How Black Women Fight for Our Democracy
A conversation with historian Martha Jones about her new book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
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Educator and political activist Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875, with a group of her pupils. Bethune would go on to serve in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A legal and cultural historian, Martha Jones has dedicated herself to telling the story of how Black Americans have shaped American democracy, even – or especially – when they were formally excluded from the democratic process itself.
Jones’s most recent contribution is Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (Basic Books, 2020), selected as one of Time's 100 must-read books for 2020. But Jones does not just write about these women: she follows in their tradition. While Jones has won multiple prizes for the scholarly rigor and eloquent prose of previous books, she has extended her historical reach to general audience publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, the Atlantic, USA Today, Public Books, Talking Points Memo, Politico, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Time. Jones has also curated and advised numerous public history projects that bring the story of Black America to a broad audience.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jones as Black women were leading the charge to win the White House for the Democratic party this fall. Below is an edited version of our conversation about how Black women shaped our political past – and continue to fight for humanity in the present.
Claire Potter: I want to start with the introduction to Vanguard, a place where you put us on notice that this book, a political history of Black women published on the hundredth anniversary of the 19th amendment that gave American women the vote, is a deeply personal one. You frame the story you're about to tell by tracing your own family lineage, and you name the women in your family who have fought for political power since the 19th century.
Can you tell us more about that?
Martha Jones: I really began my interest in history as a genealogist. Or maybe that's too fancy a word: I was somebody who did family history. I've been collecting stories about the women in my own family for a very long time. I don't often write about them in my professional work, but this is a book for a broader audience. I hope that will help other people find their way into the story, even before they get to the history.
It was a way of creating a set of signposts for me as well. I went looking for my own grandmother to see what she was doing in 1920. She lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was in her 20s and 30s then. I discovered an interview done in 1978, where she looked back on her life. She was talking about voting rights, but she wasn't talking about the 1920s at all, she was talking about the 1950s and 60s.
It was clear that this book couldn't end in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment. If it did, it would miss women like my grandmother for whom the story of voting rights was really written during the modern civil rights movement.
CP: A key theme of the book is that although Black women were barred from voting for most of the nation’s history, they viewed voting as only one way of doing politics. What were the ways that Black women built power over the many decades when they were formally and informally excluded from full citizenship?
MJ: The women I write about are grassroots organizers on a scale that grows increasingly ambitious over time. On the eve of World War I, 300,000 Black women across the country organized in the National Association of Colored Women. Black Baptist Women built an association of three million women.
But Black women never abandon the institutions in which they've come of age, the institutions run by their husbands and their fathers, and their brothers, and they don’t forget the lessons they learned there. These are women who understand the importance of things like political patronage. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was disenfranchised in Florida during the New Deal, somebody who cannot vote at home because of unchecked white violence, comes to Washington and learns that she can be appointed to office and sit one seat away from the President of the United States. Activists like Mrs. Bethune then used patronage to bring other Black women to Washington and put them into New Deal agencies.
These women had real power and influence even when they were unable to vote and certainly were not elected to office. So, this kind of ingenuity, I think, is an important piece of the story. It's a little bit like Stacey Abrams' strategy: you have an election stolen from you, you pivot, and you organize.
I think that political history has bequeathed to us a set of conventions about where politics happens that can cause us to miss the full story. I have for a long time been very committed to just following Black women where they are, where they wind up, and then listening and tuning in. That’s when we discover politics in unexpected places. When we grapple with a National Baptist Convention that is three million Black women strong, we can then ask: How is what we see politics and not simply church?
CP: Churches are central to the story because that is where Black women develop the power of oratory, beginning well before emancipation. In later chapters, they travel in order to give these speeches and navigate the constant threat of violence. What motivated them to brave the many dangers of traveling as Black women?
MJ: I start this book with a history of ideas because I do think it's the ideas that keep Black women going. Very early on in the 19th century, they developed a critique of American politics that decried both the racism and the sexism that are endemic to all structures of power, including politics. And they develop a full vision for another kind of political culture that is devoid of racism and sexism.
