This is an excerpt from chapter One of Divided Sisters:  Bridging The Gap Between Black Women and White  Women  by Midge Wilson & Kathy Russell (Anchor, 1996)

The rest of the book, for those who may be interested, can be found at:

Here are the two quotes from the beginning of the chapter:

There is no slave, after all, like a wife . . . Poor women, poor slaves . . . All married women, all children and girls who live in their fathers' house are slaves.

                    -Mary Boykin Chesnut
                    A Diary from Dixie, 1861

Moreover, my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their own; that they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress.

                        -Harriet Jacobs
                        Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861


Amidst the emerging social order, Black women were confused about what their new rights and roles
should be, especially since everyone kept telling them they should put men's interests ahead of their own.
They were particularly unclear about their right to vote.

During Reconstruction, suffrage was a subject on everybody's mind, and in 1866, Congress passed the
Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed full citizenship to former slaves and free Blacks. The
amendment also introduced the word male into the Constitution, giving states the right to determine who
among its male citizens of twenty-one years and over could vote. Alarmed by this development, female
suffragists worried about the implications and disagreed about how to respond to the proposed Fifteenth
Amendment, which, even more strongly than the Fourteenth, stated that citizens of the United States
could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The suffragists wanted sex to be included as a protected category, along with race and color, but when it
became clear that that wasn't to happen, they divided on whether to accept or reject the amendment as it
was. Some suffragists believed that campaigning against the amendment would be a betrayal of their
abolitionist friends, because a better law might not be forthcoming. Others, including Susan B. Anthony
and her colleague Stanton, feared that if women did not win their rights at this juncture, the opportunity
would not present itself again for a long, long time.

Stanton and Anthony had already butted heads with their old friend Frederick Douglass at an 1866
meeting of the American Equal Rights Association. Their former ally appeared to back down from his
earlier commitment to female suffrage, and was now saying that, while the ballot was "desirable" for
women, it was "vital" for Black men. In response, Anthony declared, "I will cut off this right arm of mine
before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman." White and Black women
fought among and between themselves over the best course of action,Sojourner Truth remained
unwavering in her support of women's rights. In her inimitable way, Truth commented on the issue in
1867, when female suffrage was still very much being debated:

     I feel that I have right to have just as much a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting
     their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and
     colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as
     bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait
     till it is still, it will take a great deal to get it going again. White women are a great deal smarter, and
     know more than colored women, while colored do not know scarcely anything. They go out
     washing, which is about as high as a colored woman gets, and their men go about idle, strutting up
     and down; and when the women come home, they ask for their money and take it all, and then
     scold her because there is not food. I want you to consider on that, chil'n.

Truth surely did not believe that White women were by nature smarter than Black women-perhaps more
educated, but never more intelligent. She was savvy enough, however, to recognize the political
advantages of such a comment, because her White activist friends were outraged at the prospect of
illiterate former slaves getting the vote ahead of White women, many of whom were far more educated.
For the most part, these women did not wish to deny Black men their franchise, but understandably, they
felt qualified to vote, and were angry at being denied the right simply because they were female.

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment passed without reference to sex as a protected category. Battered and
embittered from the debate, members of the American Equal Rights Association split into two separate
factions, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage
Association (AWSA).

The vast majority of American women, Black and White, did not belong
to either organization. In the decades following the Civil War, they seemed inclined to accept society's
claim that they were by nature apolitical beings and, as such, belonged not in the voting booth, but at
home, taking care of their families. Some housewives even denounced female suffrage, claiming that if
women were to vote differently from their husbands, domestic unrest would surely follow.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, White and Black women, however, did return in droves
to their pre-Civil War role as social reformers. And once again the majority of women's clubs were split
along racial lines. While Black women sometimes preferred segregated groups because they were more
comfortable in them and could more easily assume positions of leadership, it was also the case that Black
women were often denied membership in White women's clubs.

