Nine African-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention"

Vanguard: The Fights that Connect Black Women Activists across More Than Two Centuries

My undergraduate and MA adviser, Dr. Angela Howard, argued that women across time and space often have remarkably similar experiences if you zero in on major events in their lives. These include first marriages, first babies, menopause, or widowhood. She encouraged me to compare women at these moments of their lives even if they occurred at different ages.

Cover of Vanguard featuring yellow background and several Black men, women, and children standing in a line.
Vanguard by Martha Jones is out now from Basic Books. (Courtesy Basic Books)

Dr. Howard’s argument came back to me while reading Martha Jones’s Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. What was this common experience that seemed to unite the Black women Jones profiled across more than two hundred years? Being accosted for traveling in public. Whether it was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in the 1850s and 1860s, Sojourner Truth during the Civil War, Josephine DeCuir in 1872, Anna Julia Cooper in the 1890s, Pauli Murray in 1940, Rosa Parks sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or Diane Nash a decade later leading the Freedom Rides in the face of certain and extreme violence, the issue of traveling while Black and female comes up again and again throughout the text, along with how Black women tried to protect themselves and others.[1] The issue reiterates the threat to Black women’s (and men’s) security, which Jones convincingly ties back to political and civil rights. She quotes Nannie Helen Burroughs who described the vote as Black women’s “weapon of moral defence” and argued that Black women could use it to influence legislation and law enforcement “in favor of her own protection.”[2]

As the recurring issue of being accosted while traveling illustrates, one major issue for Black women was security for themselves and their families. The fight against sexual assault also recurs throughout the book and throughout the lives of many of the Black women that Jones centers in the text. From the enslaved Celia in Missouri, to Harriet Jacobs, to Rosa Parks, Black women were regularly accosted and had little if any protection from the state.[3] They hoped to use the vote to change that.

However, Jones argues that “no single issue had ever driven Black women’s politics. Nor had Black women invested in a single tactic.”[4] In any voting rights struggle, groups fight for the vote because they want to use it to advance specific causes. Black female activists fought for the vote while also fighting for a plethora of other causes, knowing the vote would help them in their other endeavors.

The incredible struggle before the activists whom Jones profiles appears overwhelming, but she shows how “everywhere across this fractured political landscape, Black women took advantage of the cracks.”[5] Several themes recur throughout Jones’ work. Black women leveraged their labor to win power, whether that was within male-dominated civil rights organizations, the Black church, or when working with white women’s organizations.[6] They walked an especially fine line when working with white women. For example, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper used her “unassailable ladylike comportment” in her work to advance Black women’s rights.[7] Harper was the only Black woman to speak at the 1866 American Equal Rights Association conference; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton listened as she spoke about the ever-present problem of traveling while Black, arguing “You white women speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.”[8] Jones’s activists regularly interacted with notable white suffragists but always with caution and often keeping them at arm’s length.[9]

Jones also argues that Black women’s push for equality within Black churches was a precursor to other fights for Black women’s rights. The section on church conferences shows Black women fighting to obtain a preaching license and become leaders within the church.[10] In 1895, tired of contending with white women’s racism within the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the American Equal Suffrage Association, and the National Equal Suffrage Association, Black women formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) with its famous motto “lifting as we climb.”[11] Jones notes Black women’s activism within the church was crucial for this movement: “Just as political debates informed their religious deliberations, women’s work in churches was a route to rights consciousness, an occasion for honing arguments, and a proving ground for their capacities for leadership, governance, and even political wrangling. In this there was power.”[12] Plessy v. Ferguson (1897) was decided two years after the NACW’s founding and fighting Jim Crow became one of its primary goals. Jones shows that “Jim Crow was more than separation. Violence was its central pillar.”[13] The violence used against Black women while traveling is evidence of this fact. Jones argues that the women of the NACW learned “not to divide themselves between womanhood and Blackness.”[14] They worked with Black churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and the later National Woman’s Party (NWP), even as they worked within their own organization.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary, circaa 1850s. (Courtesy )

By centering Black women’s perspectives, Jones offers new insights into familiar topics. I was surprised to read about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and her successful fight against the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which would have forced those freed under the proclamation to be colonized in “Canada, Liberia, or elsewhere” instead of offering them genuine freedom in the United States.[15] Those familiar with suffrage history likely know the story of Susan B. Anthony voting (illegally) in 1872 as part of a suffrage campaign that included Virginia Minor. However, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and the two other Black women who participated in the attempt to register in Washington, DC in 1871 are often left out of the story.[16]

The path to the 19th Amendment’s ratification is also far more fraught with terror when told from Black women’s perspective. Senator James K. Vardaman from Mississippi was elected on a platform of repealing the 15th Amendment. While Vardaman was no friend to woman suffrage, he offered to support a woman suffrage amendment if it contained wording that would effectively overturn the 15th Amendment, which guarantees Black male voting rights.[17] White suffragists feared that the 19th would fail to get through Congress or fail to be ratified by the 36 states necessary to enact it; Black suffragists feared both that it would fail or that it would pass with wording that would further disfranchise the whole race. The 19th Amendment passed Congress and was ratified in 1920 without the language in question that could have affected the 15th Amendment. However, as Jones argues, “equality after the [19th Amendment] also meant that Black women and men were equally disfranchised by state laws designed to keep African Americans from the polls.”[18]

Black women’s suffrage work did not end in 1920. In fact, it has never really ended. Jones makes this clear by taking us through the Civil Rights struggles of the remainder of the 20th century and ending her narrative with Stacey Abrams. Abrams has been at the forefront of the movement to protect voting rights especially for Black Americans in the South against a growing wave of voter suppression laws following the gutting of the 1965 Civil Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). It is a fitting conclusion, focusing on another Black woman leader of the vanguard fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds to ensure justice and civil rights for Black Americans. Abrams ties together the monograph as she has been vocal about the influence earlier women of the vanguard like Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and Harriet Tubman have had on her as she leads a struggle for Black women’s voting rights more than two centuries in the making.[19]

Notes

  1. Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (Basic Books, 2020), 93, 107, 116, 123, 143, 238, 242, 255.
  2. Jones, 212.
  3. Jones, 86.
  4. Jones, 203.
  5. Jones, 72.
    Jones, 132 & 158.
  6. Jones, 91.
  7. Jones, 95.
  8. Jones, 106.
  9. Jones, 59.
  10. Jones, 147.
  11. Jones, 147.
  12. Jones, 150.
  13. Jones, 153.
  14. Jones, 111.
  15. Jones, 118.
  16. Jones, 168-170.
  17. Jones, 184.
  18. Jones, 275-276.

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