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Ida B. Wells: Civil Rights Activist

On March 3, 1913, as 5,000 women prepared to parade through President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, demanding the right to vote, Ida B. Wells was standing to the side. A black journalist and civil-rights activist, she had taken time out from her anti-lynching campaign to lobby for woman suffrage in Chicago. But a few days earlier, leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had insisted she not march with the Illinois delegation. Certain Southern women, they said, had threatened to pull out if a black woman marched alongside whites.

Didn't black women have as much right to vote as white women? Sixty-five years earlier, at the dawn of the woman's suffrage movement, most suffragists would have said yes. In fact, early feminists were often anti-slavery activists before they started arguing for women's rights. In the fight for civil rights, they encountered male abolition leaders who ordered them not to speak in public. And the parallels between black slaves — who could not vote or hold property — and women — who could do neither in most states — couldn't be ignored. As abolitionist Angelina Grimke recalled, "The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own."

A Division in the Ranks

But the rights of blacks and women did not always go hand in hand. In 1869, as America was about to give black men the right to vote, the woman's movement split in two. Half the activists felt that any expansion of voting rights was a step in the right direction; the other half were angry that women were being left behind.

By 1900, most suffragists had lost their enthusiasm for civil rights, and actually used racism to push for the vote. Anna Howard Shaw, head of NAWSA, said it was "humiliating" that black men could vote while well-bred white women could not. Other suffragists scrambled to reassure white Southerners that white women outnumbered male blacks in the South. If women got the vote, they argued, they would help preserve "white supremacy."

But not all white suffragists shunned blacks. On the Inauguration Day in 1913, Ida B. Wells hid out until the Illinois delegation passed, then joined in. And when she did, two white women fell into line with her. But Wells was never really embraced by the white suffrage movement. And though both white and black women won the vote in 1920, they did not do it by marching together.

Adapted from Junior Scholastic.

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