Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940

Article excerpt

In the past decade a rich body of scholarship has emerged detailing African American women's political organizing on the local, state, and national levels. Particular attention has focused on black women's role in promoting universal suffrage in the United States. (1) One aspect of their political organizing in need of further investigation is black women's activism in the international arena. An examination of the global realm uncovers a fascinating history of struggle and illuminates the breadth of African American women's political agenda. Black women in the United States sought international support for community concerns and soon realized that local race problems were mirrored on the global level.

Research on African American women's political organizing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries highlights the central role played by the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). (2) The political implications of a national federation of black women encompassing regional, state, and local bodies evoked widespread attention. Formed in 1896, the NACW became a clearinghouse that many turned to when seeking to extend their influence or to promote various causes and programs. The organization likewise became the vehicle for African American women to promote a host of national and international activities. (3) Political organizing among white women in the U.S. was launched in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention and further advanced by the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. (4) In 1888 the movement became global when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton invited women from around the world to attend the NWSA's annual meeting held in Washington, DC, marking the fortieth anniversary of Seneca Falls. What resulted from this gathering was the "first lasting multipurpose transnational women's organization" known as the International Council of Women (ICW). (5) In attendance at this founding meeting was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a well-known black abolitionist and poet, who delivered an address on temperance. (6) The body agreed to meet every five years and National Councils of Women (NCW) were formed in each member nation. The American Council was made up of prominent women's organizations in the United States, such as the NWSA and Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The U.S. group selected May Wright Sewall, a prominent white educator and suffragette, to be its first president.

The first quinquennial International Congress of Women (ICW) was held in Chicago in 1893 to coincide with the World's Columbian and International Exposition. Such world fairs became fashionable in the late 19th century and provided fertile ground for international gatherings. (7) Six African American women addressed the ICW quinquennial in Chicago: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Sarah J. Early, and Hallie Quinn Brown. (8) Perhaps the most notable speech was that of Fannie Barrier Williams on the topic, "The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation." Williams was a school teacher who moved to Chicago in 1887 with her husband, S. Laing Williams, when he obtained his law degree. He would later become Assistant District Attorney for the city, and Fannie Williams became the first black woman to serve on the Chicago Library Board (1924-1926). (9) Williams began her speech at the international congress by acknowledging the significance of the occasion. She announced to the audience, "That the discussion of progressive womanhood is considered incomplete without some account of the colored women's status [and] is most noteworthy evidence that we have not failed to impress ourselves on the higher side of American life." She explained, however, that "less is known of our women than of any other class of Americans." After discussing the many accomplishments of African American women since emancipation, Williams highlighted instances of discrimination that black women continued to endure. …

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