In 1780, a formerly enslaved African woman named Mum Bett brought a case against the commonwealth of Massachusetts arguing for her right to freedom under a constitution that guaranteed all men to be free and equal. She won, and changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. Her case was the death knell for slavery in Massachusetts.
From Abigail Adams to Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott to Angela Davis, women continue to drive history forward, refusing to allow the United States to deviate from a vision of equality.
Today, women remain at the vanguard of political organizing, heading movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Civil rights — the rights that grant citizens equal protection and opportunity under the law — are constantly threatened. Women of different races, sexual orientations, and nationalities continue to stand together for America’s highest principles.
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A Timeline of Civil Rights Movements and Important Women in American History
Many of the civil rights battles women find themselves fighting are overlapping and ongoing. Women have been structurally disenfranchised in multiple ways since the U.S. was founded. New frontiers and opportunities for immigration and westward expansion created new fronts for struggle. The vote was perhaps the most obvious of these, but not the most consequential.
At the same time as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other middle-class white women were leading the suffrage movement, immigrant, Black, and Native American women like Lucy Parsons formed unions that fought for protections we enjoy to this day, such as the 40-hour workweek and eight-hour workday.
For African American women in history, civil rights have never been an either/or, only a both/and. Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and suffragette. Rosa Parks was an anti-rape advocate and civil rights activist. Lucy Parsons was a labor organizer and birth control advocate. Without the groundbreaking work of Black women and other women of color, many of the rights and freedoms we claim as birthrights today would remain a dream.
We’ll begin our timeline of civil rights struggles with women’s suffrage, a movement that was a source of collaboration and conflict for many important women in American history.
Despite Abigail Adams’ famous exhortation to “remember the ladies,” the vital work women put in to support the Revolutionary War effort was not rewarded with equal representation when the time came to draft a constitution for the newborn United States of America. The roots of the women’s suffrage movement were formed at nearly the same time as the country.
White women experienced the injustice of being denied the vote keenly. Yet Black women were still subject to enslavement, and Native American women were victims of the ongoing genocide perpetrated against their people. Due to their greater privilege, upper- and middle-class white women were able to center the women’s suffrage movement around their interests. Still, Black women played a key role in the movement and worked with their white colleagues on other causes.
Many of the white women involved in the movement were also abolitionists. In fact, being banned from the World Anti-Slavery Conference in 1840 because of their gender was what inspired Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to hold the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. This crucial moment in women’s rights history led to later national conventions featuring speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Conflict Within the Suffrage Movement
A turning point in the suffrage movement — and indeed, the history of women in American politics — occurred during the debate over the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, a Reconstruction-era amendment that granted Black men the right to vote in 1870. Despite their ties to the abolitionist movement, many white suffragists were vehemently opposed to Black men being granted the right to vote over white women, with Susan B. Anthony famously declaring, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
With the conflict with their white compatriots brought painfully into the open, Black women’s rights activists eventually moved to form their own organizations. Mary Church Terrell was an educator and suffragist who, along with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. In 1913, Ida B. Wells, an activist and sociologist who was one of the founders of the NAACP, co-founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, a Black women’s suffrage organization.
The passage of the 19th Amendment granted women the vote in 1920. However, Black women and other women of color, along with working-class women of all races, continued to face obstacles to voting such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Particularly in the Jim Crow South, where de jure segregation (that is, segregation enforced by local laws) was still in effect, the dream of full suffrage had yet to be realized — which brings us to the civil rights movement.
Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights movement was focused on eliminating legal segregation and discrimination against Black citizens of the U.S. Composed of ad hoc groups and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the movement represented diverse interests and backgrounds while managing to coalesce around the goal of ending de jure segregation.
De Jure Segregation
Following the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved Africans, former Confederate states passed the Black codes, a set of discriminatory rules that granted Black citizens some rights but denied them others. These rules were repealed with Reconstruction and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
However, once Reconstruction ended and the Black political officeholders it ushered in were swept away, a succession of new and more discriminatory laws were enacted. They eventually became known as Jim Crow laws. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
Much of the activism around civil rights in the late 19th and early 20th century focused on preventing the murders of Black people at the hands of whites. During the Jim Crow era, lynching was used by whites who sought to terrorize Black citizens into meek acceptance of unequal treatment. In the early 20th century, NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells-Barnett and charter member Mary Church Terrell were active in the organization’s anti-lynching campaigns, which laid a foundation for the movement work of the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
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