Precursors of modern black feminism

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Precursors of modern black feminism activism among Black women in the NACW during the NADIR period, 1896-1920
Tamburello, Andrea C
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vi, 88 leaves : ; 28 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Feminism -- History -- United States ( lcsh )
National Association of Colored Women (U.S.) -- History ( lcsh )
African American women political activists -- History -- 19th century ( lcsh )
African American women political activists -- History -- 20th century ( lcsh )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 85-88).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Andrea C. Tamburello.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
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LD1193.L65 2008m T35 ( lcc )

Full Text
PERIOD, 1896-1920
Andrea C. Tamburello
B.S.W., West Virginia University, 1994
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science

This thesis for the Master of Social Science
degree by
Andrea C. Tamburello
has been approved
Dr. Donna Langston


Tamburello, Andrea C. (M.S.S., Master of Social Science)
Precursors of Modern Black Feminism: Activism among Black Women in the
NACW during the Nadir Period, 1896-1920
Thesis directed by Dr. Donna Langston
Modern Black feminism began as a result of the Civil Rights and
Black Liberation Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Black feminists
developed feminist theory and praxis separate from White feminists due to
discrimination based on their interlocking triple oppressions of race, sex, and
class. During the First and Second Waves of feminism, Black feminist
organizations formed separate of white feminist organizations due to their
lack of understanding or activism on behalf of Black womens issues. Based
on the definition of Black feminism created by modern theorists, the Black
female activists in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW),
during the nadir period from 1896 to 1920, are considered to be early black
feminists. Though their ideology and praxis differs from Second Wave
feminists, First Wavers exhibited a feminist consciousness and recognized
their multiple oppressions, which they fought against.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Dr. Donna Langston

I wish to thank my advisor, Donna Langston, for her support and
encouragement during my research process. My thanks also goes to Jana
Everett for her patience and contribution to my technique and research; and
to Sonja Foss for her valued participation.

1. INTRODUCTION.........................................1
Section One: Overview.............................1
Section Two: Research Question....................7
Section Three: Literature Review..................8
Section Four: Research Method....................19
Section Five: Arrangement of the Thesis..........20
2. THE TWO WAVES OF BLACK FEMINISM...................23
Section One: Overview............................23
Section Two: Within the First Wave: A Brief History of
Black Womens Clubs............................24
Section Three: The Second Wave: The Birth of Modern
Black Feminism...................................30
3. BLACK FEMINIST THEORY...............................45
Section One: Overview............................45
Section Two: Modern Black Feminist Theory........46
Section Three: Early Black Female Activist Goals.51
ACTIVISM......................................... 57
Section One: Overview............................57
Section Two: The National Association of Colored Womens

Clubs: A Case Study........................58
Section Three: Modern Black Feminist Groups and Their
5. CONCLUSION.....................................79
WORKS CITED..............................................83

Section One
Prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1900s, female minority
contributions to significant historical events were generally not accounted for in
white/mainstream historical inquiry. However, due to the development of feminist
social theory and the Civil Rights Movement over the past four decades, these
womens voices and the active roles they played in fighting against their oppression
have been and are now, being analyzed. Chicana, Native American, Asian and
African American women, throughout American history, made an impact on that
history; however, this paper will focus on the activist contributions of African
American women.
Modern Black1 feminist theorists correctly assert that Black women have been
socially, politically, and economically subjugated throughout history in the three
dimensions of gender, race, and class.2 Black women have been denied equal
1 Today, the term African American and Black are used interchangeably; however, African
American is not commonly used in discussions of feminist theory' and activism, therefore, in this
paper, the term Black is used.
2 Neville, H. A. and J. Hamer. We Make Freedom: An Exploration of Revolutionary Black
Feminism. Journal of Black Studies 31.4 (2001): 440; Simms, R. Controlling Images and the Gender

treatment by white men and women, as well as Black men, and this discrimination is
based on American systems of operation. Oppression based on sexism, racism, and
social class divisions are dimensions that Black women have uniquely experienced
due to their history of enslavement and subsequent life experiences.
Modern feminists of the 1970s and 1980s consider there to be two Waves of
feminism. During the first feminist era, the white and Black women who fought for
equality were referred to not as feminists, but as womens rights activists or
advocates.3 However, based on their definition of feminists, modern Black feminists
claim that early Black female activists were the first feminists. The First Wave
existed prior to and during the period of my study, from approximately the 1850s to
1920, the era of the fight for womens suffrage. Women during this era focused
primarily on gaining the right to vote in order to improve their position in society.
These women believed that all areas in their sphere could be affected positively if
Construction of Enslaved African Women. Gender and Society 15.6 (2001): 879-897.; Roth B.
Separate Roads to Feminism: Black. Chicana. and White Feminist Movements in the Second Wave.
Cambridge University Press, 2004: 1-2; James, J. and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. The Black
Feminist Reader. Boston: Blackwell Publishers, 2000: 144 (hooks, Shaping Feminist Theory);
Collins, P. H. The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought. Signs 14.4 (1989): 745; Collins
P.H. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge. Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed.
New York: Routledge, 2000: 4; Joseph, G. I. and J. Lewis. Common Differences: Conflicts in Black
and White Feminist Perspectives. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981: 19-20; and Murray, P.
Song in a Weary Throat. New York: Harper& Row, 1987: 416.
3 Hooks, B. Aint I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981: 160; and
Echols, A. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1989: 14.

they could vote for change.4 Although most First Wave feminists embraced the idea
of Victorian womanhood being successful as mothers and wives they believed
they were equal to men intellectually and morally and, because of their maternal
attributes, offered a balance to mens aggressive traits. In the public sphere, womens
maternal traits could cleanse the negative characteristics of politics. Therefore,
women deserved a voice in, and equal access to, the public sphere through voting.5
Although female white and Black activists were suffragettes, abolitionists and
fought for temperance, Black women found themselves separate from whites in their
struggle for Black male and female suffrage. Black women activists recognized needs
their race had that differed from white women and therefore fought for more than just
gender-specific rights. First Wave Black feminists continued to fight for suffrage but
also chose to fight sex and race discrimination by uplifting their race through
community activism via the Black womens club movement.6
The Second Wave of feminism began in the 1960s and lasted until the
1980s. The term feminism was not defined until the Second Wave. Feminism is
defined as the principle that women should have political, economic, and social
4 Burrell, B.C. Women and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO,
Inc., 2004: 5-7.
5 Ibid; and Echols 1989: 13.
6 Hooks 1981: 161.

rights equal to those of men, and the movement to win such rights for women.7
These feminists often give credit to their First Wave foremothers for fanning the
flame for the Second Wave of feminism.8 In the second period many Black women
once again found themselves separate from white feminist groups. Like their
ancestors, Second Wave Black feminists recognized their need to fight against their
multiple oppressions, two of which many white women feminists did not share race
and class.9 Therefore, Black feminists developed their own theory of feminism, based
on their social and political inequality in the areas of gender, race, and class. For the
purposes of this paper, Black feminists are defined as those who acknowledge their
multiple oppressions of gender, race, and class and participate in the struggle to
negate these oppressions in American society. Alice Walker coined the term
womanist to describe her feminist philosophy. Walker and other modern Black
feminists prefer to use this word because it reflects the idea of universalism, meaning
they support the solidarity of humanity, not an extreme separatism of the races, or the
7 Guralnik, D. B., ed. Websters New World Dictionary of the American Language. 2nd College
Edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.
8 Ibid; and Echols 1989: 11.
9 There are obviously white women who suffer from low socioeconomic status; however, the white
women who fought in the First and Second Waves of the feminist movement were not as concerned
with poor white women as they were with their own sexual equality. In contrast, Black women
feminists focused on improving the low socioeconomic status of members of their race, which will be
discussed throughout my paper.

Black struggle as an individual struggle.10 Whether they used this term or not, many
modem Black feminists agree that a universal fight is necessary to change the
discriminatory social and political make-up of America to a more equal one.
I will be conducting a historical comparative study of the First and Second
Waves of feminism. I will describe the theory and praxis of Black feminists and the
discrimination they faced during both Waves. I will present a case study of a First
Wave organization, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and
compare its goals and activism to those of five Second Wave feminist groups, The
Black Womens Liberation Group of Mount Vernon/New Rochelle, the Third World
Womens Alliance, the National Black Feminist Organization, Black Women
Organized for Action, the Combahee River Collective, and the National Alliance of
Black Feminists. I chose to study these organizations because they were the first
groups to form during the Second Wave, and information on them was readily
I chose to study the NACW because it was the first group to successfully
gather Black women from local and state clubs to form a national organization.
Though this group had similar goals to white womens organizations of this period,
NACW members recognized they were discriminated against in those organizations,
10 Collins 2000: 42. Alice Walker first used and defined this term.

and they did have specific goals that affected Black women; therefore, they chose to
form their own group. The NACW encouraged racial uplift through community
protection and education programs and activities, as well as civic responsibility and
civil disobedience in order to convince Black and white society that positive change
was possible and necessary.
I chose to do a case study from the period of 1896 to 1920 because the NACW
formed at the height of the nadir, in 1896. African American historians refer to the era
in Black history after Reconstruction to the early 1900s as the nadir. Rosalyn
Terborg-Penn, who is a modem Black feminist, writer, and educator, defines it as the
. roughly forty-year period known as a low rugged plateau in the history of Black
people living in the United States.11 Historian Gerda Lemer refers to the nadir as
the era referred to by whites as the progressive era.12 My case study of the NACW
will end in 1920 because the huge milestone of womens suffrage was accomplished
in that year.
11 Terborg-Penn, R. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote. 1850-1920. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1998:54.
12 Lemer, G. Early Community Work of Black Club Women. The Journal of Negro History 59.2
(1974): 158-167.

Section Two
Research Question
To what extent can the NACW activists of the nadir period be considered
precursors of modern feminists? I will identify the tenets of Black feminism, defined
by Second Wavers, and compare them to the goals, actions, and membership of the
NACW at the height of the nadir, from 1896 to 1920. I will compare the NACWs
ideologies and praxis, their activism against sexual, racial, and economic oppression
to demonstrate that, indeed, these women exhibited a feminist consciousness and
praxis as defined by modem Black feminists. Significantly, these Second Wave
feminists acknowledge that early Black female activists, such as those in the NACW,
were their predecessors in the struggle for Black womens equality. Many Second
Wavers claim that early activists were feminists, though they offer no support to that
claim. The purpose of this paper is to offer the support that is needed to qualify early
Black female activists as feminists. However, Black women who were committed to
equality and participated in social and political activism during the nadir period did
pave the way for women who also strove for change during the 1960s American
Black Civil Rights Movement. Can the terms feminist theory and feminist
movement, which were formally introduced during the Second Wave, be applied to
the period of Black female activism betweenl896 to 1920?