They believed that they were correct: today, we can say that they were. In other words, I don't think you do the work of sustained, arduous, thankless politics unless you are a believer in a vision instead of an interest. Black women really believed that they were right about democracy and that too many Americans were wrong. Many of us still do.
CP: I want to come back to a phrase well known to many historians, and that is the title of one of your chapters: Lifting as we climb. It's attributed to Mary Church Terrell, it's the motto of the middle-class National Association of Colored Women, and it speaks to the obligations that they have to the poorest and most vulnerable. To what extent does Black women's political history require us to think about the politics of class in America differently?
MJ: Mary Church Terrell and others of her generation, these are women, some of them born enslaved, others of them born just in the immediate wake of slavery's abolition in 1865. Often by the benefit of education, something they fought for, move themselves into what becomes something like a middle class. They become women with cultural capital--not necessarily bank accounts or property, it's important to say--but cultural capital that not only allows them to do the intellectual and political work they do but also to lead crucial organizations. When we appreciate how large these organizations were, we also realize that the rank and file of these organizations were working women, women of modest education, and modest means. At the same time, I wrote a book that was really intended to reveal a pantheon of Black women leaders that would in a sense rival Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul, pound for pound. My goal with this book was to really push back against the notion that there was one sort of leadership class, that was there was one pantheon of women.
I've always been interested in the complexity of the politics of respectability, which is the politics of the National Association of Colored Women, the cloaking of oneself in respectable middle-class conventions as a way of enhancing one's capacity to do political work at the end of the 19th, and the beginning of the 20th, century. And this is to your point about violence. What I really hadn't seen for myself as vividly as I do now, was the way in which the women who practice the politics of respectability were prepared to throw down and wrestle when they were threatened with ejection from a rail car or a streetcar. Mary Church Terrell as a girl pummeled a train conductor with her parasol.
CP: I want to turn us to something that I didn't know: that the debates over the 19th amendment in the Senate might have been an apartheid moment in the United States, in which white women were enfranchised in exchange for constitutionally disenfranchising African American people. That was a chilling moment in the book. Could you just tell that story and talk to us a little bit about how you discovered it?
MJ: In much of the book, I try and come to those signature moments and rewrite them from a new vantage point. I had been searching for a way to write about Alice Paul's fabled 1913 women's parade, and I wanted to see it from the perspective of Mary Church Terrell, who was on the road, immediately preceding this parade, lecturing on anti-lynching.
What's on Mary Church Terrell's mind at this moment? Not a parade. Along with Woodrow Wilson coming to Washington as President, James Vardaman has been elected as a senator from Mississippi on a platform that was almost exclusively about the repeal of the 15th amendment, which had enfranchised African American men during Reconstruction.
As a woman's suffrage amendment gets to the floor in 1914, Vardaman and some of his allies anticipate that they might be able to broker a deal in which they will trade their support for a women's suffrage amendment for the repeal of the 15th amendment. And for good measure, Vardaman also takes aim directly at Terrell's husband, a municipal judge in Washington D.C. Terrell has a companionate marriage: she is married to a man who has, by all accounts been nothing but a partner to her in her very public and political life. And so, she's working behind the scenes in Congress, working her connections to try to literally safeguard her husband's livelihood.
So yes, when we tell the story of the 19th amendment, it has become so important for me to say--again and again—that it’s no secret that, when it passes, Black women are going to be disenfranchised in states like Mississippi. This amendment is deliberately written in a way that did not protect Black women's access to the polls. It's written like the 15th Amendment which, by the way, everybody knows is child's play, when it comes to circumventing the spirit of the law.
CP: There's a similar moment in 1965 when southerners add Title IX to the Civil Rights Bill as a way to torpedo it. So, there's this constant struggle in American political history in which white women, Black women, and Black men are constantly being undermined by white men to try and disenfranchise as many people as possible.
