By Jennifer Brake
Ida B. Wells-Barnett left her mark on the world as a journalist, civil rights activist and lecturer, but she was a major contributor to another part of history: the women’s rights and suffragist movements.
Wells-Barnett proved she could do everything a man could do when she was forced to become the head of her family at just 16 years old after both her parents died of yellow fever. Refusing to marry for financial support, she found strength in herself to provide for her siblings by convincing a school administrator that she was 18 years old and landing a job as a teacher. This was just one of many instances in her lifetime when her self-reliance and diligence paid off.
Wells-Barnett fought for more than a decade with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Mary Church Terrell for women’s right to vote and encouraged women to become active fighters for their equality. While traveling the country speaking about women’s rights, Wells-Barnett noticed that most women, particularly African American women, didn’t fully understand the political process and how it worked. She encouraged them to join organizations to educate themselves then to make their voice heard through protests and marches. In her personal diary she wrote about regretting missing an opportunity to encourage women to participate at a “Women in Journalism” banquet, saying “I wished and may never have a more favorable opportunity to urge the young women to study and think with a view to taking place in the world of thought and action.”
Specifically, Wells-Barnett fought for rights for African American women. She helped organize the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and later established the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women’s suffrage association in the U.S., in 1913. The organization provided a place for women to learn about civic issues and develop strategies for unity and empowerment.
Wells-Barnett marched in Alice Paul’s Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington that same year, a day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, protesting a political system that excluded women, but she still faced the obstacle of racism when the white female protesters demanded she march with a segregated unit. She refused and made her way to the front of the line for the parade. Working on behalf of all women with the National Equal Rights League, Wells-Barnett later called for President Wilson to end discriminatory hiring practices for government jobs.
Her methods for obtaining rights for women were considered radical, though, to both the men and women of her time. Julia Coston, editor of Ringwood’s Afro-American Journal of Fashion, condemned Wells-Barnett by declaring that “essentially feminine” women “were not troubled with affairs of the State, nor were agents of reform.” Even renowned civil rights educator Booker T. Washington considered Wells a radical for speaking out against his accommodationist approach.
To spread her message, Wells-Barnett often wrote for the Chicago Defender, one of the first successful African American newspapers in the country, and used it to make announcements for her organizations as well as to vocalize her opinions and strategies for furthering women’s rights. Despite opposition from all sides, Wells-Barnett’s activities made the impact on women’s rights for which she hoped. The Illinois legislature passed a female suffrage bill a few months after the formation of the Alpha Suffrage Club, and the National Association of Colored Women continues to empower and protect the rights for all women.
The Memphis diary of Ida B. Wells. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
“Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination.” Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination. http://www.lib.niu.edu/1996/iht319630.html (accessed November 5, 2013).
Schechter, P. A. “”All The Intensity Of My Nature”: Ida B. Wells, Anger, And Politics.” Radical History Review 1998, no. 70 (1998): 48-77. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/01636545-1998-70-48 (accessed November 1,2013).