Section Three
Literature Review
Included here are some examples of modern feminist scholars who claim early
Black female activists were early feminists, without offering support that they fit the
definition. Also in this section is a brief introduction to Black feminist theory.
Terborg-Penn describes her research to find Black women suffragists in the
womens suffrage movement. She stated, I did find dynamic Black women
feminists, not merely Black female victims.13 Terborg-Penn also cites from her
research a book written by Eleanor Flexner in which she concluded that when given
the choice to fight between racism and sexism, they chose racism. However, she
debunked that idea citing the research of historian Aileen Kraditor, who concludes
that Black women and men fought throughout the suffrage movement against both
racism and sexism. Terborg-Penns own qualitative and quantitative research of the
womens suffrage movement supports this claim.14
In The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. Terborg-Penn asserts
the mid-1970s feminist movement is a continuation of a trend that began over 150
13 Terborg-Penn 1998:4.

years ago.15 She posits that Black women became suffragists because they had a
multiple consciousness, created by generations of multiple oppressions. Black women
made known their feminism in their arguments for suffrage. These women
acknowledged they were victims of racial and sexual oppression and that gaining the
right to vote in the U.S. would enable them to promote democracy and the
advancement of human rights. Black suffragists argued that if they could not choose
their political representatives, they were second-class citizens.16
An article published in the Journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 1987
titled Domestic Feminism Conservatism, Sex Roles, and Black Womens Clubs
1893-1896 addresses the sex roles and the club movement, particularly the NACW.
Though Feminism is used in the title, the article does not define Black feminism
nor attempt to qualify clubwomen as such.17
In When and Where I Enter, Paula Giddings begins her introduction to the
Black womens activist movement by stating, After the end of Reconstruction, Black
women were prepared to create organizations and institutions that reflected their
15 Harley, S. and R. Terborg-Penn, ed. The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. Baltimore:
Black Classic Press, 1997: 27.
16 Ibid: 160-61.
17 Hine, D.C., ed. Black Women in United States History, Vol, 3. New York: Carlson Publishing, Inc.,
1990: 959-969.

feminist concerns.18 She claims their convictions about stepping outside the
domestic sphere, about women discovering themselves and entering into a womans
age, led to feminist ideas, although she also states that Black feminism was not
vented full force until the late 1920s.19 20 However, Giddings fails to qualify how they
can be defined as Black feminists.
Patricia Bell Scott, professor of Womens Studies, includes a Black feminist
autobiographical and biographical bibliography after the Combahee River Collective
Statement in But Some of Us Are Brave. Scott includes works by women such as
Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, and Nannie Burroughs, all members of the
NACW at one time. By including these women in the bibliography, she recognizes
them as feminists. However, again, no statement is given to justify these NACW
activists as early feminists. Also, author and professor of African Studies Melba
Joyce Boyd acknowledges Anna Julia Cooper as a national Black feminist and credits
18 Giddings P. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.
New York: Harper Collins, 1984: 75.
19 Ibid: 96, 193.
20 Hull, G.T. et al eds. All the Women Are White. All the Blacks Are Men. But Some of Us Are Brave.
New York: The Feminist Press 1982: 23-25.

her book, A Voice from the South (1892), as being written from the Black feminist
perspective.21 22 23
Jones emphasizes the conservative nature of the NACW under the leadership
of Terrell and claims it could not be considered feminist, using the modem definition
of the word, because although they sought social reform, they did not seek social
equality for women. The women who formed and claimed membership in the
NACW were part of the Black middle class. Jones posits that middle class Black
women specifically struggled with the oppression of white, paternalistic society and
desired to prove their worth outside the domestic sphere. While discussing Black
womens clubs in general, she states, these women felt a timidity . [however] .. .
some women drew together, organizing clubs around social reforms that would prove
their capabilities outside the home. These organizations became both institutions for
providing social services for Black women and children and laboratories for training
women for leadership roles in a society traditionally dominated by males. Though
Jones states they sought to prove themselves capable of leadership, they did not
challenge the gender stratified social structure, only the racist social structure. The
21 Boyd, M.J. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper 1825-1911.
Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994: 215.
22 Jones, B.W. Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896-1901.
The Journal of Negro History 67. 1 (1982): 24.
23 Ibid: 21.

other side of the argument includes those authors who insist on calling early Black
female activists feminists.
Sociologist and Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins defines six distinguishing
characteristics of Black feminism, all of which are found in the First and Second
Waves of feminism.24 25 She states that, first, Black women constitute a group of
women who experience interlocking oppressions. Second, Black womens common
experiences lead to diverse responses or a different knowledge or standpoint than
other women. Third, Black women need to respond to their specific social knowledge
in order to be empowered. Fourth, contributions of Black women intellectuals
(whether formally educated or not) offer different knowledge or standpoints which
contribute to feminist theory and practice. Fifth, Black feminist theory is dynamic -
always changing as society changes, and lastly, that Black feminism incorporates
other social justice movements because they are all part of a larger struggle for
human dignity, empowerment, and social justice.
24 Collins 2000: 22-41. Collins took the six characteristics from hooks (Talking Back. 1989: 19-36).
She discussed these factors first, although, hooks does not define them as the six characteristics of
Black feminism.
25 Ibid: 41. Joseph and Lewis (1981: 38-9) state that Black women cannot separate their activism in the
Black liberation movement from that of the womens liberation movement, and even insist that the
struggle for racial equality should be put first because Black men and women have shared in that
struggle together, longer.

After the abolition of slavery, Black womens suffering led to individual and
communal tension. This tension compelled many free Black women to join together
in their local communities to address the immediate needs of their Black sisters and
enter into the political fight, at times alongside white women, for Black suffrage, anti-
lynching and temperance. Though they are referred to by modern Black feminists as
the First Wave of feminists, these women did not refer to themselves as such; the
term had not yet been invented. They often referred to themselves as colored female
activists. The Black female activism that occurred between the 1850s and the early
1890s paved the way for the Black womens club movement.
Activists of the pre-club era were involved in promoting literacy through
educational and social programs and providing support to other Black women through
social organizations and kinship networks.26 They practiced intellectual and physical
activism using the written word, speeches, and by attending rallies and community
gatherings. From 1865 to 1920, Black women, through different forms of activism,
contributed a great deal to these movements. In their efforts to elevate the Black race,
combat capitalism, legally receive the right to vote and accomplish prohibition of
26 Bassard, K.C. Gender and Genre: Black Womens Autobiography and the Ideology of Literacy.
African American Review (1992): 119-129.; and Cash, F.B. Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of
an African- American Tradition. Journal of Negro History 80.1 (1995): 30-41.

alcohol, these early Black feminists joined organizations and African American
womens clubs and participated in the groups social and political activities.
Terborg-Penn comments that during the nadir period in African American
history, Black women turned their focus towards addressing the issues in their own
communities: African American Women suffragists seemed less focused on [the rise
of the Progressive Party and the First World War] and more concerned about solving
the problems in their own communities through the political empowerment of their
women. It is also during this period that the race/suffrage issue took a turn in the
direction of Black women, stating they needed the vote even more than white women
because their oppression was based on racial, sexual and class discrimination. Black
women suffragists agreed that gaining enfranchisement would allow them to solve the
social and economic problems that affected their race.
As a result of women being denied their voting rights, Black women entered
into a nationwide campaign to be enfranchised.27 28 Throughout the long history of the
Women's Suffrage Movement, white and Black women worked together and
separately in their attempts to gain the right to vote. Most of the Southern Black
women who were involved in the suffrage movement were part of the Black middle
27 Terborg-Penn 1998:54.
28 Prestage, J.L. In Quest of African American Political Woman. Annals of the American Academy
of Political and Social Science 515 (1991): 93.

class.29 During the long history of the Womens Suffrage Movement, national
womens suffrage organizations were a consistent avenue of activism for white and
Black women. Members of organizations such as the American Woman Suffrage
Association (AWSA), the National Womens Suffrage Association (NWSA), and the
National American Womens Suffrage Association (NAWSA) participated in rallies,
attended and spoke at suffrage conventions, signed petitions, and attempted to vote in
However, Black women commonly experienced discrimination as members in
these organizations dominated by white women. The debate over universal suffrage
became a major dividing factor among suffragists. Among Black and white, men and
women, particularly in the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which
formed in 1866, the issue of the primacy of Black men achieving the vote over
women caused division in the Association. However, at the AERA convention in
1867, members did sign a petition requesting that Congress give suffrage to all
women and Black men. By the 1868 convention, the goals of the white women
activists differed from Black male and some female suffragists. White suffragists,
such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Paulina W. Davis, consistently supported
womens suffrage over universal suffrage. Stanton is quoted as saying that she could
29 Terborg-Penn 1998: 57.

not allow 'ignorant Negroes and foreigners to make laws for her to obey. The
author cites that Davis attacked the [15th] amendment because she felt that it would
result in a race of tyrants raised above the women in the South.30 31 In response,
Black women organized the Colored Womens Suffrage League (CWSL) in order to
organize and govern a group focused on guaranteed suffrage for the Black race.
Black female benevolent societies existed in northern cities as early as the turn
of the nineteenth century. These groups were formed to aid Black women in their
local communities in various capacities. They offered assistance to the poor, mutual
aid, and even joined together for political activism when denied the right to vote or
hold office. By the antebellum period, there were twenty-seven mutual aid societies
in Philadelphia, made up of either working class women who offered financial
assistance to one another, or elite Black women who worked towards their own
mental improvement in the form of book clubs. They also raised money for Frederick
Douglass newspaper, the North Star. Similar organizations had also formed in New
England and New York.32 Then in the 1890s, because of a lack of educational
opportunities and social welfare establishments, Black women organized into clubs to
30 Ibid: 33.
31 Goodstein, A.S. A Rare Alliance: African American and White Women in the Tennessee Elections
of 1919 and 1920. The Journal of Southern History 64.2 (1998): 219-246.
32 Scott, A.F. Most Invisible of All: Black Womens Voluntary Associations. The Journal of
Southern History 56.1 (1990): 3-22.

meet these needs. Also, most frequently, womens clubs at the local level were
organized to provide care and education for young children.33 The activism of these
early Black female activists paved the way for the next female struggle for equality
that began in the 1960s.
The Second Wave of the Black feminist movement as an organized entity
began during the Civil Rights era in response to discrimination within the feminist
movement, dominated by white women, and within Black Civil Rights organizations,
dominated by Black men. Several Second Wave Black feminist sources claim that
Black feminism was therefore created, out of necessity and force, as a separate
movement for Black women; however, others profess it is a movement within the
feminist movement. Benita Roth, a feminist and sociologist, and Ula Taylor, a Black
feminist and African American History professor, support the idea that Black women
formed their own movement because they were discriminated against by white
women within the feminist movement.34 Sociologist and black feminist Norma J.
Burgess claims that the Black feminist movement did not begin until the 1970s as a
result of the Civil Rights and Womens Movement era.35 However, Taylor and
33 Lemer 1974: 158-9.
34 Roth 2004: 76-7; and Taylor, U. The Historical Evolution of Black Feminist Theory and Praxis.
Journal of Black Studies 29.2 (1998): 234-253.
35 Burgess, N.J. Gender Roles Revisited: The Development of the Womans Place Among African
American Women in the United States. Journal of Black Studies 24.4 (1994): 391-401.

Deborah K. King, Black feminist and professor of sociology at Dartmouth College,
claim that it existed prior to the 1970s, as early as the antebellum period (the First
Wave).36 However, neither Taylor, nor any of the other authors offers a plausible
definition of Black feminist praxis.
African American studies and psychology professor Helen A. Neville and
African American Studies and sociologist professor Jennifer Hamer concur in regard
to the impetus of Black feminism and refer to the Black womens movement as
radical Black feminism, defining it based on the unique experiences and status of
Black women.37 38 Neville and Hamer argue that Black women live under dominant
economic, political and socio-ideological oppression specific to them as Black
women. Black women have experienced forms of oppression that white women have
not simply because their race is white. Black women in America have a unique
situation of subjugation because they are both Black and women, and both
characteristics have perpetuated their low socio-economic status.
36 Taylor 1998; and King, D. K. Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black
Feminist Ideology. Signs 14.1 (1988): 54.
37 Neville and Hamer 2001: 437-38.
38 Burgess 1994: 394.