The largest and best known of the social reform groups of this era was the Woman's Christian
Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874 Temperance was considered a particularly appropriate
cause-for women because alcohol abuse was so disruptive of family life. From the beginning, WCTU
policies encouraged separate Black and White unions, but at least one White woman, Amelia Bloomer,
campaigned against racism within the movement, and some African American women did rise to positions
of prominence within the WCTU. Frances Harper, for one, was most effective in recruiting Black women
to the cause and was eventually appointed to the national office. Even so, she was plagued by issues of
-race, and once commented that "some of the members of different unions have met the question in a
liberal and Christian manner, others have not seemed . . . to make the distinction between Christian
affiliation and social equality."

Another African American woman highly active in social reform work was Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.
Initially, she was admitted to the 1800 conference of the General Federation of Women's Clubs because
her skin color was so fair that the White delegates who registered her didn't know that she was Black.
When they discovered the truth, Ruffin was banned from speaking, and an attempt was made to remove
her from the convention. The White Woman's Era Club then issued an official statement, saying "that
colored women should confine themselves to their clubs and the large field of work open to them there."

Not all Southern White women were racist. Some worked alongside Black women in various social
reform groups, and many joined in the campaign to fight against the lynchings of Black men. In 1902, the
White women s societies of the Southern Methodist Church openly criticized Southern racial attitudes
contributing to such lynchings, and a year later, a White woman named Jessie Daniel Ames founded the
fully integrated Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. At its peak, the group
had over forty thousand members.

At the turn of the century, thousands of Black women also joined in the campaign for female suffrage,
which had once again gathered steam during the 1880s. Among Black women who were staunch
suffragists was Anna Julia Cooper, best known for the statement: "Only the BLACK WOMAN can say
when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special
patronage; then and there the whole Negro race enters with me." Cooper was particularly effective in
emphasizing to Black women that they required the ballot to counter the belief that "Black men's"
experiences and needs were the same as theirs. (Even today, ask anyone when Blacks first got the right to
vote, and most will tell you "after the Civil War"-and in so doing, fail to acknowledge that only Black men
were enfranchised at that time.)

Unfortunately, not all African American men supported female suffrage. Many believed, as did their
White conservative counterparts, that women belonged in the home. The opposition of Black men did not
stop Black female suffragists from speaking up about their rights, though. In a 1912 article for The Crisis,
Mary Church Terrell wrote:

     If I were a colored man, and were unfortunate enough not to grasp the absurdity of opposing
     suffrage because of the sex of a human being, I should at least be consistent enough to never
     to raise my voice against those who have disenfranchised my brothers and myself on account
     of race.

There also remained a significant number of Black women opposed to female suffrage. Some took that
stand for no other reason than that their husbands did, and others simply distrusted anything that White
women were fighting so hard to get. Even many Black women who supported the ballot recognized the
expediency with which some White female suffragists treated Blacks. Antilynching crusader and journalist
Ida B. Wells-Barnett reacted strongly to evidence of racism, and was not afraid to call White suffragists
on their often hypocritical behavior. Others were more diplomatic in their response to White women. For
example, when Susan B.

Anthony attended the 1903 NWSA national convention in New Orleans, she was invited to visit the
all-Black Phillis Wheatley Club. While she was there, the club president, Sylvamie ' Williams, informed
Anthony that Black women were painfully aware of their inferior position among the White suffragists,
but added:

     When women like you, Miss Anthony, come to see us and speak to us it helps us believe in the
     Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Man, and at least for the time being in the sympathy of

It didn't seem to matter how Black women responded; they were being ignored. As late as 1919, it was
clear that a growing number of White women were ready to settle for an amendment that would give
them, but not Black women, the ballot. Even Alice Paul, White president of the radical National Women's
Party (NWP), whose extreme suffragists experienced picketing, imprisonment, and a hunger strike,
appeared willing to write off suffrage for Black women. She is alleged to have told one audience of
Southern Whites "that all of this talk of Negro women voting in South Carolina was nonsense." White
men, particularly those in the South, were convinced that Black women would turn out in greater
numbers to vote than White women, which would upset their White advantage at the polling place.

