The National Woman's Party and the Enfranchisement of Black Women, 1919-1924.

Alice Paul, c. September 1920, Courtesy Library of Congress

Original editorial project by:
Jill Dias
State University of New York at Binghamton
May 1997

 

 

    The documents in this study address the following question: How did the National Woman's Party address the issue of the enfranchisement of African-American women in connection with the passage of the woman suffrage amendment?  This question is important, because although the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1920, was designed to give all women suffrage, many black women were denied this right. Prior to 1920, black women were often denied full participation in the suffrage movement because suffrage leaders feared they would lose the support of the white southerners. So the fate of black women women's voting rights after 1920 remained an important political issue within the women's movement.

    Alice Paul, head of the National Woman's Party, was a suffrage leader who publicly advocated the right for all women to vote. Yet her actions often contradicted this view. In 1913, Paul became the leader of the Congressional Union, which in 1917 became the National Woman's Party. She urged the National American Woman Suffrage Association to change its state-based strategy and throw their power behind the effort to secure a federal suffrage amendment. Historians view her leadership as crucial to the successful congressional passage of the Suffrage Amendment in 1919 and its ratification in 1920.[1]

    However, this achievement was not reached without some sacrifice of black women's rights. Many southern white women did not support universal women's suffrage. Opposing black suffrage, they advocated "educated suffrage," a strategy that erected barriers to non-white voters--women as well as men. Some southern white women endorsed state suffrage for white women only.[2] Due to the power of white southern politicians in the federal government, northern white women who advocated a constitutional amendment realized that they needed the support of white southern women if they were to get the Suffrage Amendment passed. As a result, anti-black suffrage sentiments developed  among northern suffragists who felt that it was expedient to ignore black women as well as among southern white women who believed in white supremacy.

    The documents in this project focus on Alice Paul's reactions to the demands of African-American women to participate as equals in the suffrage movement before 1920, and, after 1920, her negotiation of the choice between retaining her white southern constituency versus advancing the voting rights of black southern women. In 1913, Alice Paul organized a suffrage parade outside the White House. Before the parade, she expressed sympathy for black women's suffrage, but when the parade began, suffrage leaders asked Ida B. Wells not to march with the Chicago delegation.[3] Paul and other leaders were concerned about offending southern white women. Moreover, Paul would not publicly state that she endorsed black female suffrage.

    In 1919, Paul described her goal as, "removing the sex qualification from the franchise regulations... to see to it that the franchise conditions for every state were the same for women as for men."[4] This statement was a subtle way of telling the white population that black women could be just as easily disenfranchised by state laws as black men had been. Alice Paul was forewarning black women even before suffrage was passed that she would do little to tamper with the right of states to disenfranchise black women.

    In the South after 1920, black women who tried to vote experienced physical and economic intimidation, poll taxes, educational and character requirements, and they were excluded from the Democratic primary.[5]  Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party did nothing to stop this. Stating that the enfranchisement of black women was a race issue, not a women's issue, Paul argued that black women should address the people who blocked their access to the vote rather than the National Woman's Party.[6]

    Black women were often denied the right to speak at National Woman's Party meetings; Alice Paul said there was not room on the schedule for them. However, when black women did speak before the National Woman's Party, their opinions were severely criticized.[7] Black women became increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention to their needs. Addie W. Hunton led a delegation of sixty black women from fourteen different states to urge Alice Paul to make the race question a prime concern. Hunton believed that Paul was hostile to the cause of black women.[8] When the suffrage victory celebration was held in Washington D.C. in 1921, Mary Church Terrell asked Alice Paul whether she endorsed the enforcement of the Nineteenth Amendment for all women, and Paul refused to say that she did.[9]

    Did Alice Paul believe that the disenfranchisement of Black women was solely a race issue and not a women's issue, or was she catering to the prejudices of her southern supporters? This question can be explored through the documents collected below. These documents also give readers a new perspective on the fight black women waged for enfranchisement. These documents can be found in the Papers of the National Woman's Party, Mary Church Terrell and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

 

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To Document 1: Letter from Walter White to Mary Church Terrell, 14 March 1919,

 

 
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