Section Four
Research Method
A historical qualitative feminist case study method will be used to analyze and
qualify the NACW as a precursor of a modern feminist organization and its members
as feminists. The case study method is viable for my research question for several
reasons. I am testing current theory as it applies to a historical organizations (the
NACW) goals and methods, which includes how Black feminist theory applies to
Black womens activism over time from the First Wave to the Second Wave and,
to a lesser degree, the Third Wave of feminism. I will also analyze the relationship of
the different parts of the NACW in order to reveal the extent of its feminist goals and
activism. I have organized and gathered my data on the NACW in a manner that
allows for intensive analysis.
The focus of study is the NACW from the inception of the organization in
1896 until womens suffrage in 1920. The units of analysis are the writings of
members of the NACW, specifically its first president, Mary Church Terrell; Ida B.
Wells, a long- standing contributing member; Anna Julia Cooper, author and orator;
and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a vice president from 1897-1899; and the
organization itself, during the allotted period. I will use the primary source documents
of members and the organization available speeches, newspaper articles and essays

written by members of the NACW, NACW convention and club records found in
Elizabeth Lindsay Davis biography (a re-print of the original documents) of the
organization, Lifting as They Climb;39 and historical commentary to reveal the theory
and goals behind their activism. I will study the organizations forms of community
activism, as well as some political activism, in order to examine its overall praxis. I
will examine and discuss the writings of modern American Black feminists who are
acknowledged by their colleagues as authorities on the subject as well as early
modem feminist organizations. Their writings and activism will disclose modern
feminist theory and praxis that I will compare to that of the NACW in order to reveal
a similar philosophy and activism, demonstrating that these early Black activists were
precursors of modern feminism.
Section Five
Arrangement of the Thesis
In Chapter Two of the paper, I will describe the First and Second Waves of
feminism. A history of Black womens activism in the years preceding the club
movement will be discussed in order to reveal the basis for the activism of the
39 Davis, E.L. Lifting as They Climb. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996: 204. Elizabeth Lindsay Davis
claimed to have attended all of the NACW meetings since its initial organizational meeting in 1896.
She was the national organizer for nine years, and a state organizer for six years, she served as state
president from 1910 to 1912, and was the national and state historian.

NACW. I will also uncover the foundations for the creation of modem Black
feminism. I will discuss the discrimination Black women in the NACW faced from
white womens organizations and from Black men.
Chapter Three is a discussion of the tenets of modern Black feminism and the
goals of early Black female activists. I will include descriptions of the multiple
oppressions that Black women encounter, which established the basis of Black
feminist theory, and the effects of sexism, racism and classism on their lives.
Chapter Four will include the case study of the NACW, a First Wave feminist
group and compare it to five Second Wave feminist organizations. I will describe why
each organization formed and its goals, its members, and its forms of activism. A
comparative analysis of the praxis of the First Wave group to the Second Wave
groups will be conducted.
Chapter Five is the concluding chapter, in which I will summarize the paper
and briefly state the impediments to my research. I will offer support of my
hypothesis by analyzing the writings of modem Black feminists in relation to their
description of early Black activists as feminists and provide the two points of view,
offered by scholars, on why women of the NACW can be considered Black feminists.
I will also describe the Third Wave of feminism, the next generation of feminists,
which may offer contemporary applications of Black feminism.

Considering the struggle in which Second Wave Feminists engaged to
organize and define feminism, it seems casual and trite to acknowledge early female
activists as feminists without further investigation. Second Wave Black women
feminists organized and defined their struggle based on their multiple oppressions of
racism, sexism and classism. They fought socially and politically to combat their
inequality using various tactics and strategies. It is a goal to determine whether or not
early Black female activists acknowledged their multiple oppressions by conducting a
case study of the NACW. This determination will offer evidence to support the claim
by Second Wavers that early Black female activists were feminists. Because this
paper provides a comparative study of activism during different historical eras, it
offers scholars more insight into how Second Wavers can claim early Black female
activists were First Wave feminists.

Section One
The First and Second Waves of feminism, though formed during different
turbulent periods in American history, held similar philosophies and practiced similar
forms of activism in order to combat their social, political and economic oppression.
During the period from 1896 to 1920, the First Wave of feminists included white and
Black women fighting alongside each other for suffrage and equality within
Americas white patriarchal society. Flowever, when it became clear to Black women
that their specific needs were not being met by white organizations, they combined
their resources, and fought against their multiple oppressions of race, class and
gender. The NACW is one such organization, which gathered women on a national
level. The Second Wave of Feminism arguably began as early as the 1950s but did
not form as a movement until the 1960s. White, Black, Chicana, Native American,
and Asian American women organized as Radical, Liberal, and Socialist feminists,
collectively and among their own races, in response to women wanting to combat
their sexual oppression and gain equal treatment in society. Like their foremothers,
the inception of a Second Wave of Black Feminist organizations occurred in response

to the racial and class oppression they experienced through discrimination at the
hands of white women and Black men within the movement. The similarities of both
Waves of Black feminism are revealed in the discrimination they faced, the necessity
to organize within their own race, and their ideology and activism.
In Section Two of this chapter, I will discuss why the First Wave of Feminism
surfaced, the period in which it lasted, and the goals of Black female activists. It will
also include a short history of the Black womens club movement. Section Three is a
discussion of the Second Wave of Feminism and the emergence of Black feminism.
Section Two
Within The First Wave: A Brief History of Black Womens Clubs
The 1890s saw the advent of a new womens Black club movement that
Lemer refers to as the multipurpose womens club.40 Lemer differentiates between
local clubs and those that are multipurpose womens clubs because, in the latter, the
women expanded their interests and activities outside the local community. Lerner,
historians Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider, and Black feminist author and social rights
activist Angela Y. Davis claim the thrust for the formation of these clubs was political
the defense against lynchings via the anti-lynching crusade undertaken by Ida B.
40 Lemer 1974: 160.

Wells in 1892. 41 Lerner states that Wells fought against the common charge of rape
that whites used to justify the lynchings of Black men and brought the idea of the
sexual exploitation of Black women to the forefront of her political campaign to fight
racial oppression. Lerner asserts that Wells thus articulated the ideology of the Black
womens organized movement a defense of Black womanhood as part of a
defense of the race from terror and abuse.42 In 1892, after Wells gave a speech at her
own fundraising rally in New York, sponsored by some prominent women, the first
two multipurpose clubs were then formed Victoria Earle Matthews organized the
Womens Loyal Union of Brooklyn and New York, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
formed the Womens Era Club of Boston.43 Lerner posits that Mary Margaret
Washingtons Tuskegee Womens Club, though not the first multipurpose club,
formed in 1895, can serve as a prototype for hundreds of its kind.44 This was an
elitist club that offered literary opportunities and other social entertainments to its
members and offered welfare activities and educational opportunities for mothers on
41 Ibid; Schneider Dorothy and Carl. American Women in the Progressive Era 1900-1920. New York:
Facts on File, Inc., 1993: 124; and Davis, A.Y. Women. Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books,
1983: 128.
42 Lerner 1974: 160.
43 Ibid: 161-2; and Davis, A.Y. 1983: 131.
44 Lerner 1974: 159.

how to run a proper household. The clubwomen offered Bible classes, ran a
kindergarten and participated in suffrage and other political activities.45
The multipurpose clubs originated as local places where Black women could
join with other community members in the fight for political, social and economic
equality. The Charleston and Memphis Womans Loyal Unions, the Phyllis Wheatley
Club of New Orleans, and the Colored Womens League of Washington D.C. (which
became the National League of Colored Women) were other more prominent clubs
and associations formed to bond Black women together in their fight to resist
oppression and gain their rights. These organizations and others eventually
recognized the need to organize at a national level in order to have more of an impact.
The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was a direct result of these
Historians/scholars differ in their analysis of what caused the multipurpose
Black clubwomens movement to emerge. While Lerner claims the impetus for the
Black club movement was political, Anne Firor Scott, professor of American history
at Duke University, asserts that the formation of these clubs was a mere natural
45 Ibid: 161; Schneider 1993: 124; and Davis, A.Y. 1983: 128.
46 Jones 1982: 20-33; Johnson, J.M. Drill into us...the Rebel Tradition: The Contest over Southern
Identity in Black and White Womens Clubs, South Carolina, 1989-1930. The Journal of Southern
History 66.3 (2000): 525-562; Brown D.R. and W.F. Anderson. A Survey of the Black Woman and
the Persuasion Process: The Study of Strategies of Identification and Resistance. Journal of Black
Studies 9.2 (1978): 233-248; and Lerner 1974: 161.

progression out of the auxiliary groups that already existed. Beverly W. Jones, author
and historian, argues that the Black womens club movement began in the 1890s due
to the discrimination of Black women specifically during the nadir period.47 48 Others
posit the specific discrimination Black women experienced when they joined, or
attempted to join, white womens clubs that led to the formation of the Black
womens clubs. Davis insists the racist assaults Black women experienced that set
them apart from white women was an important factor. Black women were
discriminated against by white female society because they did not live up to the ideal
of the white Victorian woman or adhere to the ideal of true womanhood.
Lemer states that Wells, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Mary Church Terrell
formed their clubs based on the influence of white womens clubs. Both of these
assertions go further than Scotts claims. Scott asserts that clubs were simply a natural
progression in the female Black activist movement, and she does not acknowledge
any influence of white womens clubs on Black womens clubs. They both do agree
that some Black clubs were elitist and that they struggled to gain the cooperation of
white womens clubs until the twentieth century.
47 Jones 1982:21.
48 Schneider 1993: 100; Blair, K. J. The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined. 1869-
1914. Teaneck, N.J.: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980: 64; and Davis A.Y. 1983:129-130.

American History professor and author Karen J. Blair discusses the attempt of
Josephine Ruffin, on behalf of the Boston Womens Era Club, to gain membership in
the General Federation of Womens Clubs in 1894.49 The Federation officers realized
after they had admitted the Boston Club women as members that it was a Black club
and proceeded to revoke the clubs membership. A nationwide Federation debate
ensued between the state clubs and the Federation regarding the entrance of Black
clubs into the Federation. The debate ended in 1902, when the Federation added an
amendment to its by-laws barring Black club admission.
Black women recognized that if they were to make social, economic and
political change, they had to be acknowledged and even accepted by white society. In
order to gain change through political action, Black club women knew they had to
address the race issue. Ending racial discrimination was a goal held by many Black
clubs. According to Scott, the Black clubs goals were not considered important by
most white womens clubs.50 Thus, Black women fought to better race relations as
one of their organized goals.
Black clubwomen experienced discrimination not only from white society but
from Black male organizations as well. The Tuskegee Negro Conference and the
biracial National League on Urban Conditions, the Anti-Lynching Crusade, and even
49 Blair 1980: 109-10; and Davis, A.Y. 1983: 127.
50 Scott 1990: 19.

the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) denied
Black women equal treatment. Black women were denied entrance to conferences,
denied leadership positions, and were given only volunteer as opposed to paid
positions even at times when their efforts were greater than those being paid.
According to Schneider and Schneider, this suppression of their rights was another
impetus for women to increase their efforts as clubwomen.51
It is also important to point out that Black women not only faced
discrimination from whites and Black males, but poorer women experienced class
discrimination from their middle class sisters. Black female activists durifig the nadir
were typically from middle class black families. Being a part of the Black middle
class during this period obviously meant a person held a certain economic and social
standing that allowed for personal and consumer power. A Black person or family
became a part of the middle class by being an entrepreneur or holding a professional
or semi-professional job, such as a lawyer or a clerk, and these positions required an
education. Members of the Black middle class had discretionary income that allowed
them to have amenities the lower class could not afford.52 Scott and Davis note that
the majority of clubwomen were elitists and looked down on the less fortunate of
51 Schneider 1993: 128; and Frankel, N. and Nancy S. Dye, eds. Gender. Class. Race, and Reform in
the Progressive Era. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991:159.
52 Giddings 1984: 171, 178, 205, 241.