In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was finally ratified, without
any reference to race. As it turned out, White women's concerns about the South hardly mattered. The
amendment passed without the support of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia,
Alabama' Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi. In fact, the only Southern states to ratify it were Tennessee,
Kentucky, Texas, and Arkansas.

White women could not have predicted this course of events, though. In a lingering era of lynchings and
Jim Crow laws, any move to double the enfranchisement of the American population was perceived as
having potentially volatile racial implications, and nowhere was this more so than in the South. For White
women, the issue was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, had more of them visibly aligned
themselves with Black women, the passage of the suffrage amendment most certainly would have been
delayed by racist White men threatened by the new alliance. On the other hand, had White women fully
embraced Black women into their suffragist cause, there would have been more good will between them.
Ironically, some historians believe that American women would have soon gained the right to vote
anyhow, as most other Western nations were moving in the direction of enfranchising their female
citizens. Again, though, White women didnít know this at the time, and they used "whatever means
necessary" to get the suffrage amendment ratified.

When White women and Black women did vote in the first federal election, in 1920, they learned that
enfranchisement had been oversold; White men remained in control of federal, state, and local governing
bodies. Women of both races discovered that their influence in politics was hardly felt.

Following passage of the suffrage amendment, younger women failed to keep the feminist bandwagon
rolling. Despite their short skirts, cigarette smoking, and bobbed hair, the women of the Roaring Twenties
and Harlem Renaissance were basically apolitical. They were out to have fun. While women may have
flirted with independence, their primary goal in life was to marry well and have children.

Even the formally activist NWSA lost its political edge when it designated as its successor organization the
conservative nonpartisan League of Women Voters. During the twenties, the LWV opposed the equal
rights amendment (ERA), first introduced by Alice Paul and her National Women's Party. Even though
the NWP pledged to work for all women's equality, it remained a racially segregated group. Debates on
the ERA, even then, were carried out mostly by middle- and upper-class White women.

For the most part, attempts at Black-White female cooperation failed during the first half of the twentieth
century. One effort included the Council for Interracial Cooperation (CIC), founded in Atlanta in 1920,
and another was the Young Womenís Christian Association (YMCA), which similarly sought to develop
an interracial allegiance. But as the lynchings of Black men continued,

Black women activists turned away from White women, forming their own groups, such as the National
Association of Colored women and the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and establishing
coalitions with Black men to address more pressing matters of racial discrimination and hatred. As early
as 1924, Black activist Nannie Burughs observed that White women were overlooking and undervaluing
Black women as a political force. She repeatedly warned that White women should tap the voting
potential of the Black female electorate before White men denied it, but her advice went unheeded.
Throughout the South, the disenfranchisement of Blacks spread, through the exorbitant poll taxes and
demanding literary competency tests. Although Black women were disappointed, they were hardly
surprised when their former White suffragist friends failed to stop this development.

During the long depression that followed, voting must have seemed the least of Black women's problems.
They continued to face severe poverty and wage discrimination. By one estimate, 8o percent of Black
women in 1920 were employed as menial workers, such as farm laborers, cooks, or domestic servants.
Even during the Second World War, when Blacks and Whites were both hired to do so-called men's
factory work, Black women continued to be paid less than White, women for doing the exact same job.
By 1945, the situation was not much better, as Black women continued to hold the lowest rank in the
economic scale among men and women, Blacks and Whites.

Historians Lois Scharf and Joan Jensen have described the period from the 1920s to the 1940s as the
"decades of discontent" in the women's movement because so little happened. White and Black women
still interacted, but primarily as domestic servants and employees in the homes of Whites, or as
co-workers in factories and offices. Politically, they did not come back together until the late fifties and
early sixties, when a handful of Northern White women headed South to help in the drive to register
Blacks. By the end of the sixties, White and Black women again joined forces for this country's second
wave of feminism. It was time for a new generation of White and Black women to learn the painful
lessons of social activism and political cooperation.