Main content

“A Colored Woman in a White World”

Mary Church Terrell titled her 1940 autobiography “A Colored Woman in a White World” and that sentiment certainly applies to this photograph from the Second Annual Conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919. Terrell is in the middle of the back row, to the left of the woman with the large black hat. She was the only woman of color in attendance, belying organizers’ statements that women from all over the world were present. “On sober, second thought it is more truthful to say that women from all over the white world were present,” she gently chided the organizers.

Mary Church Terrell proudly asserted that she had always been a suffragist. Having seen the vote taken away from black men because of their race, how could she not support such an important citizenship right for women? Terrell came to the attention of the white suffrage movement in part through the black club movement, especially her role as a founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Under the motto “Lifting As We Climb,” the NACW pursued a broad agenda which foregrounded the central role of women in confronting the “race problem” in all facets of American life.

Black women’s suffrage philosophy was built around an intersectional vision that embraced race as well as gender, an implicit challenge to white suffragists who tended to focus only on the subordination created by their sex. “However much the white women of the country need suffrage,” Terrell asserted forthrightly, “colored women need it more.” And yet the white women’s suffrage movement consistently refused to make the enfranchisement of black women a priority. For African American women, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not the Nineteenth Amendment, which finally removed the structural barriers to voting.