The Black Women’s Club Movement: Pioneers of Equality


The Black Women’s Club Movement is a critical but often overlooked part of American history. Women have always been central to the creation of social movements, finding unique voices for themselves in spaces that did not always acknowledge their power. This article delves into the rich history of the Black Women’s Club Movement, highlighting its origins, key figures, and lasting impact.

 The Birth of the Black Women’s Club Movement

Historical Context of Jim Crow

The Jim Crow era, which began long before the 1950s and 1960s, dominated the South’s social and political climate for decades. This period was marked by systemic racism and segregation, which perpetuated violence against Black people, particularly Black women.

Specific Violence Against Black Women

Black women faced dehumanization, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse. American culture justified this violence by portraying Black women as immoral. Despite these challenges, Black women refused to stand by and started the Black Women’s Club Movement as a response to the violence and oppression they faced.

 Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and the Woman’s Era Club

Early Life and Activism

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, born in 1842 in Boston, began her activism by recruiting Black men to join the Union Army during the Civil War. She served on the board of several charities before turning her attention to advocating for Black women in the 1890s.

Founding the Woman’s Era Club

In Boston, Ruffin founded the Woman’s Era Club, which aimed to offer self-improvement opportunities and speak out against the oppression Black Americans faced. The club published “The Woman’s Era,” the first newspaper by and for Black women in the U.S.

The First National Conference of Colored Women

In 1895, Ruffin organized the first National Conference of Colored Women of America, a significant event that brought together Black women to discuss and organize around pressing issues. This conference led to the founding of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, uniting 85 different organizations to promote Black Americans’ rights.

Impact of the Woman’s Era Newspaper

“The Woman’s Era” played a crucial role in disseminating information, advocating for women’s suffrage, and addressing the unique challenges faced by Black women. It helped build a sense of community and solidarity among Black women across the nation.

 Expansion of the Movement: The Colored Women’s League

Founding Members and Goals

In 1892, the Colored Women’s League was founded in Washington, D.C., by Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Jane Patterson. The league aimed to uplift Black Americans by addressing educational, social, and economic issues.

Formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW)

In 1896, the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the Colored Women’s League merged to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the largest federation of Black women’s clubs. The NACW’s motto was “lifting as we climb,” emphasizing self-improvement and community uplift.

Key Figures in NACW

Mary Church Terrell served as the NACW’s first president. Other notable members included Fanny Coppin, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who were instrumental in the organization’s success.

Major Achievements and Activities

The NACW raised over $5 million in war bonds during World War I, provided social services, and worked tirelessly to combat lynching and discrimination. They also hosted cultural events to build community and celebrate Black achievements.

Transition to New Strategies: The National Council of Negro Women

Mary McLeod Bethune’s Leadership

Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and activist, founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, recognizing the need for a more direct approach to political activism and structural change.

Political Activism and International Focus

Bethune’s group focused on political activism, advocating for federal jobs and other opportunities for Black Americans. They also supported the founding of the United Nations.

Establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee

Bethune played a crucial role in creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which banned discrimination in federal agencies and industries engaged in wartime work.

Publications and Communication

The National Council of Negro Women published the “Aframerican Women’s Journal,” later renamed “Women United,” to communicate their ideas and mobilize support.

Legacy and Continued Influence

Decline and Transformation

The Black Women’s Club Movement declined in popularity during the Great Depression and beyond as gender norms and the focus of civil rights efforts evolved. However, their legacy continued to influence later movements and organizations.

Modern-Day Black Women’s Organizations

Today, organizations like the National Association for Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc., and the National Council of Negro Women continue to unite Black women in the pursuit of equality.


Black women have always been leaders at the forefront of American social movements. The Black Women’s Club Movement provided a platform for organizing and advocating for civil rights, laying the groundwork for future generations. Their contributions are invaluable, and their legacy continues to inspire modern civil rights efforts.