The Two-Fold Struggle: African American Republican Women’s Clubs

By Ve’Amber D. Miller – Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Public History Program, Fall 2019. 

“However much the white women of the country need suffrage, for many reasons which will immediately occur to you, colored women need it more,” Mary Church Terrell wrote, encouraging black women to vote for the Republican ticket [1]. African American women agreed with Terrell’s sentiment throughout the women’s suffrage movement. Their grievances turned into action through various women’s clubs that fought for African American women’s right to vote in the United States, and often they found their way into advocacy and political influence through the Republican party.

Nine African American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding a banner reading, “Banner State Woman’s National Baptist Convention” (1905-1915). Library of Congress, Lot 12572, https://www.loc.gov/item/93505051/

African American women actively sought to be a part of the American political process. During the Antebellum period, African American women participated in political action as active abolitionists. After Emancipation, they began to organize on local levels to address community issues and women’s suffrage. When women in Illinois gained the right to vote in school elections in 1891, black women “saw their new voting rights as a tool that they could use to the lead the race toward higher education opportunities” that had already been fully afforded and offered to white women at the University of Illinois [2]. Alongside white women, black women canvased and helped vote in Republican candidate Lucy Flower as a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, making her the first Illinois woman elected to statewide office.    

By 1895, African American women had formed national women’s clubs. African American women’s clubs were both a way to come together to learn about and advocate for issues of concern and a way for black women to find solidarity in their racial identities when rejected by white women’s clubs [3]. Established African American women’s clubs focused on issues of the domestic realm, but over time they became concerned with temperance, labor laws, and racial discrimination. To address and combat these issues, black women included advocating for suffrage within their communities and nationally on their agendas. Black men in politics realized the importance of suffrage for black women because they would back them as candidates. For example, the black Republican Party leader Richard T. Greener sought and achieved recognition for black women’s club leaders in 1895 [4].

When Illinois women won local suffrage in 1913, African American women acted and used their voting rights in a variety of campaigns.  Successful black women’s clubs in Illinois included the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, formed in 1913. Ida B. Wells-Barnett organized the club and its members were influential in the election of black Congressman Oscar De Priest—the first black Republican elected to Congress in the twentieth century [5].

When African American women gained the right to vote in national elections in 1920, Republican presidential candidate, Warren G. Harding understood the importance of the black female vote and actively asked for support from northern black women’s group and from national black women’s organizations. Lethia C. Fleming, a leader in organizing colored women for the Republican Party and based in Chicago, expressed the importance of black women voting for Harding in 1920. She wrote: “We as Colored women have prayed for a better day, a day when we would be in a position to demand fair play and an equal chance. We must not now neglect the opportunity given us to serve the Party of Lincoln, McKinley and Roosevelt….” [6]. There were African American women and organizations that did not support Harding. They were unsatisfied that he did not take a harder stance against lynching and disenchanted with his manipulative campaign strategy. However, the black women’s clubs were significant in backing him for the first presidential election in which they were able to participate.

1902, Portrait photograph of Mary B. Talbert. Unknown photographer – Twentieth Century Negro Literature http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/18772.

Many African American women’s grievances and goals aligned with the Republican Party’s agenda, which sometimes provided them a means to exercise their political influence. African American women found ways, even when they did not have right to vote, to become active participants in the political process. When black women could vote in the face of white supremacy and disenfranchisement, they did in overwhelming numbers. Expressing her frustrations with progress within the suffrage movement, Mary B. Talbert—vice-president of the National Association of Colored Woman—wrote: “It should not be necessary to struggle forever against popular prejudice, and with us as colored women, this struggle becomes two-fold, first because we are women and second because we are colored women” [7]. The African American women’s clubs were effective because even when faced with the dual identities of being both black and women, members continued to assert their right for a place at the political table.

Sources

[1] Mary Church Terrell. A Colored Woman in a White World (Washington, D.C.: Ransdell, 1940), 308.

[2] Lisa G. Materson. For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 25.

[3] Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 81.

[4] Ibid, 88.

[5] Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (Port Washington, N.Y.: National University Publications, 1978), 23.

[6] “Letter from Lethia C. Fleming Republican National Committee Mid-West Headquarters”, 22 October 1920, reel 18, MCT Papers.

[7] Mary B. Talbert. “Women and Colored Women,” The Crisis 10 (New York City), August 1915, 184.

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