their race.53 It was a goal of clubwomen to raise Black womens morality and
increase their education, in order to get them out of the lower class; however,
clubwomen did not view these lower class Black women as their equals.
Section Three
The Second Wave; The Birth of Modern Black Feminism
Modern feminist scholars identify various causes of the feminist movement.
Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis cite Betty Friedans publication of The Feminine
Mystique in 1963 as an impetus for the movement; as predominantly white middle
class women questioned their domestic roles in society and became aware of their
sexual oppression.54 Black feminist, activist, lawyer, and author Pauli Murray cites
the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a thrust, especially for
working professional women.55 Roth uses relative deprivation theory to explain the
emergence of the feminist movement in the 1960s.56 She argues that as women
became aware of their disadvantaged circumstances in comparison to men within
53 Scott 1990: 20; and Davis, A.Y. 1983: 134.
54 Joseph and Lewis 1981: 49, 52-55.
55 Murray 1987: 361,366-68.
56 Roth 2004: 28.

social justice networks, womens expectations for their role in work and education
changed. Because their reality remained unchanged, organized protest ensued.
Additionally, Roth, Joseph and Lewis maintain that feminist organization arose from
discrimination women experienced within the Civil Rights and Anti-war Protest
Movements. Frustrated that their social and political activism was being thwarted by
their gender, women mobilized as feminists.
In Murrays autobiography, she reveals the discussions about forming a
national womens Civil Rights organization among women fighting for the
enforcement of Title VII prior to the Third Annual Conference of State Commissions
on the Status of Women in June of 1966.57 When these women and others met at the
conference, they were prevented from passing of a sexual discrimination equal
employment resolution. Their extreme frustration fueled the immediate founding of
the National Organization for Women (NOW). The womens liberation movement
was formed as an adaptation of the 1960s radical movements a new theory and
praxis developed based on a new feminist consciousness.
Roth posits that the definition of feminism based on relative deprivation
theory and gender inequality did not entirely apply to Black women until the latter
57 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states sexual discrimination in the workplace and hiring
practice is illegal. (See Murray 1987: 367; and Burrell 2004: 5-60.)

part of the 1960s.58 Black women were historically a larger part of the labor force
than white women and were not kept from working because they could not afford to
adhere to white gender role standards of domesticity. While white women compared
themselves to white men as a basis for measuring their equality, Black women did
not. The majority of white feminists were from the middle class and based their
oppression solely on gender, while Black women activists, also mostly from the
middle class, not only compared themselves to Black men but also measured their
status to that of white women.
Though both groups of activists were traditionally from the middle class, the
definition of middle class differed for white and Black women because of the
discrepancies in their labor opportunities, pay and education. From 1954 to 1970,
there was an average of 10.5 percent more Black women in the labor force, and the
average income for a Black woman during that period was approximately $859 less
per year than that of a white woman.59 Also during that period, the unemployment
rate for Black women was almost double that of white women. Between 1960 and
58 Roth 2004: 28.
59 Ibid: 33-35.

1970, the average percent of Black women enrolled in college was twenty-one
percent, two points lower than white women.60
Black women did not always see themselves as being disadvantaged, nor were
they encouraged to, in comparison to Black men. King asserts that since the period of
the abolition movement until the Civil Rights Movement, Black women often held
central and powerful leadership roles within the Black community and within its
liberation politics ... we were the backbone of racial uplift, and we also played
critical roles in the struggle for racial justice.61 King cites the leadership and
activism of Harriet Tubman, Ida Wells Barnett, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and
Ella Baker.62 Collins asserts that from the time of slavery, Black communities were
constructing their own oppositional knowledges to combat the white worldview.
Black women in the post-World War II era, who shared in the experiences of forced,
segregated housing, education, and employment, created their own definitions of
Black womanhood. Collins states, These self-definitions of Black womanhood were
designed to resist the negative controlling images of Black womanhood advanced by
Whites as well as the discriminatory social practices these controlling images
60 Ibid: 36-37.
6' King 1988: 54.

supported.63 The negative images of Black women were perpetuated by Europeans
during their visits to Africa during the slave trade era and spread throughout Europe
and America during the period of American slavery and after its abolition.64 Scholars
report that an enslaved Black woman was viewed as a jezebel, mammy or mule
by white society. According to Collins, these images were used as defining
characteristics to oppress all Black women.65
Roth, on the other hand, only acknowledges that in the early Civil Rights and
Black Liberation Movements of the 1940s to mid-1960s, many Black women, mostly
in the South, held important and satisfying positions within organizations such as the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).66 Collins, Joseph and Lewis
assert that Black women did hold positions of leadership in organizations such as
SCLC.67 However, Collins argues that, in those positions, they were forced to adhere
to the demands of the male leadership; while Joseph and Lewis maintain it was the
choice of the women to allow the men to be the dominant public figures. Roth claims
63 Collins 2000: 10.
b4 For a history of racial images promoted by European observations during the slave trade, see
Morgan, J.L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. University of
Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2004: Chapter One.
65 Collins 2000: 70. The terms used to describe the controlling images will be defined and explored in
Section Three of this chapter.
66 Roth 2004: 85-6.
67 Collins 2000: 7; and Joseph and Lewis 1981: 109-10.

that when the social base and ideologies of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation
Movements changed, middle class Black women experienced an oppressive gender
distinction between themselves and Black men and began organizing as feminists, not
just activists.
Some modern Black feminists focus on the pressure Black women received
from Black males and white society to conform to traditional female roles in the
1950s and 60s. Bell hooks, an author, Black feminist, and activist, focuses on the
opposite of what Collins claims to be true in the 1950s. Hooks states that efforts of
conformity began during the 1950s as a result of male ideology and the medias
endeavors to reverse the effects of World War II.68 According to hooks, women had
been independent, assertive and hardworking. White men, like Black men, wanted to
see all women be less assertive, dependent, and unemployed.69 Propaganda
continually encouraged women to stay at home and have a family or work in jobs that
did not compete with men, like teaching and nursing. Hooks and Roth cite the
publication of Daniel Moynihans contentious 1965 report, The Negro Family: The
68 Hooks 1981: 177. Bell hooks is a pseudonym for Gloria Watkins, taken in honor of her mother and
grandmother. She explains that the pseudonym, and the fact that she does not capitalize it, is her
attempt to allow readers to focus not on the author, but the content of her literature. (See introduction
in Aint I a Woman and news release on Berea Colleges website.)
69 Ibid. In her essay, A Black Feminists Search for Sisterhood, Michele Wallace reveals her
personal experiences of Black women in her acquaintance in the late 1960s who exercised the belief of
the traditional female role for themselves, and her own struggle not to accept that ideology (See Hull
1982: 5-12).

Case for National Action as an impetus for Black men to pressure Black women to
conform to the traditional family style.70 The report asserted that Black matriarchy
encumbered the success of the Black man, the Black family and the Black community
as a whole. Though the report used skewed data, it had a large impact on the Black
male consciousness, which encouraged them to impose patriarchal ideals on their
Hooks generalizes that Black women in the 1950s and 60s chose to conform
to this ideal and happily taught their female children to do the same. She argues that
Black women did not want to be without male companionship, which was true of all
women, regardless of race or ethnicity. Hooks states, The fear of being alone, or of
being unloved, had caused women of all races to passively accept sexism and sexist
oppression.71 Hooks adamantly states that it was not during the 1960s Civil Rights
Movement that Black women began to conform, it was during the 1950s. In the
1960s, Black women wanted their conformity to be evident to white society, so it was
clear they were not emasculating their men. Thus, when the feminist movement
began, there was a group of Black anti-feminists who contended that Black women
were already free because they did not view themselves as conformists to sexist white
70 Roth 2004: 85-6; and hooks 1981: 179-180.
71 Hooks 1981:184.

gender roles, and Black anti-feminists attacked white womens liberation groups
because they could not compare the plight of Black women to any other oppressed
group in America.72
Roth and others assert that by the mid-1960s, Black womens roles in the
Civil Rights Movement began to change due to societal pressure and the Moynihan
report, as well as other factors.73 The social base of the movement itself changed from
having a Southern, community-based momentum, reliant on middle-aged Black
women, to a Northern and younger base. Whereas earlier in the movement, mature,
Southern Black women held respectable positions within organizations, they now
were pushed out by the growing Black student movement in Northern cities.74
Organizations that began in Southern states, such as the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC), contained influential older and younger Black women members;
however, those groups fought for civil rights. As the feminist movement gained
72 Ibid: 185.
73 Roth 2004: 106; King 1998:55; Murray 1987: 416-17; and Burrell 2004: 69. Roth also cites Dubey
1994; Giddings 1984; Gray White 1999; Murray 1975; Wallace 1996 and Pittman quoted in Cantwell
1971 as evidence of the influence of the Moynihan report on the masculine trend of Black Nationalism.
74 There were early Black movements that originated in the North; however, there focus did not remain
there. The Niagara Movement, which formed in 1905 in Niagara Falls, Canada, under the leadership of
DuBois, lasted until 1909, when the group merged with White progressives to form the NAACP. That
group formed in New York City but its activism spread throughout the East Coast (See Brinkley 2004:
573; and NAACP website).

momentum, it was Northern Black college and professional women who organized
feminist consciousness raising and feminist groups, such as the National Black
Feminist Organization (NBFO) in New York City.
Additionally, according to Roth, Black men began to adhere to a white
patriarchal philosophy, which they imposed on Black women.75 The SCLC and Black
Nationalist and liberationist groups, such as the Black Muslims and Black Panthers,
restricted womens organizational roles in order to follow the white standard of the
traditional family. Some Black men viewed this familial structure as a conduit to
combat racism and the negative perception of the emasculated Black male.76 Black
women felt the strains of gender inequality as they were being forced to submit to
traditional white gender roles. The following excerpt from The Combahee River
Collectives Black Feminist Statement expresses its frustration with some Black
mens response to feminism:
The reaction of Black men to feminism has been notoriously
negative. They are, of course, even more threatened than Black
women by the possibility that Black feminists might organize
around their own needs. They realize that they might not only
lose valuable and hard-working allies in their struggles, but that
5 Roth 2004: 86.
76 Ibid: 85-6; Collins (2000: 7) cites the sexism in the Black Panthers organization but does not explain
its cause. Hooks (1989:1 13-118) does not specifically address the discrimination of Black women in
the Black liberation struggle; however, she does address assimilation by Blacks (she blames it on
economics) into white culture as evidence of the continued existence of white supremacy.

they might also be forced to change their habitually sexist ways
of interacting with and oppressing Black women.7
Though she practically ran the SCLC, Ella Baker was forced to defer to
decisions made by its male leadership team. Elaine Brown, who in 1974, rose to
chairmanship in the Black Panther Party admitted to the sexism held by men in the
Party. At meetings, she was expected to wait and not eat until after the men were
done and was expected to clean up afterwards.77 78 79 Septima Clark, a Civil Rights
activist, described her experiences with sexism: I found all over the South that
whatever the man said had to be right. They had the whole say. The woman couldnt
say a thing.80 81 Black female activists responded negatively to a philosophy of forced
inequality and thus began to mobilize as feminists. When Black women activists
chose to organize as feminists, the majority purposefully chose not to join white
feminist organizations.
As the Second Wave of feminism emerged, different theories developed due
to different feminist ideologies. In the early 1960s, Liberal Feminism developed that
77 Guy-Sheftall, B., ed. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New
York: The New Press, 1995:237 (CFCs, A Black Feminist Statement 1977.)
78 Collins 2000: 7.
79 Ibid.
80 Ibid; and Roth 2004: 104.
81 Roth 2004: 104-5; and Guy-Sheftall 1995:232-33 (A Black Feminist Statement 1977).

