Senator and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris (Calif.); Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; the three women behind Black Lives Matter: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — few people can miss that 2020 has turned into the year of African American women in politics. But how many of us know the 200-year history that laid the groundwork for their success? Who can name even a few of the hundreds, nay thousands, of courageous Black women whose fight for political rights forced America to reckon with its democratic ideals? Despite their pioneering roles, these women have largely been omitted from the history of the women’s movement. Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, draws on recent historical scholarship and her own deep research into personal papers, speeches and essays to acquaint us with scores of female activists in a well-paced, readable and relevant book.

The stories told in “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All” are partially personal. Jones’s great-great-grandmother (born enslaved in 1840), her great-grandmother and her grandmother all pushed for African American women’s political rights in churches, women’s clubs, Black organizations, “suffrage schools” and institutions of higher learning. Her family’s history illustrates how Black women’s efforts to secure political power went well beyond the ballot box. And how could it be otherwise, given that African American women had to battle not just patriarchy but deep-seated, violent and persistent racism? Unlike White women, who built their liberation movement mostly away from the male sphere, Jones stresses, Black women fought for their rights squarely as part of their communities.

American independence ended slavery in the Northern states, either immediately or gradually. But neither the meaning of freedom nor the status of free African Americans was settled in 1783. Black men and women battled colonization, curtailment of voting rights and limited access to the political realm. Black activists fought back through the “colored” convention movement, their churches and newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal.

Yet in all these institutions, women’s roles were limited to those of helpmeets: raising money, attending services and working behind the scenes. Eager to do more, antebellum Black women agitated for the right to the pulpit, the podium and the pen, as Jones memorably puts it. This led them toward both women’s rights and the risky work of anti-slavery and abolitionism. They faced opposition not only from racist Whites, but from Black and White men in the movement opposed to Black women’s expanded roles.

Take Hester Lane. Born enslaved in Maryland, she became a free businesswoman in New York City by the 1820s. She risked her freedom traveling south to buy the freedom of enslaved people, and she threw herself into various benevolent and abolitionist organizations. While the men in charge were happy to accept her contributions, financial and otherwise, they thwarted her ambitions to lead. When, in a concession to women’s rights, a few women were at last elevated to positions of importance — in this case in the American Anti-Slavery Society to which Lane belonged — they were all White. Yet despite such betrayals, African American women refused to turn away from the Black communities that sustained them, choosing instead to fight for their civil rights while championing justice for all.

After emancipation, the hopeful period of Reconstruction proved all too brief. Under Jim Crow, Black women continued to struggle in their churches, and they organized their own women’s movement through umbrella organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (incorporated in 1905). White suffragists’ racism left Black women to fight for the vote on their own. The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, so important to White women, was just a way station for Black women who remained largely disenfranchised by racist violence and statutes.

The story of someone like Hallie Quinn Brown illustrates women’s paths after the Civil War. While her parents had been enslaved, Brown was born free in 1849 in Pittsburgh. Educated at Wilberforce University in Ohio, Brown eventually became a professor at her alma mater. She came to women’s suffrage, like most Black women, through her work in the AME Church, the temperance cause and the Black women’s club movement. Weary of the racism in White women’s suffrage organizations, Brown fought for the right to vote from within Black politics. In the 1920s she worked to give Black women a voice in the Republican Party, helped lead the fight against a proposed “Mammy” monument in Washington and published a book about Black female activists intended to inspire the next generation of trailblazers. The vote was merely one arrow in her quiver to bring about full emancipation for African Americans.

After 1920, Black female activists were pulled in different directions: pan-Africanism, securing economic justice, exposing sexual abuse, ending segregation. Some worked through the federal government or institutions of higher learning, others through Black organizations such as the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women, unions, and grass-roots organizations. Yet voting rights remained at the heart of Black women’s struggle for political power and full equality. After World War II, civil rights workers made voting rights a centerpiece of their struggle.

One such woman was Diane Nash. Born in Chicago in 1938, Nash became an activist while attending Fisk University. She participated in sit-ins in Nashville, where she was arrested time and again. Deeply committed to nonviolence, she took on the heavy burden of coordinating the Nashville Freedom Riders. In response to the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls, Nash took on a central role in the civil rights protests in Selma. The brutal response of White troopers, splashed on American TVs, led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally allowed all Black women to vote and ushered in a new era of Black women in politics.

Jones has written an important and timely volume on courageous Black women who shaped history. Their stories remind us that “voting resides at the core of a democracy.” A lesson for our time.


How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

By Martha S. Jones

339 pp. $30