These women are contributing to a rich tradition of Black women’s intellectual work and coalition-building in Georgia since the late 19th century. After believing she lost the 2018 gubernatorial race because her opponent Brian Kemp suppressed the vote as the acting secretary of state, Abrams expanded her work to address labor, criminal justice and voting reform — the same essential matters of social justice that were identified by Black female activists in Atlanta during the 19th century. They could not vote or hold political office, but they exercised political leadership in pioneering movements that are foundational to the fight for democracy and equality in the United States.
On July 19, 1881, 20 women working in laundry organized the state’s largest and most resilient labor strike. They were fed up with low wages and long hours that made it impossible for them to meet their basic needs. These striking women, who started the Washing Society, challenged city officials to implement laws to end labor exploitation in household employment. Similar to Abrams’s Fair Fight Action, the Washing Society did the hard work of organizing: knocking on hundreds of doors, building coalitions across racial and state lines, calling out elected officials for their suppression tactics and writing documents asserting the urgent need for labor reform. In the washerwomen’s case, the strike was a vital method for advocating for labor rights in a system that denied women the right to vote and run for political office.
Along with a few Black male allies and Irish immigrant women, Matilda Crawford, Sallie Bell, Carrie Jones, Dora Jones, Orphelia Turner, Sarah A. Collier and other society members demanded that the Atlanta city government standardize the wages of all laundry workers. Establishing a potent coalition, however, was far from easy: Most of the activists were young, and persuading other washerwomen to join their newly formed trade organization required lengthy trips throughout the city to conduct door-to-door canvassing in Black and White neighborhoods during scarce off-work hours. It also carried real risks: Local police routinely arrested and jailed activists, and the White-controlled city council proposed mandatory “business taxes” and “license fees” for all strike participants. Adding to the pressure, landlords raised the rent on tenants who joined the Washing Society, and local businessmen raised funds to build commercial laundries that could potentially put the laundresses out of business.
Despite the local government’s suppression tactics, the group persisted. And once their ranks grew to 3,000, the all-male and majority-White city council had no choice but to take their protests seriously. Although the council never passed a law to standardize wages, it struck down the business taxes and fines resolution. As a result of the strike, many individual employers increased wages. Newly powerful, the majority-Black Washing Society stemmed the threat of commercial laundries and controlled Atlanta’s laundry trade for the next 29 years.
At only 25 years old, Selena Sloan Butler, an alumna of Spelman College, like Abrams, made the first public arguments and started the first campaign in Georgia against mass incarceration in 1897. Primarily known as the co-founder of the National Parent Teacher Association, Butler also compiled statistics and firsthand accounts of the labor exploitation of Black prisoners to push for criminal justice reform. Butler and her husband, physician Henry Rutherford Butler, also visited Atlanta’s criminal courts to record unjust trials against Black women and children. They published their data through Black media outlets, exposing how trumped-up charges against Black people turned minor offenses into lengthy sentences.
These stories revealed the prisoners’ inhumane working conditions and the all-too-frequent incidence of White male prison guards raping Black female prisoners. Selena Sloan Butler’s groundbreaking research paper, “The Chain Gang System,” was disseminated far and wide by the National Association of Colored Women’s networks.
Such diligent work inspired 29 years of Black women’s sustained community organizing across state lines to end the convict-leasing system in Georgia, which had exploited Black labor in slavery-like fashion to profit the state and suppress the Black vote. After the system was eradicated in 1926, Black women’s organizations continued challenging the systemic abuse of Black prisoners in the state into the 1950s.
In the aftermath of the Jim Crow era and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black women in Atlanta remained at the forefront of political movements addressing injustices that persisted into the latter half of the 20th century. By 1968, Atlanta native Dorothy Lee Bolden established the National Domestic Workers’ Union (NDWU) of America to improve wages and working conditions for domestic workers. To increase the chances of that happening, Bolden registered 13,000 domestic workers in 10 cities and required that every member of NDWU register to vote. “I don’t want to be out here pushing for you and you not registered to vote,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1986.
Bolden had also made domestic workers the most powerful voting bloc in Georgia, helping John Lewis and other notable congressmen become elected officials.
Abrams’s work builds on these women’s earlier efforts. In each of these cases, the women pioneered labor, criminal justice and voting reform, which are cornerstones of Fair Fight Action’s comprehensive approach to fighting voter suppression. All of these women, like Abrams, were not wealthy socialites or political dignitaries, but organizers. They rolled up their sleeves and undertook the unglamorous but necessary — and often dangerous — work of coalition-building to improve conditions for the greater good. Abrams and her Georgia predecessors created change from the ground up, bringing people together to act upon their collective power to advocate for legislative change.
Black women in Georgia have played a pioneering role in shaping American democracy for well over a century. These efforts are continuing in the Senate runoff campaigns in Georgia, and there are models of women’s organizing in other states with deep histories of voter suppression, like Texas, Missouri and New Mexico. Voter suppression is relentless. But so too are Black women, who have been committed to working to deliver a stronger and more robust democracy for more than a century.