focused on gains for white middle class women and downplayed the differences
between men and women. This theory maintains that ending sexism can be
accomplished through women working alongside men within the system. Liberal
Feminists believed that educating the masses against traditional sexist attitudes and
gaining legal reform would raise peoples individual consciousness and therefore
change womens status in society. NOW is considered a Liberal Feminist group.
Although there were women of color involved in the organization, the focus of the
group remained on the needs of professional white middle class women. Liberal
Feminists also believed that, through reform, they could work through the current
sexist society. Liberal Feminism was criticized for addressing the needs of a select
group of women, which helped give birth to Radical Feminism.
Radical Feminism was supported mainly by white middle class, college
educated women in the late 1960s. It focused on the differences between men and
women but did not address the race, class, and ethnic differences among women.
Radical Feminists were influenced by the Student, Anti-war and Civil Rights
Movements of the 1960s, and their theory is specifically analogous to the idea of
Black Power. According to Langston, through interpersonal power and 82
82 Whitehorse Cochran, J. D. Langston, and C. Woodward, eds. Changing Our Power. Dubuque:
Kendall/Hunt, 1988: 10-11. (Langston, D. Feminist Theories and the Politics of Difference.); Burrell
2004: 4; and Echols 1989: 15,

domination, women can destroy their oppression caused by patriarchy. While
Liberal Feminism highlights the oppressive experiences of women in the public
sphere, the heart of Radical Feminism is oppression in a womens personal sphere.
They rejected the institutions of love, marriage, the family, and heterosexuality and
argue that they are as oppressive as rape, pornography and prostitution. Radical
Feminists believed that the patriarchal system of oppression is rooted not in the
economic system of capitalism but male domination. Because patriarchy is ingrained
in American culture, women needed to be educated about their oppression and how
they could conquer it through self-awareness. Therefore, they created consciousness
raising (CR) groups in order to raise womens awareness regarding their oppression.
However, these feminists were also criticized for their lack of attention to race and
class issues. Although their focus encompassed the more diverse needs of women, the
framework for their CR was from the perspective of white middle class women.
Socialist Feminism attracted working-class women of different race and
ethnic backgrounds because it attempted to address race and class, as well as gender
oppression. However, the theorists who defined Socialist Feminism failed at times to 83 84
83 Whitehorse Cochran et al 1988: 12.
84 Ibid: 12-14; and Burrell 2004: 4.

accomplish their goals because white middle class women were writing for working-
class women.85
Originally, Black feminists did approach white feminist liberation groups to
join in the fight against sexist tyranny; however, they soon realized their own
ideology and goals differed from those of white womens. Modem Black feminists
insist that Black women were well aware of the disparities of race and class that
affected their social and economic status and those characteristics did not affect white
women. White feminists did not address issues concerning race or class in their
efforts for equality.86 87 Black feminist Frances Beal stated in 1970:
Any white group that does not have an anti-imperialist and
antiracist ideology has absolutely nothing in common with the
Black womans struggle ... Very few of these [white] women
suffer the extreme economic exploitation that most Black
women are subjected to day by day ... If they do not realize
that the reasons for their condition lie in the system and not
simply that men get a vicarious pleasure out of consuming
their bodies for exploitative reasons . then we cannot unite
with them around common grievances . .
Black feminists viewed white feminists issues as more cultural than economic. While
white women were fighting for abortion rights, a redefinition of body image and
55 Whitehorse Cochran et al: 15-17.
86 King 1988: 60; James, J. and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting 2000: 131-133, 141 (hooks, Shaping
Feminist Theory).
87 Guy-Sheftall 1995:153 (Beales, Double Jeopardy 1970).

lesbianism, Black women were fighting against involuntary sterilization and abortions
and for the ability to be financially viable to have enough food, clothing, and
shelter to survive. White women were also striving to break apart the nuclear family
in order to become independent from white men, while Black women were trying to
keep their families together. After interviewing Black women of varying
socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, Joseph and Lewis argue that there were
Black women who, although involved in the fight for or against the issues affecting
them, they did not want to be categorized as feminists. They were concerned with
the issues that affected their communities but would not define their activism as
feminist praxis.
Hooks argues that attempts by Black women to incorporate race and class
issues in the feminist movement failed because although white women were
disappointed by the lack of non-white women participants, they used that very fact as
reasoning against fighting for their issues. Therefore, because Black women did not
view white women as having the same goals in their fight for equality, they chose to
organize separately. Roth posits that Black women of the Civil Rights and Black
Liberation Movements did not join white feminist groups because they did not 88 89
88 Black women during the First Wave were also fighting for issues that did not directly affect white
women as severely, such rape, lynching, and living up the Victorian woman ideal.
89 Joseph and Lewis 1981:31.

experience gender inequality or because they did not feel disadvantaged relative to
Black men. She claims Black feminists chose to mobilize apart from whites based on
their unique status in comparison to white women, who mobilized for gender equality
only.90 Hooks claims that white women were so focused on the fact that they were not
allowed to participate as equals in the very society that oppressed them that they were
not willing to change their focus to incorporate the needs of women of different
races.91 92 Black women therefore mobilized according to a need that was based on an
intersection of the triple oppressions of gender, race, and class.
There are similarities in the causes of the First and Second Waves of the
feminist movement, specifically those that affected Black women. During both eras,
Black women experienced discrimination from political and civil organizations,
which caused them to form their own philosophies and organizations to fight for
issues that affected them specifically. Local Black womens clubs led to the
formation of the NACW, which will be discussed in Chapter Four. Chapter Three
explores Black feminist theory.
90 Roth 2004: 101-103.
91 Hooks 1981: 188-189.
92 Ibid; Collins 2000: 5-6; and Joseph and Lewis 1981: 29.

Section One
Modem Black feminist theory is based on the idea that Black women are
subjugated economically, politically, and socially as a result of their race, class and
gender. Modern black feminist scholars formulated their theory based on historical
research and the fact-based accounts of Black womens experiences. Early Black
female activists did not espouse a feminist theory per say but clearly outlined the
goals for their activism that mirror modem feminist theory.
Section Two of this chapter will explain the causes of the triple oppressions
Black women faced, which led to modem Black feminist theory during the Second
Wave. In Section Three, the goals of early Black female activists during the First
Wave are described, with a focus on NACW members, and they reveal a philosophy
that was continued and expanded upon by Second Wavers.

Section Two
Modern Black Feminist Theory
In 1970, Beale, a founding member of the Black Womens Liberation
Committee, which became the Third World Womens Alliance (TWWA), published
an article entitled, Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, in which she
primarily raised a call to Black feminist consciousness. Based on her title, the reader
would assume her thesis would merely include the oppression of sexism and racism;
however, she adamantly blames the economic exploitation of the Black race on
capitalism and states it as a defining factor in female oppression.93 Why, then, did
she not include economic oppression as a third jeopardy? King asserts that perhaps
Beale viewed class status as a particular consequence of racism, rather than an
autonomous source of persecution . .94
In 1988, King defined the context of Black feminist ideology as Multiple
Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness. King cites unknown scholars to posit that the
historically consistent economic oppression of Black women necessitates a third
jeopardy: The triple jeopardy of racism, sexism, and classism is now widely
Guy-Sheftall 1995: 145-156 (Beales Double Jeopardy 1970).
King 1988: 46.

accepted and used as the conceptualization of Black womens status.95 In 1977, The
Combahee River Collectives A Black Feminist Statement included lesbianism as a
fourth jeopardy and asserted, .. we are actively committed to struggling against the
racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the
development of integrated analysis and practice based on the fact that the major
systems of oppression are interlocking.96 A discussion of lesbianism falls outside
the scope of this paper. Most modem Black feminists define Black feminist theory
based on sexual, racial and class oppression. Collins argues, If interlocking
oppressions did not exist, Black feminist thought and similar oppositional
knowledges would be unnecessary.97
Scholars posit that a Black womans multilayered oppression has been caused
and supported by the dominant white and male societal, economic, and political
systems that exist in America.98 Labels were placed on Black women prior to and at
the inception of slavery that created negative ideologies that Black women have had
to fight against internally and externally.99 These ideologies view Black women as
96 Guy-Sheftall 1995: 232 (CFCs A Black Feminist Statement 1977).
97 Collins 2000: 22.
98 Ibid: 4-5.

either a jezebel, mammy or mule figure in society. The jezebel is the
sexually loose woman; the mammy is the compliant, mothering woman; and the
mule is the tough, antagonistic, hard-working woman.99 100 Black women have had
to empower themselves by disavowing these negative images and recreating positive
images of themselves by acknowledging their strong cultural heritage through internal
self-determination.101 Black women can take this knowledge to a level of a Black
feminist consciousness that offers a collective identity and standpoint, which is a tool
of resistance against their multiple oppressions.102
Black women have also been historically oppressed politically because they
were enslaved and denied civil rights, even after emancipation. Black women were
oppressed by the legal system as they were denied their human, civil and political
rights because of their enslaved status and after emancipation, because of their
gender, race and social class. They were denied these rights even after they were
legally given them. In 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy
v. Ferguson that separate but equal was legal, segregation of public and private
institutions was validated by the U.S. government. The 13th Amendment, passed in
99 Rodriquez 1998: 99; and Collins 2000: 5.
100 Simms 2001: 881; and Collins 2000: 69-84.
101 Taylor 1998: 234-35; Guy-Sheftall 1995: 234 (CFCs A Black Feminist Statement 1977); Collins
2000:11-12, 97-100; and Joseph and Lewis 1981: 124.
102 Collins 1989: 750.

1865, abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, guarantees citizenship
to all people born on U.S. soil; and the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, guarantees
citizens the right to vote. Regardless of the passage of these Constitutional
amendments, Black women were continually denied their political rights. The 15th
Amendment was interpreted by the government and its citizens as meaning that all
men had the right to vote. When the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed,
Black women were still kept from voting. Jim Crow laws in the South and de jure and
de facto segregation ensured that segregation existed in education, private and public
facilities and institutions, housing, and employment.103 White and Black First Wave
feminists were part of the abolitionist and Black male and female suffrage movements
and also community political activism in order to combat these discriminatory laws.
Second Wave feminists, such as Collins, Burgess, Neville and Hamer, assert
that through the American economic system of capitalism, Black women have been
oppressed socio-economically since their introduction into American society.104
Black women have been forced to work since they were sold into slavery. Whether
performing field or domestic work, female slaves worked long hours for their often
abusive masters under tumultuous circumstances. After abolition, Black women still
103 Taylor 1998: 237; Collins 2000:4-5; and Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History
of the American People. 4lh ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
104 Burgess 1994: 400; Neville and Hamer 2001: 440-442. See also Guy-Shefitall 1995:153 (Beale,
Double Jeopardy 1977); Roth 2004: 94; and King 1998:48; Collins 2000: 4; and Joseph and Lewis

had to work to support themselves and their families because the capitalist system did
not provide many opportunities of class advancement for Black people, much less
women. Neville and Hamer insist that capitalist globalization encourages the
oppression of women and Black women in particular. Their reasoning is that as
Americans become wealthier from global trading, American men feel the need to
compete economically on the same scale. Therefore, men want higher paying jobs
and are able to get them based on gender biases in the workplace and educational
opportunities. Based on their research, they conclude that the labor and pay hierarchy
in America goes as follows: 1. white men, 2. Black men, 3. white women, and 4.
Black women.
As a result of Black women having the same segregation experiences at work,
in education and housing, Collins claims this led them, through common community
networks, to form a collective wisdom. Not every individual Black woman has
shared the same experiences but, as a group, they share common discrimination
experiences.105 The Black feminist ideology and praxis cannot merely be a focus on
obtaining equality and autonomy because that has not and will not destroy sexism and
patriarchy in society. The focus must be on destroying the system behind their
105 Collins 2000: 25-28.

multiple oppressions in order to accomplish positive, lasting change. As hooks
eloquently states,
To me feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism
or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights to men;
it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that
permeates Western culture on various levels sex, race, and
class, to name a few and a commitment to reorganizing U.S.
society so that the self-development of people can take precedence
over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.106
Black feminist thought endeavors to empower Black women to fight against and
eliminate the social and political injustice of their multiple oppressions that are
caused by a capitalist patriarchal society.107
Section Three
Early Black Female Activist Goals
First Wave Black feminists did not use the term consciousness raising-,
however, their ideology clearly mirrors the theory of Second Wave black feminists.
They recognized their multiple oppressions of race, gender and class to perhaps a
106 Hooks 1981: 194-95.
107 Collins 2000: 22, 202-03; and Hooks, b. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist. Thinking Black. Boston:
South End Press, 1989: 22, patriarchal only.

lesser extent. This is evident in the writings of Black women activists such as Frances
Ellen Watkins Harper and Anna Julia Cooper and programs offered by the NACW.
Boyd collected the poetry, speeches, and personal letters of Frances Ellen
Watkins Harper (1825-1911) within a biographical framework into a book entitled
1 AQ
Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper. She
describes Harper as a radical abolitionist, feminist and political activist who was
involved in the abolitionist and suffrage movements as well as the NACW. Harper
was highly educated and a public speaker, published writer, and teacher, committed
to achieving equal rights for Blacks and women. Topics addressed in her writing
include racism, womens issues, temperance, religion, abolition, equality and
democracy. Boyd analyzes Harpers writing and offers her interpretation of Harpers
intentions. Boyd posits, Her lectures and writings were consummate with the
complexity of concerns that governed her politics. While she accentuated the
interconnectedness of issues and the need to renounce racism and sexism, she
reflected a strong classlessness in her vision of a democratic nation and an egalitarian
lifestyle.108 109
108 Boyd 1994.
Ibid: 214.

