How Many of These Early Black Feminists Do You Know?

12354988025_c2a8d73b08Though black feminists have wielded social media to make willful strides into public consciousness, black feminism is nothing new. The challenge of being doubly oppressed as a black woman has always colored feminist conversations, and minority women rarely have the luxury of fighting solely on behalf of their gender. The question of intersectionality predates hashtags and Twitter feminism and goes all the way back to impasses such as the one between black journalist Ida B. Wells and white suffragist Frances Willard. Wells implored Willard to acknowledge the evil of lynching, while Willard, blinded by her race and class privileges, believed black men to be deserving targets.

Though not always recognized, black women have always made forays into the feminist dialogue to ensure black women and girls don’t remain an afterthought. In celebration of Black History Month, here are 11 early black feminists, in no particular order—some you’ve learned about and some you probably haven’t.

Anna Julia Cooper

Anna Julia Cooper

Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)

One of the most prominent black scholars in American history, Cooper was the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD when she graduated from University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924. Having been born in slavery in Raleigh, N.C., Cooper used both her lived experience with racism and her scholastic ability to pen her first book in 1892, A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South. The book, in which Cooper argued for the self-determination of black women, is considered the first volume of black feminist thought in the U.S.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

An abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Truth was also born into slavery, but escaped with her young daughter. She later went to court to obtain freedom for her son, becoming the first black woman to win such a case. Her famous speech on gender inequity, “Ain’t I a Woman” was delivered in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Akron, OH, and has endured as a raw and powerful utterance of the tribulations and burdens black women shoulder.

Amy Jacques Garvey

Amy Jacques Garvey

Amy Jacques Garvey (1895-1973)

Garvey, the second wife of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, was a daunting intellectual and social activist in her own right. A gifted journalist, she worked as a columnist for Negro World in Harlem and often discussed the intersectionality of race, gender and class as it pertained to black women. She wrote once in an essay, “The [black men] will more readily sing the praises of white women than their own; yet who is more deserving of admiration than the black woman, she 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.”

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

An activist for civil rights and suffrage, Terrell was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1884. A close of acquaintance of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, she campaigned for racial equality, becoming a well-known activist in Washington, D.C. A writer and the first president of of the National Association of Colored Women, many of her works, including “A Plea for the White South by a Colored Woman” and “A Colored Woman in a White World,” focused on the status of black women in society. Terrell was also a founding member of the NAACP and helped organize the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta.

Harriet Anne Jacobs (1813-1897)

Jacobs, who fled slavery in North Carolina to become an abolitionist and social reformer, published a single work: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The 1861 book was one of the first and the few autobiographies that documented the physical abuse and sexual exploitation enslaved women suffered. Until she finally escaped to the North, Jacobs endured constant threats from her slavemaster to sell her two children if she didn’t accept his sexual advances. After the Civil War, she devoted her life to fostering a community among newly freed slaves, organizing the building of schools, hospitals and homes.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is widely considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, by Alice Walker, published in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine, helped revive interest in Hurston’s work, and the reemergence of her writing coincided with the rising popularity of black women authors such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. A literary giant, she was a cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance and influenced generations of writers who came after her.

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

Known as Moses to the more than 300 slaves she helped find freedom, Tubman was a fighter for abolition and women’s suffrage. Using a network of anti-slavery activists, she transported escaped slaves through the famed Underground Railroad. Even after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required officials in free states to help recapture escapees, she continued to guide people even further, into Canada. Frederick Douglass often worked with her and admired her, writing, “The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1880)

Stewart began as an indentured servant and then later became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the first African American woman on record to lecture publicly on women’s rights, and her speeches often preached African American exceptionalism and the autonomy of black women. Stewart published pieces in The Liberator, the prominent newspaper of white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and was also active in supporting Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, though she never wrote for it.

Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee

Jarena Lee (1783-?)

A pioneering preacher at a time when women were never seen on the pulpit, Lee fought for gender equality within Christianity. She became the first woman authorized to preach for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and as she became a traveling minister, she faced much hostility because she was a woman. Writing in her autobiography, she said: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”


Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814?-1904)

After she became a monied entrepreneur, Pleasant used her fortune to support the abolitionist movement. She jumped from state to state, working on the Underground Railroad and helping spread it to California during the Gold Rush. Out of jealousy and anger at the wealth and influence of a black woman, locals often smeared her, calling her a voodoo priestess and a mammy. After she was kicked out of a street car in San Francisco, along with several other black women in 1866, she filed and won a lawsuit that required desegregation of the city’s public transportation.

Florynce Kennedy (1916-2000)

A feminist and civil rights advocate, Kennedy was known for her flamboyant and attention-grabbing activism in the ’60s and ’70s. Among other protests, she led a mass public urination at Harvard in response to their lack of female restrooms and filed tax- evasion charges against the Catholic Church because she felt their campaign against reproductive rights violated the separation of church and state. Kennedy also helped build alliances between white feminists and Black Power activists by working with organizations like NOW and the Black Panthers. She’s often credited with coining the phrase: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

Top: Photo of Sojourner Truth from Flickr user pds209 under license from Creative Commons 2.0; In body of article: Photos of Anna Julia Cooper, Amy Jacques Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston and Jarena Lee from Flickr users Pan-African News Wire, Art Labour Archives and addie65 under license from Creative Commons 2.0.


Screen shot 2014-01-22 at 3.56.53 PMAnita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.





  1. Jo Ann Armenta says:

    I had read about a few of these brave women, on whose shoulders all women stand…but I was sad not to see Ida B. Wells on your list–I guess being from Chicago, she has special place in my heart.
    She was an important Journalist in her time, a newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist and, with her husband, newspaper owner Ferdinand L. Barnett, an early leader in the civil rights movement.
    If you haven’t seen the movie Iron Jawed Angels, you must. Wells’ character plays an important message and send a loooouuuuud message about race and class. A lesson we Latinas know a little something about, too. Good job mi hermanita Anita.

