African American Women: The Voices That Lift Us Up

The 19th Amendment

In 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, prohibiting the United States from denying any American citizen the right to vote based on sex. This included recognizing women’s right to vote. To get here, many women had to contribute to the women’s suffrage movement, but it is important not to forget the contributions African American women made to this effort. It is also important to recognize that while African American women contributed to the reform efforts and political activism of women’s suffrage, they were already fighting for the anti-slavery movement. During the 1830s, despite African American women having quite a bit to contribute to the anti-slavery movement, women were not allowed to lead anti-slavery organizations and lectures and were – in some cases – mocked.

The Voices

Many African American women still managed to push through and contribute to both the anti-slavery and women’s rights efforts. An event on July 19, 1848, brought a refreshing change to the women’s movement: the first woman’s rights convention, which was the Seneca Falls Convention at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. This convention opened the door for free African American women abolitionists and suffragists, allowing them to take part in “leadership positions at multiple women’s rights gatherings throughout the 1850s and 1860s” (Harley). African American women began to take advantage of their newly allowed leadership and began to speak at various events. African American women finally being able to publicly speak out about these social issues can be seen as one of their most important contributions. The powerful impact that speeches had on audiences sparked motivation for the impactful changes to come.

The Importance of Speech

Speeches were and are an important tool needed in political activism and for the fight towards reform. Speeches allow activists to make compelling arguments against the current legislation and describe to audiences the importance of an issue as well as the background behind it. Infrastructures are sturdy, operate the same way, and are controlled by the same people for long periods; if a group of people want to make an impactful change to that infrastructure, an extremely powerful and persuasive speech can inspire that action. The target audience also must be able to feel a connection to a movement and a connection to the words spoken about it. These words must come from someone with first-hand experience with pertinent issues and who can persuade. Two leaders that we’re able to successfully and impactfully accomplish this were Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I A Woman” Speech

Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I A Woman” speech in 1851, at the National Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history. Even though she was unable to read and write, her engaging narration and wit allowed her to impact her audience. In her speech, she speaks about Christ, which was a great way to connect with the audience because of the relation most people had with religion at that time. Truth also discussed how men influence the treatment of women, yet the same courtesy was not offered to her as a Black woman. Again, all women could connect to the way men treated women, yet white women did not suffer the same poor treatment as Black women. One could look at this as a way to get white women to have empathy and understanding for the neglect or double neglect Black women faced, just as they faced their forms of discrimination. In her final argument, Truth points out that while Christ was not a woman, he came from one, further indicating the power that woman ought to be allowed.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s, “We Are All Bound Up Together” Speech 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper began her career as a lecturer, discussing abolition and suffrage issues. This led to Harper’s speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York in May of 1866, named “We Are All Bound Up Together.” Similar to Sojourner Truth’s speech, Harper gave insight into the multifaceted mistreatment that Black women faced at the hands of racism and sexism. Harper pointed out that Black women’s struggle for equality was ignored in the fight for suffrage. She also took an interesting approach discussing this issue, explaining that while she does agree with allowing women to vote, she knew it would not solve the racism that she faced. Harper ultimately reminded the audience of the contradictory approaches taken with sexism as opposed to racism. She made her final point, “you white women speak here of rights, and I speak of wrongs,” bringing focus to the many ignored and ongoing years of oppression faced by the African American woman.

It is important to pay homage to the many Black women who took part in the women’s suffrage movement, but we must always remember the bigger battle Black women were facing during this time as well – the battle against anti-slavery. While these women, Truth and Harper, and many other abolitionists fought for women’s equality, they made sure to incorporate, and even make the forefront to their argument, their struggles with racism. By providing an honest narrative of their experiences as Black women, these leaders were able to educate other communities to begin to bring about active change. Without the contributions from these courageous and thought-provoking leaders, who knows if the women’s suffrage movement would have progressed the way we now know it did, or for that matter, the anti-slavery movement? For centuries and even today, Black women have been fighting, becoming the voices that lift us up.

Works Cited

Harley, Sharon. “African American Women and the Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/articles/african-american-women-and-the-nineteenth-amendment.htm#:~:text=Among%20the%20prominent%20African%20American%20reformers%20and%20suffragists,at%20political%20and%20religious%20meetings%20and%20public%20rallies.

Harley, Sharon. “Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman? (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm.

History, NY. “‘All Bound up Together.’” Women & the American Story, 22 June 2021, https://wams.nyhistory.org/a-nation-divided/reconstruction/all-bound-up-together/.

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