Boyd dedicated an entire chapter to Harpers Legacy of Black Feminism.
Boyd argues that the following pieces specifically address feminist issues: Harpers
essay, Coloured Women of America; her poem, John and Jacob-A Dialogue on
Womens Rights; and her short story, Fancy Etchings. In Coloured, Harper
describes the accomplishments of several Black women, which include: getting out of
poverty, becoming teachers, attempting to excel in art and literature, and promoting
charities for their own sex and race. In John and Jacob the characters have a
dialogue in which one man believes in womens equality and the other believes
women should maintain their domestic roles only. Fancy Etchings tells a short
story about female economic self-determination and sexist ideas about womens
rights, among other issues.110
Early Black female activists certainly recognized their sexual and racial
oppression, but did they acknowledge their class oppression well? Based on the
economic relief and promotion activities of the NAC W and the writings of Harper
and Anna Julia Cooper, it is evident that these women knew that some, but not all of
them were victims of classism. Cooper stated,
I would beg ... to add my plea for the Colored Girls of the South:-
-that large, bright, promising fatally beautiful class ... so full of
promise and possibilities, yet so sure of destruction; often without
1,0 Ibid: 214, 216, & 219.

a father... in the midst of pitfalls and snares, waylaid by the lower
classes of white men, with no shelter, no protection.111
Cooper also stated that great social and economic questions await her interference,
that she could throw light on problems of national import, that her intermeddling
could improve [school systems, public institutions, prisons]. . that she has a word
worth hearing on mooted questions in political economy, that she could contribute a
suggestion on the relations of labor and capital. . 112 Cooper knew that Black
women were being oppressed by the white race and wanted them to be aware of it in
order to do something about it. She argued that Black women have an obligation to
provide input and assistance on economic issues, which demonstrates her
understanding that the system was flawed and certainly not benefiting all of human
NACW clubwomen were concerned with their own elite class, but almost
their entire focus was on uplifting the race not only socially but economically as well.
As Paula Giddings, author and historian of African American women, states, the
lessons of their own lives had taught them that it was opportunity and environment
not circumstances of birth or previous experience that separated them from the
111 Collins 2000: 26, excerpt from A Voice from the South. 1892.
112 Guy-Sheftal: 45-6, excerpt from Coopers The Status of Women in America.

masses.113 Their fight to improve the education, financial welfare, morality, and
right for suffrage were all efforts to improve the economic and therefore class status
of Black women and children.
The NACW records and member statements outline a clear understanding of
their racial and sexual oppression during the nadir period. Anna Julia Cooper wrote,
The colored woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this
country. In a period of itself transitional and unsettled, her status seems one of the
least ascertainable and definitive of all the forces which make for our civilization. She
confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown
or an unacknowledged factor in both.114 The discrimination that early Black activist
women encountered at the hands of white women and men and Black men in
everyday life, and in Civil Rights Movements caused the formation of the NACW.
Because of this racial and sexual discrimination, Black women were not given full
consideration in white womens clubs, in suffrage organizations and in jobs, housing
and marital opportunities. Therefore, the NACW formed to meet the needs of Black
women and fight for the equality they had been denied.
m Giddings 1984: 98.
114 Collins 2000:45.

Because of their triple oppression Black women have a unique status in
Americas white patriarchal society. Black women recognized during the First and
Second Waves of feminism that they have to continually fight against the poor
economic, political and social status they have endured since slavery. In both eras,
Black female activists recognized that their experiences were different from other
feminists. They acknowledged that, in order to gain equality in society on all levels,
uplifting the race in their communities would accomplish this goal. Chapter Four
focuses on how Black women set about accomplishing their goals. It contains the case
study of the NACW and describes the praxis of five modern Black feminist groups.

Section One
Uplifting the race in their communities was first demonstrated by 19th century
Black female activists The First Wave of feminists. These women recognized
needs in their communities and began organizing on a local level at first and, at the
turn of the century created a national organization. The NACW was the first national
black womens rights group to form and survive.115 The First Wave served as a
model for the Second Wave of feminism, when Black women picked up the torch
once again to organize for Black womens equal rights. During both Waves, it
became obvious to Black women that they needed to form their own organizations
that would meet their specific needs. They realized that most white womens and
black mens rights organizations did not support the fight against race, class, and
gender oppression. The NACW and the subsequent modem black feminist groups
worked diligently, using varying methods, to gain strides for Black women.
Section Two is the case study of the NACW from 1896 to 1920. It outlines the
pursuit of their goals through various forms of activism. Section Three describes five
115 The organization still exists today as the National Association of Colored Womens Clubs

modern Black feminist organizations from the 1970s. It reveals the praxis they
instituted in order to fight against their multiple oppressions.
Section Two
The National Association of Colored Womens Clubs: A Case Study
The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was formed to combat
racism and offer Black women a sense of identity and solidarity aimed towards
elevating the Black race. The organizations first president, Mary Church Terrell
(1896-1901), wrote that its goal was to come into closer touch with masses of our
women, to uplift and reclaim them, and to elevate the race.116 Jones asserts that
the factors leading to the formation of the NACW were three-fold. Like many Black
clubs before it, the NACW was formed because Black women acknowledged their
sexual oppression as a common experience and because Black women experienced
discrimination by white womens organizations. A more direct cause was a nefarious
letter written in 1895 by the president of the Missouri Press Association, James W.
Jack, to Florence Belgarnie, secretary of the British Anti-Slavery Society.
116 Fradin, D. B. and J. B. Fradin. Fight On! Mary Church Terrells Battle for Integration. New York:
Clarion Books, 2003: 62.

In the letter, Jack stated that the Black race was immoral and that Black
women were prostitutes and were natural thieves and liars.117 The letter provoked a
strong negative reaction in the Black community and led Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
of the Womens Era Club of Boston to organize a national Black womens
convention in Boston in 1895. As a result of that convention, the National Federation
of Afro-American Women, with Margaret Murray Washington as its president, was
formed and led the charge to form one national organization with the other existing
national group at the time, the Colored Womens League of Washington, DC. In
1896, a committee of seven women from each national organization met in
Washington, DC and agreed to form the NACW under the presidency of Mary
Church Terrell.118
Under the leadership of Terrell, the goals of the organization were to garner
national participation in the club and elevate the Black race as a whole. Toward this
end, they concentrated on improving womens status in society and encouraging the
education and self-respect of Black children. They embraced the motto, Lifting as
117 Jones 1982: 22-23; and Lerner 1992: 436.
118 Jones 1982: 22-23; Davis 1996: xviii; Davis, A.Y. 1983: 134; and Lerner 1992: 440-41.

we Climb and followed Booker T. Washingtons philosophy of self-reliance and
gradual assimilation into white society.119 120
Terrells strategies to accomplish her goals for the organization were five-
fold, and each involved creating an interlocking network of positively contributing
members across the country. Margaret Murray Washington wrote and edited a
monthly newsletter, the National Notes, which was circulated nationwide and was
intended to communicate the objectives and programs offered through the
organization. National press organizations facilitated communication by allowing
the NACW to place columns devoted to Black womens issues in their papers. Terrell
purposefully held biennial conventions in cities with high Black populations to draw
attention to the movement, and she creatively titled sessions in order to attract
womens attention. Terrells network included women from the Black elite, and they
were the ones to hold leadership positions. Whether purposeful or not, this
circumstance followed the philosophy of W.E.B. DuBois idea of the talented tenth
that the educated Blacks would rise in white society and bring the untalented
along with them. Encouraging the morality of Black women and their children
119 Jones 1982: 26; Fradin 2003: 61-3; Davis 1996: xxvii.
120 According to Davis, Jones incorrectly credits Terrell with the establishment of National Notes.
Margaret Murray Washington was the first to present Notes as a small leaflet at the 1897 Second
Biennial meeting in Tennessee, at which time was selected to be the Official Organ of the Association.
Washington continued as editor until 1922 (See Davis 1996: 41, 77).

through the avenue of the home was the major emphasis of all activities of the
NACW.121 122
The first of Terrells biennial meetings was held in Tennessee in 1897. The
topics of aid to neglected Black children, the convict lease system, and lynching were
addressed by speakers and in written reports. This meeting also saw the formation of
state federations that were represented in the NACW by one delegate for every ten
members, as well as the selection of delegates to attend the National Womens
Christian Temperance meeting in New York that year.
By 1904, the NACW had created departments that were supervised by
superintendents and associates. The following departments were created in order to
accomplish their goals: Social Science, Domestic Science, Mothers Clubs,
Kindergarten, Business Women, Professional Women, Rescue Work, Art, Literature,
Music, Temperance, and Church Clubs123
Over the course of the next two decades, the biennial meetings included
speeches and papers with titles such as, Why the National Association should Devise
121 Jones 1982: 25-6.
122 Note: The only exception to a meeting every other year occurred between the second and third
meeting due to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition from 1903 to 1904. The Third meeting had been
scheduled in 1903 in Missouri but occurred in New York in 1904.
123 Jones 1982:43.

