history of black women in america: biographies


19th Century African American Feminist Women

 The following is a sampling of the many African American women who were actively engaged in the struggles for race and gender equality throughout the 19th century. These were women who identified themselves as feminists (the term “womanist” had not yet been coined) and who saw the struggle for women’s rights as integral to the liberation of their race. Some also had a conceptualization of feminism that included anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist humanist ideals, while others saw women’s equality as a way to better fight against racial oppression. As writers, scholars, and public speakers, these were women who left behind records of their activism (albeit some records more difficult than others to uncover); it leaves me wondering about the many more women whose voices—because of their race, class, and gender—have been forever erased from our collective knowledge and shared history.


BETHUNE, MARY McLEOD (1875-1955)

Painting of Mary McLeod Bethune by Betsy Graves Reyneau. Image from the National Archives and Records Administration1

Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, clubwoman, organizer, public speaker, and activist. She was a founder and president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, as well as a founder and president of the National Council of Women. In 1904, McLeod Bethune founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Florida, which eventually become Bethune-Cookman College, the historically black college she also started.2 McLeod Bethune was born in the cotton and rice country of Maysville, South Carolina, and she wrote that her “mother, father, and older brothers and sisters had been slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation.” She was the last of seventeen children, and the first to be born into freedom.3



Hallie Q. Brown. Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia4

 Hallie Quinn Brown was an educator, author, public speaker, clubwoman, and activist. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to parents who had formerly been enslaved and who were involved with the Underground Railroad.

Quinn Brown was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women and a primary organizer of the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C. She began teaching in the 1870s, from plantation schools in the South to universities in the North, and in 1892, Quinn Brown was appointed the Dean of Women for the Tuskegee Institute.

Among her many extraordinary and important achievements, in 1926, she published a book called Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, which details the lives of 60 African American women. As she explains in the introduction, “This book is presented as an evidence of appreciation and as a token of regard for the history-making women of our race.”5 The entire text of this book is now available online through the University of North Carolina Documenting the American South website at:



Photo in the public domain, retrieved from BlackPast.org6



Josephine Beall Willson Bruce was an educator, activist, and clubwoman. She was born in Philadelphia to a privileged family, and later married Blanche K. Bruce, the first black U.S. senator (who was a plantation owner from Mississippi). Willson Bruce was active in the Black Women’s Club movement from its early days and was one of the founding members of the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C. She was also one of the organizers of the National Organization of Afro-American Women, and was elected as the first vice-president of the National Association of Colored Women. In 1898, she was appointed Dean of Women at Tuskegee Institute.7



Nannie Helen Burroughs. Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia8


Nannie Helen Burroughs was an educator, activist, public speaker, and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier. She was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage and of teaching women practical skills. She organized a Woman’s Industrial Club to provide industrial training to working women, then founded the National Training School for Girls in Washington, D.C. Burroughs was also an early black activist, writing such articles as, “Glorify Blackness” and “Unload Your Uncle Tom.”9,10




Anna Julia Cooper. Photo from BlackPast.org11

Anna Julia Cooper might’ve been one of the most extraordinary and brilliant minds of her time. In her book Segregated Sisterhood, Nancie Caraway writes:

Anna Julia Cooper—novelist, suffragist, Sorbonne-trained linguist, and racial activist—agitated in an unmistakably feminist voice during the horror of the turn-of-the-century Jim Crow era. Cooper’s insights are remarkable, precursors of the “innovations” found in contemporary feminist theory. While dedicated to uplifting the entire Black community, Cooper encouraged Black women to speak for themselves and to project their own unique voices. She projected a woman-centered radicalism which insisted on female autonomy: “Woman is not underdeveloped man but diverse.”12

According to ethnic studies scholar Tyina Steptoe: “Born into bondage in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, she was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Hannah Stanley, and her owner, George Washington Haywood.”13 On the Anna Julia Cooper Project website, political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry calls her “one of the most noted African-American intellectuals in the history of the nation” whose activism began at the age of nine when she protested the preferential treatment given to boys at her school. Cooper founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C., helped open the first YWCA chapter for black women (who were excluded from other chapters), worked as an educator, and in 1924, become the fourth black American woman to earn a doctoral degree.14

