a result of this racial alienation. In 1897, the first president of the association Mary Church Terrell addressed the members of the association in a manner that showed the “radical nature of the NACW” (Jones, 1982, p. 24): “We refer to the fact that this is an association of colored women, because our peculiar status in this country… seems to demand that we stand by ourselves…. Our association is composed of women… because the work which we hope to accomplish can be done better… by the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of the race” (Terrell, 1897, as cited in Jones, p. 1982).

Mary Church Terrell was pregnant when she gave this speech, and she knew the unique place Black women held in society. Centuries later, a name would be given to this situation by Frances Beale; “the double jeopardy”. In Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, Beale explained this phenomenon in these sentences: “As blacks they suffer all the burdens of prejudice and mistreatment that fall on anyone with dark skin. As women they bear the additional burden of having to cope with white and black men” (Beale, 1979, as cited in King, 1988).


The truth is that “White women did not have the severe problems of racial discrimination that compounded the plight of black women” (Jones, 1982, p. 23) and this resulted in an attempt of total exclusion of Black women from Suffregist groups. On the other hand, Black men did not have to face additional discrimination for their gender, which meant that Black women were also fully not accepted in Abolitionist circles. However, this did not stop them. Black women formed their own societies and did not let their race or gender hold them back from their activism. Their existence in itself was political, and even if this meant that they would be the punching bag of the society, Black women still contributed to the social movements in their own way. And their efforts did not die out. The actions of important Black female role models during the Suffrage and the Abolitionist movements such as Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tudman, Josephine Pierre Ruffin and Sojourner Truth echoes today through Black feminism. Even though the first wave feminism was lacking in so many ways, most importantly in intersectionality regarding race, it can be said that it was necessary for the development of Feminism as an ideology. Hopefully, shedding light on the shortcomings of first wave feminism will help reconstruct a more intersectional and more non-exclusive Feminist ideology for everyone.

Asmin Sarıpınar

Feminizm Okumaları Staj Programı


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