Means For Establishing Kindergartens, The Best Methods of Establishing Schools
of Domestic Science, Social Necessity of An Equal Moral Standard For Men and
Women, One Phase of the Labor Question, Convict Lease System As It Affects
Child Nature, Lynch Law, Prison Work, Temperance Reform In the Twentieth
Century, The Relation of the W. C. T. U. to the Home, Jim Crow Laws,
Heredity, Racial Literature, Women As A Factor In The Solution Of Race
Problems, Elevating the Standard of the Home, Nurse Training For Colored
Women, Juvenile Court Work, Our Working Girls, The Colored Doll, and the
Negro in Literature. 124
The 1910 meeting, the sixth biennial, held in Louisville, Kentucky, focused on
the accomplishments of its members in art, music and literature. The seventh biennial,
held in Hampton, Virginia, made a point of acknowledging successful national
fundraising efforts by regional clubs. It also recognized Three Grand Army Men.
Men who had fought in the Civil War were honored under strains of patriotic music
sung by the delegates. A special committee was appointed and led by Mary Church
Terrell and Hallie Q. Brown to implore the governor of Richmond to commute the
death sentence of a seventeen-year-old girl to life imprisonment. The committee was
successful in this endeavor. At the eighth biennial in 1914, the delegates sent a
124 Ibid: 46-50, 55-56.

telegram to President Woodrow Wilson, giving their sympathies for the serious
illness of his wife. Also, a message was given encouraging the women to support the
suffrage amendment that was before Congress that fall.
The ninth biennial meeting occurred in 1918, after Congress had declared war.
Brown gave a rousing speech to encourage the women to support the war effort by
buying liberty bonds and helping the Red Cross. The speech also encouraged the
women to fight against the racial injustice their men might receive in the military,
even though they were fighting for the same cause as white men. To those women
who had already contributed to the war effort, a letter, written by a Black male
Special Assistant in the War Department to NACW President Mary Talbert, was read.
It recognized the patriotism and nobility held and practiced by NACW members. He
stated, Your Federation represents the highest aspirations, the loftiest ideals and the
most practical achievement of the womanhood of our race at this time, as at all times
you are nobly doing your part for the Nations welfare for the preservation of
American traditions and for the triumph of our countrys arms.125 The last biennial
meeting in the period under consideration here was held in 1920 at the Tuskegee
Institute, Alabama, home of Booker T. Washingtons industrial school. At this
meeting, the group paid tribute to Washington, addressed the atrocious conditions of
Ibid: 62.

courts and prisons, discussed literature, and received greetings from Senator Warren
F. Harding.126
NACW members were middle class, Protestant, educated women who knew
their charge differed from white womens clubs because of their race. Fannie Barrier
Williams, a member of the organization, stated, Among white women the club is the
onward movement of the already uplifted.127 In her first address of President of the
NACW, Terrell declared, 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 . .128 Black women were viewed by some in white society as being
immoral, promiscuous, liars, and thieves. The Black elite felt it was their duty to
discourage this view, which they believed was only evident in lower class Black
women, in order to reshape the negative opinions of white society.
As elitists, the members of the NACW held class bias, which Jones refers to
as the Black Womens Burden.129 As Fannie Barrier Williams, revealed, Among
colored women the club is the effort of the few competent in behalf of the many
126 Ibid: 51-2, 56,60, 64-65.
127 Schneider 1993: 100.
128 Jones 1982:24.
129 Ibid: 28; Davis 1996: xix.

incompetent...130 Referring to lower class Black women, Terrell wrote, Even
though we wish to shun them, and hold ourselves entirely aloof from them, we cannot
escape the consequences of their acts.. .policy and self preservation would demand
that we do go down among the lowly, the illiterate, and even the vicious to whom we
are bound by the ties of race and sex, and put forth every possible effort to uplift and
claim them.131 Thus, the NACW promoted the domestic aspects of female life as a
way to uplift their less fortunate sisters and their offspring.
The goals of the club, in attempts to elevate the race, were decidedly more
social-moral, although the members did put some energy towards the social-
economic, at least during the period of study. The national goals also varied by
region, depending on the needs of different communities. The NACW raised money
for, created and ran day nurseries, kindergartens, and mothers clubs and promoted
other avenues of well-being for Black women and children. The creation of day
nurseries and kindergartens was evidence that the NACW recognized the children of
working mothers who were in need of day care. They were used as education centers
because the NACW also recognized a need to encourage literacy and morality in
Black children. Davis stated, Next to intelligence, the most important factor in the
130 Schneider 1993: 100.
131 Jones 1982:28.

development of the child is its home background.132 The mothers clubs were used
as avenues to educate Black women about the proper ways to raise children, run a
household, and obtain jobs in the domestic science arena. The NACWs philosophy
was that if Black women could run their household according to the Victorian ideal,
they would help elevate the race. Mrs. Lizzie B. Fouse, national chairman for the
Department of Mother, Flome and Child, espoused, Around Mother, Home, and
Child is woven the web of civilization ... To develop into the best for the State and
society, the child should breathe an atmosphere of peace, harmony, and good-will in
the family circle, rather than be depressed and dwarfed by constant evidences of
irritability, uncontrolled emotions and self indulgence.133 Black women were taught
classes in hygiene, nutrition and domestic maintenance.134 The NACW also created
the National Association of Colored Girls (NACG) to encourage involvement of the
girls who would lead the fight in the future. Their goal was to
begin moral, mental and material developments; to install ideas
of the finer womanhood; at a tender age; to bring these girls
into clear understanding with great body of culture and though
the world; to give our daughters the traditions and ideals of the
founders the National Association of Colored Women. To give
these girls the ideas of health, beauty, love, home and service;
and to enroll them finally in the cast army of adult members
132 Davis 1996: 97.
133 Ibid.
134 Ibid: 86, 88-90,

who must continue to direct the life of the Negro Child in the
Members of the NACG were between the ages of five and twenty-five; they were
required to be a Sunday school member, pay dues, not frequent questionable places,
and pledge their loyalty to the rules of the organization.
The NACW established The Hallie Quinn Brown Scholarship Loan Fund in
order to provide college scholarships and loans to young Black men and women,
enabling them to fill positions of trust, of leadership, of usefulness, to the credit of
themselves, their benefactors, and the Race.136 137 The association was concerned with
urbanization issues in terms of how young Black women who migrated into the cities
were acclimating to city life. It created homes, industrial schools, and employment
bureaus for girls to prevent them from falling into prostitution. It also organized
temperance activities, promoted music clubs, and established homes for the elderly
1 T7
and disabled.
135 Ibid: 94-5.
136 Ibid: 104.
137 Ibid: 94-105; Jones 1982: 27; and Schneider 1993: 126.

Politically, members of the NACW petitioned state legislatures to repeal Jim
Crow laws and condemn the convict lease system. They fought against lynching, gave
money towards that cause, and fought for womens suffrage138
A few regional clubs concentrated their efforts on uplifting the lives of other
middle class Black women by encouraging their artistic abilities in order to make
their domestic sphere more beautiful. In Kansas, art in the form of embroidery,
crocheting, tatting, painting and decorating was used as an avenue for women of
different religious denominations to come together under the motto of Lifting as we
Climb to scatter beams of sunlight and gladness into the hearts of unfortunate
members of our race. 139 In Missouri, a Book Lovers Club was formed in which
the women studied the literature of DuBois and Tennyson and the subjects of
economics, social problems, Russian and South American literature and ancient and
modern drama.140
During the life of the NACW, its members continued to experience
discrimination from white society. Both Terrell and Ruffin were alienated by the
General Federation of Womens Clubs, a well-known mostly white womens
organization. At the Federations convention in 1900, Terrell was denied permission
138 Davis 1996:267-68,384.
139 Ibid: 159-161.

to speak because of objections from Southern delegates. At the same convention,
Ruffin was denied as a delegate for the Womens Era Club but was allowed as a
representative of mostly white womens club to which she belonged. She turned
down that opportunity, insisting on being allowed entrance as Black club delegate, at
which time she was refused entrance into the convention hall. Though Terrell was
allowed to speak that same year before the National American Woman Suffrage
Association (NAWSA), three years later, that institutions board supported a states
rights position, which essentially endorsed the exclusion of Black women. Also, when
the NACW applied for membership in NAWSA, the Black women complied with
their prejudicial request that the application be held until after the Senate voted on a
womens suffrage amendment. The NAWSA feared that if Congress knew they
supported Black womens suffrage, the lawmaking body would continue to reject
their request for the national right to vote. The Womens Party disallowed anti-
lynching crusader Ida B. Wells from marching in a 1913 Chicago delegation parade.
As a member of that Party, Wells stepped into the march anyway.141
141 Schneider 1993:127-8; Davis, A.Y. 1983: 127; Jones 1982: 23-24; and Lemer 1992: 448-450.
Fannie Barrier Williams wrote about the incident in 1903, entitled, Club Movement Among Negro

Section Three
Modern Black Feminist Groups and Their Praxis
Collins asserts that modern Black womens activism has occurred primarily in
two dimensions struggles for institutional transformation and struggles for
group survival. Hooks insists on the use of active speech to fight oppression. Black
women must not be afraid to speak, but find their voice, in order to talk back.
It is important that we speak. What we speak about is more
important. It is our responsibility collectively and individually
to distinguish between mere speaking that is about self-
aggrandizement, exploitation of the exotic other, and that
coming to voice which is a gesture of resistance, an affirmation
of struggle.142
Hooks asserts that small groups are an integral place for women to gain
solidarity and educate themselves in order to engage in critical CR, which she refers
to as true politicization. She argues, No radical change, no revolutionary
transformation will occur in this societyin this culture of dominationif we refuse
to acknowledge the necessity for radicalizing consciousness in conjunction with
collective political resistance.143
Hooks 1989:18.
Ibid: 31.

Hooks claims that the most important goal of the feminist movement is to
eradicate sexism; however, oppression is not solely practiced by men but by any
person in society who is in a position of power over others. Women must name their
personal pain, caused by their oppression and their own oppressing of others, which
in itself is an act of resistance but one that must not stop at its identification. Women
must not see themselves as objects to be used by their oppressors but as subjects who
act for reform. Women must learn proper self-recovery methods using
confession and memory, they must learn how their actual circumstances and their
perception of their circumstances and of themselves were formed. Only then can they
revise their consciousness through education about dominant structures and how they
operate and create a collective reality. Self-recovery must be connected to effective
and radical approaches of resistance and transformation of their consciousness in
order to experience the world in different ways and create lasting political change.
Therefore, by experiencing self-recovery and by loving equally and not oppressing
women who are a different race or class, feminists will be properly empowered in the
interlocking struggle against sexism, racism and classism.144
Not only should women be speaking to other women, but they should also
enter into dialogue with men because to participate in defiant feminist speech
144 Ibid: 24-34, 108-10.

indicates a change in womens subordinate status. Women must speak to their male
oppressors without fear in order to assert their transformation from objects to subjects
fighting against male domination. Sexism is different from racism and classism
because women experience love relationships with men. They enter into intimate
relationships with their oppressors and, therefore, men must be educated into a
feminist consciousness in order for domination to not exist in their relationship, to
further male transformation and politicization, and to allow mutual love and
commitment to subsist.145
At least two Black feminist organizations formed out of the Civil Rights
Movement, the Black Womens Liberation Group of Mount Vernon/New Rochelle in
New York, and the Third World Womens Alliance (TWWA). The two Black activist
groups that formed the Mount Vernon/New Rochelle Group organized a rent strike in
response to poor housing and started a school on Saturday afternoons for
neighborhood children. The organization sought to meet the needs of poor Black
women and encouraged the use of birth control as a way to ensure a positive future
for Black communities. The TWWA was formed in 1968 by Black women involved
in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization went
through a few name changes before becoming the TWWA, but during that time, the
group developed a feminist consciousness that was critical of white and middle class
145 Ibid: 127-133.

gender roles and supported anti-patriarchy, anti-capitalism and legalized abortion.
Like their foremothers in the First Wave, Black women during this era could not
conform to the typical white middle class feminine ideal because they were a group
who had historically worked outside the home. They argued that a fight against
capitalism would mean liberation of all Black people. In addition, the ability to have
an abortion equaled the ability for Black women to have control of their own lives.146
The first national Black feminist organization to form was the NBFO in 1973.
Political Scientist, Barbara Burrell, states that Black women took so long to organize
at a national level because they did not want to appear divisive, although it was
clear that neither the white womens movements nor the male dominated Black
movements were addressing their basic concerns. Burrel recognizes that the NBFO
made it a goal to fight the dual oppressions of racism and sexism, but she does not
mention classism although she does acknowledge that they fought for a minimum
wage for domestic workers. According to Roth, one impetus for forming the NBFO
was that women who would become members recognized that although NOW
included racial and ethnic minorities as members, the organization as a whole did not
understand the link between sexism and poverty-related issues. Therefore, NBFO
focused on the economic welfare of Black working-class women and those reliant on
welfare, and they were committed to organizing without the assistance of whites or
146 Roth 2004: 87-93.

