How Many of These Early Black Feminists Do You Know?

Though 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 (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 (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 (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 (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.”

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Associate editor of Ms. magazine