W.E.B. Du Bois on Woman Suffrage

Racism and the Suffrage Movement

W.E.B. Du Bois, about 1918
W.E.B. Du Bois, about 1918. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the June 1912 issue of The Crisis, a journal considered one of the leading forces in the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, addressing a failure on the part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to support a resolution condemning the Southern disenfranchisement of African Americans, in law and in practice. Du Bois, a leading black intellectual of the day and key founder of the NAACP, and a supporter in general of women's suffrage, was editor of The Crisis.

The next year, a suffrage march would be marked by a request by the white leadership for black women to march at the back, so we know that this essay did not immediately transform the suffrage movement to include fully the voices of people of color.

Du Bois uses the term "suffragette" in the title, but in the article uses the more common term at the time, suffragist.  The language is that of 1912, when this was written, and may be uncomfortable and different from expectations of today.  "Colored people" and "Negro" were, as may be obvious by Du Bois' use, the respectful words of the time for people of color and for Black people.

Full article: Suffering Suffragettes by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1912

Summary:

  • Du Bois points out that the suffrage movement is "wincing a bit" and produces a letter from Anna Shaw, defending the suffrage movement's commitment to "justice to women, white and colored," and says that no women were excluded from the recent convention in Louisville on account of race.
  • Shaw repeats a rumor that at the Louisville convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, "a resolution condemning disfranchisement of colored people in the South" was not allowed to come to the floor, and says she did not feel it was "snowed under" but was simply not acted on.
  • Du Bois points out that Martha Gruening had attempted to have a "colored delegate" introduce a resolution from the floor, and that Anna Shaw had refused to invite her to the convention.
    • Resolved, that the women who are trying to lift themselves out of the class of the disfranchised, the class of the insane and criminal, express their sympathy with the black men and women who are fighting the same battle and recognize that it is as unjust and as undemocratic to disfranchise human beings on the ground of color as on the ground of sex.
  • Further, Du Bois reproduces a letter from Anna Shaw from before the convention about opposing the resolution being introduced, as it would "do more to harm the success of our convention in Louisville than all the other things that we do would do good."
  • In this Shaw letter, she also contends that the worst enemy of white women's vote is "colored men" who would "go straight to the polls and defeat us every time."
  • Du Bois says that "we" have repeatedly shown that contention about "colored men" defeating woman suffrage is false.

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See also the related article, Two Suffrage Movements, by Martha Gruening, mentioned in the article above.  It was published a few months after this one.  And for a biography of one of Du Bois' wives, see Shirley Graham Du Bois on this site.