In the Foreword to Six Women’s Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes Cooper as the “prototypical black feminist whose 1892 A Voice From the South can be considered to be one of the original texts of the black feminist movement.”15 Cooper rejected the notion of a monolithic Black, especially one that subsumed females into a male identity. As Gates writes:

It was Cooper who first analyzed the fallacy of referring to “the Black man” when speaking of black people and who argued that just as white men cannot speak through the consciousness of black men, neither can black men “fully and adequately…reproduce the exact Voice of the Black Woman.”16

Even more significantly, Cooper argued that unless women are allowed to participate equally, to contribute their unique perspectives and abilities, the world will continue “to limp along with the wobbling gait and one-side hesitancy of a man with one eye.”17 Cooper’s elevating, women-centered perspective was powerful and unapologetic. In Daughters of Africa, Margaret Busby includes the following passage from Cooper’s A Voice From the South by a Black Woman in the South:

Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”18



Photo in the public domain, retrieved from BlackPast.org19


Victoria Earle Matthews, along with Susan McKinney Steward and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, helped found the Black Club Women’s movement in 1892 as part of a call to action by Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign.20

Independent historian Wilma J. Johnson writes that Matthews “was an accomplished journalist, author, lecturer, clubwoman, social worker, and missionary. She was born…in Fort Valley, Georgia, to Caroline Smith, a slave, and a man who was believed to be the family’s master.” She was a reporter for various African American newspapers, including the Boston Advocate and the New York Globe, as well as for other newspapers including the New York Times, Herald and Sunday Mercury. Both as a reporter and an activist, Matthews was a leading supporter of Wells’s anti-lynching campaign. She also founded the Woman’s Loyal Union and helped found the National Federation of Afro-American Women.21



Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia22

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was a journalist, lecturer, suffragist, civil rights activist, and clubwoman. She was one of the co-founders, along with Victoria Earle Matthews and Susan McKinney Steward, of the Black Club Women’s movement in 1892.23 Sociologist Stephanie Knight writes that Ruffin was “born into one of Boston’s leading families.” She was a co-founder of the Women’s Era Club and edited its publication, Women’s Era, the first newspaper by and for African American women. Realizing the need to start organizing the Black Women’s Clubs, she organized the first annual National Conference of Colored Women in 1895 which brought women together from twenty different clubs around the nation.24

In her opening speech to the assembly, Ruffin called on all women to come together in common, progressive cause:

Our woman’s movement is a woman’s movement in that it is led and directed by women for the good of women and men, for the benefit of all humanity…[W]e are not drawing the color line; we are women, American women, as intensely interested in all that pertains to us as such as all other American women; we are not alienating or withdrawing, we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join us.25

Ruffin was also an active suffragist, was a member of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and organized alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. According to Nancie Caraway, writing in Segregated Sisterhood, “despite the many insulting affronts to her reputation that she endured from white women’s organizations,” she never wavered from her belief in the importance of feminist solidarity. “Ruffin’s feminism did not define itself by race, class, or color, but appropriated, in the strongest terms, citizenship.”26


Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia27



Dr. Susan McKinney Steward was a leading physician, clubwomen, activist, and co-founder, along with Victoria Earle Matthews and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, of the Black Club Women’s movement.28

Historian Sara Diaz writes that Dr. McKinney Steward was “born to elite Brooklyn parents” and she became the first black woman in New York state to earn a medical doctorate. She opened her own practice, specializing in prenatal and pediatric diseases, and co-founded the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary. She was also an educator and suffrage activist. As an “accomplished public speaker,” she lectured widely and was invited to address the first Universal Race Congress at the University of London in 1911. When she died in 1918, the eulogy at her funeral was delivered by W.E.B. DuBois.29


STEWART, MARIA W. (1803-1879)

