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Suffering Suffragettes

by W.E.B. Du Bois
The Crisis
Vol. 4 (June 1912), pp. 76-77

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This article originally appeared in the June 1912 issue of The Crisis, a journal considered one of the leading forces in the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, addressing a failure on the part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to support a resolution condemning the Southern disenfranchisement of African Americans, in law and in practice. Du Bois, a leading black intellectual of the day, was editor of The Crisis.

The woman suffragists are wincing a bit under the plain speaking of The Crisis. President Anna Shaw writes us:

There is not in the National Association any discrimination against colored people. If they do not belong to us it is merely because they have not organized and have not made application for membership. Many times we have had colored women on our program and as delegates, and, I, personally, would be only too glad to welcome them as long as I am president of the National Association.

At the State convention in Ithaca a few days ago, when I was conducting the question box, I was asked what I did in Louisville in regard to admitting women of Negro blood to the convention and my reply was: "I did nothing in regard to admitting women of Negro blood to the convention. Our association does not recognize either Negro blood or white blood; what we stand for is the demand for equal political rights for women with men, and we know no distinction of race." Our whole contention is for justice to women, white and colored, and I do not think it will be possible ever to change the platform of the National Association in this respect.

The corresponding secretary has heard vague rumors in Ohio and says:

A somewhat indefinite report has reached me that there is being circulated a statement to the effect that the committee on resolutions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, at the last annual convention held in Louisville, Ky., "snowed under" a resolution condemning disfranchisement of colored people in the South. As I remember the circumstance that probably gave rise to this misleading report it was as follows: In the hurry of the last meeting of the resolutions committee, which was composed of one member from each State, only a part of the committee being present, several resolutions on various subjects were presented, one being about as the above recites. I do not recall that it read "colored people," though it may have been meant to apply to them. No one objected in any way to its provisions, but one or two mentioned conditions in other parts of the United States which were against the free use of the ballot and said that the resolution was not broad enough. There was not time to discuss it fully, so this one and some other resolutions were not acted upon at all. Those who proposed any of the resolutions not acted upon by our committee had the opportunity and full liberty to present them from the floor, so that our committee did not feel that it was "snowing under" that resolution, or any other, which it had not had time to revise to make comprehensive enough to include all similar abridgments of rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

The ballotless women, I can assure you, who attended that convention are working for, and urging with all their ability, strength and talents, the guarantee of civil and political rights for all citizens of the United States entitled to them.

All this is pleasant and encouraging, but does it present the facts in the case exactly? Early in August Miss Martha Gruening sought a chance to have a colored delegate introduce the following resolution at the Louisville convention and speak on the floor:

Resolved, that the women who are trying to lift themselves out of the class of the disfranchised, the class of the insane and criminal, express their sympathy with the black men and women who are fighting the same battle and recognize that it is as unjust and as undemocratic to disfranchise human beings on the ground of color as on the ground of sex.

President Anna Shaw refused absolutely to invite the colored lady suggested and said over her signature several weeks before the convention:

I must oppose the presentation of that resolution at our national convention. I do not feel that we should go into a Southern State to hold our national convention and then introduce any subject which we know beforehand will do nothing but create discord and inharmony in the convention. The resolution which you proposed to introduce would do more to harm the success of our convention in Louisville than all the other things that we do would do good. I am in favor of colored people voting, but white women have no enemy in the world who does more to defeat our amendments, when submitted, than colored men, and until women are recognized and permitted to vote, I am opposed to introducing into our women suffrage convention a resolution in behalf of men who, if our resolution were carried, would go straight to the polls and defeat us every time.

We have already shown that the statement that colored men oppose woman suffrage is false, and we have only to add that every effort was made to keep this resolution from being presented; and when it finally appeared it was incontinently sidetracked in committee. We are not surprised that under the circumstances the information of the corresponding secretary is "somewhat indefinite."

<Index to Etexts on Women's History>

Also on this site:

  • Two Suffrage Movements
    In September, 1912, The Crisis published an article by Martha Gruening providing some background on the suffrage movement's historical ties to the anti-slavery struggle, and regretting the suffrage movement's later move away from an inclusive cause. "This is what all suffragists must understand, whatever their sex or color -- that all the disfranchised of the earth have a common cause."
  • >Harlem Renaissance Women: Dreaming in Color
    From roots to neglect to re-discovery, a review of the Harlem Renaissance and the incredible women who helped make it possible.

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Part of a collection of etexts on women's history produced by Jone Johnson Lewis. Editing and formatting © 1999-2010 Jone Johnson Lewis.

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