    Born: July 16, 1862, Holly Springs, MS

    Died: March 25, 1931, Chicago, IL

  2. Lauren Florence says:

    If a movie is ever made about Ms. Hurston, Queen Latifa should play the lead role.

  3. Kathleen Daly says:

    How many do I know? All! I studied with Paula Giddings at Smith College!

  4. Sally Bailey says:

    Thank you.

  5. No Ida B. Wells?! I’m sorry, but she was the greatest activist of all American history. I am not exaggerating. She was an amazing woman, and never compromised her integrity. The women on your list were good, but Wells was GREAT.

    • bob lemanowicz says:

      really or Mary McLeod Bethune

    • Perhaps the author of this article meant to introduce you to some feminists you don’t know, rather than confirming the black feminist you are already familiar with is GREAT.

    • Thank you for lsting these important Black African American Feminists. I agree Ida B Wells was great. I am proud that I knew of most of the listed Black feminists. However, I am surprised that Angela Davis, Dorothy Lewis of N’COBRA, Dorothy L:eaville,Publisher of the Chicago & Gary Crusader Newspaper; Adjoa Barbara J, Baker, N’COBRA, Natiional Coalition of Blacks for Reparations In America, plus many other organizations that she is and has been a leader;
      July 1, 2015 Chicago has a long list of other Black Feminist. Our work in Chicago is more difficult than whiite feminists. Our newest movement is Mothers Against Guns.

      • Please add a correction. The names of Black Feminist Dorothy Lewis is an earlier Black Feminist who has joined the ancesters. However, still doing the work and alive are Angela Davis: Adjoa Barbara J. Baker, Dorothy Leaville 7/1/2015

  6. Edwanda E Brown says:

    Thank you very much for a very informative article. The 3 or 4 bios of the women I hadn’t known add enrichment to my knowledge base, and offer opportunities to increase my ability to cite and quote the wisdom of our early mothers while trying to help analyze and solve contemporary social problems.

  7. Greg Wiederecht says:

    I knew who some of these women were, but I gotta say, Florynce Kennedy sounds like the coolest activist ever!

  8. This was a phenomenal article. As a student of ALL American history, it was incredibly informative and I learned a lot (I only batted .300 on name recognition). Thank you for posting it! Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

  9. Jay Bart Simmons says:

    I would have included Maggie Lena Walker on this list too.

  10. Jeanne Freeman says:

    Thank you for publishing Anita Little’s article. Racism has hidden so many strong and important women in history. It is important to know them.

  11. What about Ella Baker? Or Fanny Lou Hamer? The list goes on and on. . .

  12. TruthRevealer says:

    Those aren’t black feminists. They are black female activists. What of the feminist ideologies of today (second wave) did any of the women on this list espouse?

  13. Not one of the woman in this list self identified themselves as feminists. Many woman even today will speak on the gender inequality, but that does not mean they are down with or agree with the feminist agenda. Sorry.

  14. @The Truth, what is “the feminist agenda” to which you refer? I think you are unfairly lumping together lots of diffent ideas about justice, many of which begin with the simple premise that women should be full participants in their own lives, in whatever ways they choose. There is no single “feminist agenda” but only the ways, large and small, that so many women of different sorts work to allow greater numbers of women to participate in a broadening array of life’s choices.

  15. Thank you for this article! I have heard of several of these incredible women, but I’ll admit to having a bad memory about what some of them did. I am going to take some of that blame but will also hold our society’s devaluation of women of color accountable for the rest.
    If any of you ever find yourselves in downtown Battle Creek, Michigan, there is a wonderful statue dedicated to Sojourner Truth.

  16. Peace sis,

    Thank you for the list. I did however notice that all of the women mentioned here were North American, outside of Amy Jacques Garvey. I also didn’t notice you saying at any point that the list was only meant to highlight US early Black feminists. I am currently reading “Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones” – both author and “black radical subject” from Trinidad, as am I – where Carole Boyce-Davies spent significant time in one of the early chapters talking about how black feminists in the US have largely ignored the intersectionality of Black struggle across borders.

    She also credits Jones’ Caribbean heritage and more importantly her deportation from the US as contributing to the erasure of her contributions to the Black radical tradition in the US.

    In short, I am wondering why a larger attempt was not made to include Black feminists from other parts of the world.

    I wanted to leave you with an excerpt from “Left of Karl Marx” and look forward to further dialogue if possible:

    In general, the idea prevalent in the United States that its people are the only “Americans” carries with it some specific imperial baggage, as Michael Hanchard shows in his essay “Identity, Meaning and the African-American.” The extent to which U.S. African American intellectuals buy this formulation uncritically is the extent to which they participate in the management of the crumbling house of U.S. imperialism … [quoting Marlene Nourbese Philip] “As often happens with empire, specificities are erased are erased and absorbed into a larger whole – the way, for instance, in which all black people in Canda are absorbed into the larger identity of Jamaican immigrant. And so, we could argue, the blak in America stands in for being black in Canda, eh. In the Caribbean. In Africa. Everywhere.”

  17. Someone shared this article with me today and I thought of this list again. Sharing here the legacy of Mary Seacole:

  18. I had read, from Paula Gidding’s ‘When and Where I Enter’, that Maria W. Stewart, in addition to all that you list above, was the first American woman to speak publicly to a mixed gender audience, which was risque for 1832.

  19. I think the points made above about these being incredible accomplished and courageous women, but not necessarily feminist is fair. No one is inherently feminist because she is a woman and simply does things. It is an ideology and a pursuit for equal opportunity and treatment.

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