How Many of These Early Black Feminists Do You Know?
Though black feminists have wielded social media to make willful strides into public consciousness, black feminism is nothing new. The challenge of being doubly oppressed as a black woman has always colored feminist conversations, and minority women rarely have the luxury of fighting solely on behalf of their gender. The question of intersectionality predates hashtags and Twitter feminism and goes all the way back to impasses such as the one between black journalist Ida B. Wells and white suffragist Frances Willard. Wells implored Willard to acknowledge the evil of lynching, while Willard, blinded by her race and class privileges, believed black men to be deserving targets.
Though not always recognized, black women have always made forays into the feminist dialogue to ensure black women and girls don’t remain an afterthought. In celebration of Black History Month, here are 11 early black feminists, in no particular order—some you’ve learned about and some you probably haven’t.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)
One of the most prominent black scholars in American history, Cooper was the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD when she graduated from University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924. Having been born in slavery in Raleigh, N.C., Cooper used both her lived experience with racism and her scholastic ability to pen her first book in 1892, A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South. The book, in which Cooper argued for the self-determination of black women, is considered the first volume of black feminist thought in the U.S.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
An abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Truth was also born into slavery, but escaped with her young daughter. She later went to court to obtain freedom for her son, becoming the first black woman to win such a case. Her famous speech on gender inequity, “Ain’t I a Woman” was delivered in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Akron, OH, and has endured as a raw and powerful utterance of the tribulations and burdens black women shoulder.
Amy Jacques Garvey
Amy Jacques Garvey (1895-1973)
Garvey, the second wife of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, was a daunting intellectual and social activist in her own right. A gifted journalist, she worked as a columnist for Negro World in Harlem and often discussed the intersectionality of race, gender and class as it pertained to black women. She wrote once in an essay, “The will more readily sing the praises of white women than their own; yet who is more deserving of admiration than the black woman, she who has borne the rigors of slavery, the deprivations consequent on a pauperized race, and the indignities heaped upon a weak and defenseless people? Yet she has suffered all with fortitude, and stands ever ready to help in the onward march to freedom and power.”
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
An activist for civil rights and suffrage, Terrell was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1884. A close of acquaintance of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, she campaigned for racial equality, becoming a well-known activist in Washington, D.C. A writer and the first president of of the National Association of Colored Women, many of her works, including “A Plea for the White South by a Colored Woman” and “A Colored Woman in a White World,” focused on the status of black women in society. Terrell was also a founding member of the NAACP and helped organize the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta.