Black Women Blazed the Path to Universal Suffrage…With Men

While western women won their gendered voting rights in 1918, Black Women championed universal suffrage

By Thomas L Blair 9 February 2018©rev

Amy Jacques Garvey and husband Marcus
Amy Jacques Garvey and husband Marcus

The 100th anniversary of British women’s right to vote and hold office attracted wide acclaim. However, there was something missing from the celebrations – something very few acknowledge, even Black Britons.

The women of Africa and the diaspora were the champion’s for universal suffrage – for all women, men and oppressed peoples.

White British suffragettes won victory on a gendered platform. The prize, in effect, was entry into the Empire’s colonialist political system.

Black women marched to a different drumbeat. Theirs was a fighting hymn for the Black World. As Afro-Caribbean activist Amy Jacques Garvey said: “…women of the darker races are sallying forth to help their men establish a civilization according to their own standard, and to strive for world leadership”. Readers all over Africa and the diaspora praised her article “Women as Leaders,” in The Negro World October 25, 1925
Increasingly educated women and men rallied to support the oppressed female labour force.  Their efforts helped shape the pillars and tactics of suffragism in Africa and the diaspora.  Fiercely resisted  by  governments and plantation owners, they fought for:

  •  the abolition of slavery, peonage and caste;
  • political rights of free speech, religion and assembly;
  • land rights and economic freedom;
  • voting rights and local self-government

Continental African women were the freedom fighters for
 universal suffrage – with men

Adelaide Casely-Hayford best expressed this radical assertion. The Sierra Leonian was a women’s rights activist and pan-Africanist – with her fellow colonials. Freedom was the goal of this educator and short story writer. She nurtured the racial pride of pupils at her girl’s school established in 1923.

Charlotte Maxeke illustrates the universality of the African woman’s struggles. She founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa in 1918. One of the first Black women graduates in South Africa, she linked the fight for women’s rights to the broad struggle for colonial freedom.

Women raised the banner of universal suffrage in Egypt, too. In 1923, Huda Sharawi led a women’s movement as important as the suffragettes and suffragists. Her Egyptian Feminist Union established numerous organizations dedicated to women’s rights. Moreover, with her male supporters, the activist and writer was a fierce rights campaigner.

Grassroots women leaders challenged America
 to embrace justice and equality for all – with men

Ida Wells Barnett was an outstanding freedom fighter for universal suffrage in America.  In 1913, she founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club the earliest Black women’s suffrage group.  Vilified by whites,  the club was the formidable ally of Black males in the public realm. In politics, Barnett played a pivotal role in the 1915 election of the first African American politician in Chicago, Oscar DePriest.

Caribbean women forged
trans- continental unity – with men

Jamaican born Amy Jacques Garvey was determined to defeat European colonisation of African and Afro-Caribbean peoples. She was a leading member of The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) founded in 1914 by husband, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

Jacques Garvey was a forceful advocate of women’s and African rights in America and abroad. She participated in the famous Fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England, in 1945. While there, she influenced the major African American and Caribbean intellectuals, W E B Du Bois and George Padmore and the iconic first generation of African liberation leaders, Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta.

Black universal suffrage:
a priceless message  uncovered

Thus, the Black women’s message and impact were distinctly different from the gendered victories in white Britain and America.  They entered the public and political world  as women fighting for Black advancement and the universal franchise. For this, Jacques Garvey praised the African woman,

“who has borne the rigors of slavery, the deprivations consequent on a pauperized race, and the indignities heaped upon a weak and defenseless people? Yet she has suffered all with fortitude, and stands ever ready to help in the onward march to freedom and power.

Africa must be for Africans, and Negroes everywhere must be independent”.


Photo/source Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey

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