Tuesday, December 13, 2005

March Church Terrell: Feminist of the Day

Mary Church Terrell
Lawyer, member of National American Woman Suffrage Association, writer, speaker
"Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance."

Mary Church Terrell was the daughter of slaves (one of whom was the son of his owner, since we were talking about the relationship between gender, sex and race - or at least I was), and fought against racism her entire life. She helped form the NAACP and was the first president of the National Association of Coloured Women. She lived long enough to lead protests to desegregate Washington in the 1950s. At the turn of the century she described the links between women's rights, and the struggle against slavery:
Thus to me this semi-centennial of the National American Woman Suffrage Association is a double jubilee, rejoicing as I do, not only in the prospective enfranchisement of my sex but in the emancipation of my race. When Ernestine Rose, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony began that agitation by which colleges were opened to women and the numerous reforms inaugurated for the amelioration of their condition along all lines, their sisters who groaned in bondage had little reason to hope that these blessings would ever brighten their crushed and blighted lives, for during those days of oppression and despair, colored women were not only refused admittance to institutions of learning, but the law of the States in which the majority lived made it a crime to teach them to read. Not only could they possess no property, but even their bodies were not their own. Nothing, in short, that could degrade or brutalize the womanhood of the race was lacking in that system from which colored women then had little hope of escape. So gloomy were their prospects, so fatal the laws, so pernicious the customs, only fifty years ago.
She had to withstand a lot of racism, not just from the wider world, but within the feminist movement. The Congressional Union for Women's Suffrage wouldn't endorse black female suffrage, because they might lose the support of white women in the south (who by this time had built their campaign for suffrage on the grounds that the more white voters the better). At one stage the Congressional Union for Women's Suffrage asked Ida Wells-Barnett, the other black woman involved in the formation of the NAACP, not to march with everyone else. Unfortunately black women weren't actually women.

Conclusion: She was a feminist, but unfortunately for her it wasn't a very good time for feminism in America.

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