I'm struck when we evaluate the lessons of elections—for example, the most recent one-- that political identities and political alliances are portrayed as so simple in the media. It seems to me that the women in Vanguard had to thread the needle of race and gender all the time, fighting sexism from men in the Black Freedom Movement while fighting racism from white women in the feminist movement.
Can you describe some of the techniques that the characters in the book used to maintain these very fragile alliances, as they moved ahead with this very clear idea of what democracy was?
MJ: Vanguard is about Black women experimenting, and being nimble about what coalition might be, what alliances might be. One of the words that I hadn't expected to encounter again and again and one of the words I had to learn the meaning of for the women I read about is humanity. They don't talk about the interests of Black women or even the interests of Black Americans. When they really got the floor, what they wanted to say was that they were working in the interests of humanity.
CP: White progressives could learn so much from how Black women operate. When I was making calls into Florida for Joe Biden on election day this fall, and part of our script was to say, "Tell me when you're going to vote, how are you going to vote?" I would frequently talk to an older African American woman, and nine times out of 10, she would say, "Well, I vote with my whole family." And they would reel off the names of 10 or 12 people who they had personally rounded up and taken to the polls. That is powerful community organizing.
MJ: It really is. The networks, the set of practices, and the traditions that animated 2020 were in place 100 years ago. There are still women organizing in church basements and in sororities and Alumni Associations and clubs. Those networks are still functioning,
One of the tensions around the 19th amendment was that white women's suffrage organizations wanted Black women to give up the club model, give up their way of organizing to come over to a model that mirrored the political party model. And Black women balked, not all of them but most of them because they thought they had figured something out when it came to political organizing. It turns out they were not only effective, they were durable, such that we can still see them at work today in the same tradition.
CP: I want to return to the idea of lifting as we climb, because one of the things that made me think about is, the approach of Black Lives Matter, in which organizers look to the most marginal to inspire their activism. My colleague Deva Woodly describes this as a process where, if you achieve something for the people about whom society cares least, you've actually changed the world.
MJ: I associate the idea that you've just described with a figure like Francis Ellen Watkins Harper in the 1860s. Watkins Harper says that society and politics in this nation will be judged by how it regards the weakest and the feeblest. And in that moment, she's very much positioning herself, though not in a self-deprecating way but in a political and structural way, as the weakest. Black women are the weakest and the feeblest at that moment. And she challenges Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and others to reorient their politics, to center Black women, because indeed if you lift up Black women, you will have lifted up everyone.
That principle, I think, extends beyond our thinking about Black women. It is a principle, and even with someone like Kamala Harris as the vice president-elect of the United States, the charge is still the same, right? That the work of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden should be judged right by how it reaches into and lifts up the weakest and the feeblest among us. And those are awful 19th century terms, but you understand my point, which is, to help those who bear the burden of being the weakest.
And so, I think it's a principle that is profoundly salient for Black women, but I think it's profoundly salient for American politics and beyond in the 21st century. I think that principle links yesterday’s struggle to the many kinds of struggles by which I think we must measure ourselves today.
Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History and the SNF Agora Institute at The Johns Hopkins University.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
In addition to first woman Veep, the Biden-Harris administration brings the first multi-racial, “blended” family to Washington. (Jessica Bennett, New York Times, January 17, 2020)
Expect outrage in the coming months as the Biden administration closes loopholes for the rich—but did you know that taxpayer protests were born in white supremacist politics? “When the former Confederate elite mobilized to successfully overthrow the multiracial Reconstruction-era governments in the South 150 years ago,” writes Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution, “it was under the banner of fiscal conservatism.” (Dissent, Winter 2021)
CNN is #1, but the headline is that Fox News has sagged to third place since Election Day. And no, it isn’t because Donald Trump’s audience has migrated to OAN and NewsMax: it’s because they are depressed. You can read about it at Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy’s Reliable Sources. (January 16, 2021)