Photo from Prince Among Slaves: The Cultural Legacy of Enslaved Africans30

Maria W. Stewart was an abolitionist, feminist, journalist, and lecturer. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, orphaned by the age of five, and became an indentured servant to a clergyman.31

In 1832, Stewart began giving public lectures on gender and racial equality; she is considered to be the first American-born women to lecture publicly. In her speeches to mixed race crowds in Boston, she urged black women to rise up against slavery and gender stereotypes: “O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! awake! arise! no longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties.”32

Described as a firebrand and the first female political essayist in America, Stewart fervently believed that education, economic independence, and political activism were the keys to liberation. She called on black women to “Sue for your rights and privileges.”33 Though she also called on black men to similarly arise — “O ye sons of Africa, when will your voices be heard in our legislative halls, in defiance of your enemies, contending for equal rights and liberty?” — she knew first-hand the additional drudgery of black women’s lives and how “continued hard labor deadens the energies of the soul, and benumbs the faculties of the mind.”34 Perhaps Stewart’s greatest legacy was that of linking education with liberation: “Knowledge is power,” she said.35


TRUTH, SOJOURNER (c. 1797-1883)

Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia36

One of the most famous abolitionists in America, Sojourner Truth was an orator, suffragist, and unionist. Author Margaret Busby, in her book Daughters of Africa, writes:

The first African-American woman anti-slavery lecturer, abolitionist and crusader for women’s rights, she was born on a Dutch landowner’s estate in Ulster County, New York. Her father had been pirated from the Gold Coast; her mother nursed twelve children, all but two of whom were sold to other plantations. At the age of nine Isabella, as she was called, was taken from her parents and sold at auction.37

In 1826, she escaped from slavery when the man who owned her attempted to keep her enslaved for another year after New York State had passed a law abolishing slavery.38




Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia39

Frances Ellen Watkins-Harper was the founder of the National Association of Colored Women and was active in both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. She was also a famous writer and poet. According to Margaret Busby in Daughters of Africa, Watkins Harper published her first book of poetry and prose in 1845, and she went on to become “the most popular woman poet of her time; Moses (1854) went through twenty editions by 1871 and her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1857) sold 10,000 copies in its first five years.”40 Harper’s novel, Iola LeRoy; or Shadows Uplifted, is one of the first novels written by a black woman in the U.S. Busby writes that Harper “was active in the movements for abolition, temperance and women’s rights, and raised the question of whether Black authors should dwell on racial problems or address wider issues.”41


WELLS, IDA BARNETT (1862-1931)

Photo in the public domain from the Project Gutenberg Archives, retrieved from Wikipedia42

Ida B. Wells is one of the most famous civil rights activists in America. A fearless, crusading journalist, it was Wells who investigated and publicized the horrors of lynching and organized a national campaign to end it. She was frequently the target of death threats and attempts on her life, but never let anything deter her from her activism and writing.43

Historian Paula Giddings writes in her book When and Where I Enter that Wells was born six months before Emancipation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to parents who were enslaved. When she was fourteen, her parents died and she began teaching in order to support her sisters and brothers. She began writing for black newspapers while she was in college and in 1889, took over co-ownership of the anti-segregationist newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight, in Memphis, Tennessee.44

Wells is also famous for refusing to give up her seat on a train in 1884. When the train conductor attempted to forcibly remove her, she fought back and it took three men to drag her out of her seat. She sued the railroad and won.45

In addition to traveling throughout the country and abroad on anti-lynching speaking tours, Wells was a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women, the National Afro-American Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1914, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women’s suffrage organization.46



Fannie Barrier Williams. Photo in the public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia47

Fannie Barrier Williams was an educator, clubwoman, civil rights activist, and suffragist. She was born to a middle-class family in Brockport, New York, and later moved to Chicago, where she became active in both the club and settlement movements. She was also an outspoken critic of the sexualized demonization and sexual exploitation of black women, a subject considered taboo at  the time.48

In 1891, Williams co-founded the National League of Colored Women and in 1891, helped form the first training school for black nurses, Provident Hospital, in Chicago.49