Black men. Although the NBFO consisted of a diverse age and socioeconomic range
of Black women, they aspired to address concerns that affected all Black women.147
At the 1973 Eastern Regional Conference, the agenda included the following topics:
workshops on sex-role stereotyping and the Black child; Black
feminists and the labor force; the triple oppression of the Black
lesbian; Black feminist thought in politics; Black feminists and
the cultural arts; abortion and forced sterilization; female
sexuality; the image of the Black woman in the media; Black
women as consumers; the incarcerated Black woman; Black
female addiction; Black female self-image; Black female rape;
Black women and the womens rights movement; and Black
women and welfare.148 149
At the National Conference in 1975, the agenda included, among other
1) Self image (media, sexuality); 2) Education (sex and race
role stereotyping, feminist education, child care); 3) Health
(abortion, forced sterilization, suicide, etc.); 4)
Employment & Economics (decriminalization of
prostitutions, oppression of household technicians, welfare,
etc.); 5) Crime & Law (the battered woman, rape and
sexual abuse, the penal system, etc.); 6) Religion (as it
relates to the Black women); 7) The Black Lesbian (triple
oppression, lesbian mothers, oppression of Black Lesbians
in movements, etc.). Special projects are: 1) Research on
Black women; 2) Legislation & lobbying on all levels; 3)
Black womens cultural development. 49
147 Roth 2004: 106-107; and Burrell 2004: 69-70.
148 Roth 2004: 110.
149 Ibid: 113.

Their umbrella goal of the organization also included the idea that Black women had
a crucial role to play in not only the womens liberation movement but the Black
Liberation movement as well. The NBFO aspired to be recognized for its role as it
contributed to the liberation of the Black race as a whole. The NBFOs group
Statement of National Black Feminist Organization reveals this goal: We will
encourage the Black community to stop falling into the trap of the white male Left,
utilizing women only in terms of domestic or servile needs. We will remind the Black
Liberation Movement that there cant be liberation for half a race.150 The NBFO
dissolved in 1976. Roth attributes the breakup to lack of ability to fundraise,
differences in ideologies in the local chapters, and a rift among the Executive Board
members. Joseph and Lewis, while praising the NBFO for its ability to raise a
feminist consciousness in the Black community, posit that the organization failed due
to its inability to address or support the women of the Black community in any
visible, concrete manner.151 However, other Black feminist groups formed either as a
break off of NBFO or of their own volition. Black Women Organized for Action
(BWOA) was founded in the San Francisco Bay area; in the Boston/Cambridge areas,
150 Ibid: 110-111.
151 Joseph and Lewis 1981: 34.

the Combahee River Collective (CRC) organized; and The National Alliance of Black
Feminists (NABF) formed in Chicago.
From 1973 to 1980, the BWOA focused on nurturing its members leadership
potential and was extremely active in its community. It participated in several local
protests, created an employment handbook for young Black women, endorsed
political candidates, met with United Nations representatives and published a
newsletter. Though that organization dismantled, its member activists continued to
provide support to one another and later published a two-book compilation of
biographical essays.152
The CRC organized in 1974 after breaking away from the NBFO. It is best
known for the publication of its manifesto A Black Feminist Statement. Most
members of the CRC had been participants in social feminist and lesbian activist
groups, and they took a decidedly pro-lesbian stance more so than the NBFO.
They began as a consciousness-raising group that focused on the fight against the
interlocking triple oppression that affects all Black women through the publication of
pamphlets and providing workshops to Black women. As a group, they were not
initially active politically; although individual members were active in fighting for
quality healthcare, victims of rape and abuse, and lesbian and abortion rights and
against sterilization and inequalities in the legal system. They criticized Black
152 Roth 2004: 124-126.

liberation groups and white feminists but did not promote separation from those
The NABF, which lasted from 1976 to 1979, worked with Black men and
white women and resolved to fight numerous issues affecting Black women. They
organized an Alternative Education School Program for men and women that offered
a variety of courses but highlighted self-help to promote individual growth and then
societal growth. They ran assertiveness training workshops, and they promoted and
aided in the ability of Black women to choose their own lifestyles. The NABF
sponsored a Black Womens Bill of Rights, which included in its goals
protecting bussed Black children from violence; writing
booklets for Black women dealing with the criminal justice
system; womens health care and maternity; women supporting
other women; media images of Black women; Black women
relating to Black men; links to other (non-Black) feminists;
getting more Black women in electoral politics; fighting for the
ERA; helping adolescents; sexuality; and women in the arts.154
The NABF dissolved by 1979 due mostly to lack of funding.155
Both first- and second-generation Black feminists used strategies and tactics
that they believed were the most effective to create change. During both Waves,
153 Ibid: 121-124.; Guy-Sheftall 1995: 239 (CRCs A Black Feminist Statement 1977); Burrell 2004:
154 Roth 2004: 119.
155 Ibid: 118-120.

Black women recognized that organizing on a national level would accomplish a
greater membership and therefore a larger spread of their goals. Though the most
prominent groups of Black women during the First Wave were elitist and those of the
Second Wave were mostly educated, professional women, they all acknowledged the
need to educate women in order to uplift the race as a whole. All Black women
needed to be educated in various domestic and occupational roles, on how to be
involved politically in the struggle, on proper health care, and in how to fight the
legal system. Both the First and Second Waves held conferences to raise the
consciousness of large groups of women, and both Waves incorporated topics of
discussion relevant to women during their time period. For instance, lesbianism
would not have been a topic of public discussion, and the bussing of students was a
nonentity during the First Wave. Both Waves also used literature as a form of
activism, and both criticized the groups that discriminated against them. Interestingly,
none of the modem Black feminist organizations lasted for a significant period of
time, while the NACW is still in existence.

Modem Black feminists define Black feminists as those who recognize they
are oppressed based on their gender, race, and class and attempt to fight against this
discrimination. According to this definition, can early Black female activists during
the nadir period qualify as early Black feminists? There is a question regarding
whether early Black female activists meet the feminist criteria as defined by modem
Black feminists. The scholars who have defined Black feminism imply that early
Black female activists meet the feminist criteria because they refer to them as First
Wave or early Black feminists; however, these scholars do not qualify how the
activists fit the criteria. On the other hand, Jones, in her discussion of the NACW,
insists its members cannot be considered feminists because they did not fight for
gender equality. If early Black female activists did not seek to become the social
equal of white women and men, does that mean they are not feminist? Do Black
women have to fight all areas of their oppression in order to be considered feminist?
Do women need to be involved in a political movement in order to be considered
feminist? Can a Black woman be a feminist if she is not active in a movement for
equality? I argue that Black clubwomen activists understood their oppression on all
levels and, by participating in the social and political activism of the Black womens

club movement, they do meet the defined criteria of Black feminism, regardless of
whether they sought social equality.
Several modern scholars claim early Black activists are feminists, some
qualify the definition and others do not. It seems the argument by Jones that these
women could not be considered feminists, based on their activist focus of community
uplift versus social equality, is weak. The NACW and its members, as nadir era
activists, acknowledged and fought against their race, class, and gender oppression as
a result of the social, political and economic systems that existed in America. The fact
that members of the NACW acknowledged their multiple oppressions and strove for
change is indicative of their struggle for equality in a way that made sense to them
during the time period. Also, the activists in the National Association of Colored
Women (NACW) during the nadir period from 1896 to 1920 can be defined as early
Black feminists when their ideology and praxis is compared to that of modern Black
Black feminists developed their own theory and praxis based on the
interlocking triple oppressions of race, sex, and class. The similarities that exist
between the First and Second Wavers in how and why they formed and operated,
though they lived during different social, economic and political times, are indicative
of their recognition that, as human beings, they deserve equal treatment and
prosperity. First and Second Wave Black feminism and their organizations formed

separate from white feminist organizations due to the discrimination they received
from Civil Rights groups of their eras and because Black feminists recognized they
needed to be active to support issues specific to Black women. They recognized the
need to help women in their communities rise above their oppression through
education and acknowledgement of their self-worth. Due to the time-period First
Wave Black feminists lived they had a different vision than Second Wavers of how to
fight against their oppression. For example, First Wavers attempted to adhere to an
ideal of Victorian womanhood in order to gain acceptance into white society;
whereas, Second Wave feminists were trying to get away from any adherence to a
feminine ideal. Though First Wave Black feminists attempts to uplift the race via the
club movement was mostly through trying to improve womens domestic abilities,
jobs from which many Second Wavers were attempting to get away, it was their
opportunity to raise the consciousness of women regarding their oppression. The next
generation of Black women feminists has the opportunity and responsibility to
continue the CR their foremothers began. Feminists of a third generation, those of the
1990s and beyond, refer to their generation of feminism as the Third Wave.
First and Second Wavers and Third Wave feminists have an affinity based on
the legacy that early Black female activists began, and that Third Wavers need to
understand in order to continue the struggle for gender, racial, and class equality. For
instance, Rebecca Walker, Alice Walkers daughter, edited a premier Third Wave

feminist anthology that addresses issues specific to her generation of activists. In her
forward to Rebecca Walkers Third Wave feminist anthology, Gloria Steinem
discusses differences between the Second and Third Waves.156 Steinem states that
women of her generation came to feminism as adults. In opposition, the next
generation of women were born into a culture that educates people about the many
images of feminism. These images are communicated through the media, literature,
educational experiences and family members.
The Walker anthology is a specific celebration of Third Wave feminists need
to debunk the myths they grew up with learning about what a good feminist
should be, do, or think.157 In her introduction, Walker describes the varying myths she
and other feminists grew up with, such as you must never marry, never have
disposable income, never compromise yourself, you must always work for the good
of the gender, you must live selflessly, and/or believe in the Goddess. These concepts
are challenged by Third Wavers. Male and female feminists who came to adulthood
in the 1990s and after have grown up learning about and knowing people who are
transgender, bisexual, and have interracial relationships. The focus for Third Wave
feminists is that they have the power to choose among various lifestyles options. They
156 Walker, R. ed. To Be Real. New York: Anchor Books, 1995: xviii, xxvi.
157 Ibid: xxx-xxxii.

have the power to choose how to practice their feminine empowerment, regardless of
what those choices may be.
Third Wavers include not only Chicana, Native American, Asian American,
White and Black feminists but, as a result of the large numbers of immigrants coming
to America, North African and Middle Eastern women. With so many different
cultures in America, feminist theory for these women includes a protection and
celebration of their native culture in the midst of addressing gender issues in their
communities. In Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Todays Feminism, the
editors compiled a series of writings by women of different ethnicities and focus on
issues that affect all women but particularly issues that affect women of certain
cultures.159 Third Wavers are experiencing issues of gender, race and class
discrimination that are manifested differently than they were for First and Second
Wavers. Single parenting, abortion, mental illness, welfare cuts, racial profiling, HIV,
hate crimes, and war have been issues that affected feminists across generations.
Third Wave feminism focuses on similar issues that First and Second Wavers
did; however, it also promotes individualism within the larger feminist community, in
order for men and women to be comfortable with the empowerment praxis that fits
their needs and desires. Rebecca Walker agrees with Patricia Hill Collins in that
159 Hernandez D. and B. Rehman. Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Todays Feminism. New
York: Seal Press, 2002: xii-xiv.

feminism must always be radical and thriving in order for it to continue. Unlike their
predecessors, Third Wave feminists are alive in an era that promotes gender, race and
class equality and looks down on those who do not acknowledge and/or support the
differences in individuals. This may have a significant impact on Black feminists
because they should not be experiencing discrimination to the extent that their
foremothers in the First and Second Wave did. Discrimination from white feminists,
Black men, and white patriarchal society in general should be lessened because
society has become more tolerant. A more tolerant society may impact Black
womens fight against their multiple oppressions because their voices are more likely
to be heard by economists and sociologists who can influence politicians and society
at large to implement change for equality in the areas of gender, race, and class.
American society continues to change, and so will the face of feminist theory and
The case study of the NACW can be developed in future research with access
to the organizations entire source of primary documents; however, they are only
available on microfiche at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and the New
York City public library system. A comparison of Third Wave feminists to the
NACW would be interesting for future research in order to understand the influence
early Black activists can still have on contemporary Black feminists.

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