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Effects of World War I on Social Activism for African-Americans and U.S. Women


This was my midterm paper for my US international history course. I can’t remember what exactly the assignment was.

World War I was known as “the war to end all wars.”  While this description turned out to be wishful thinking, it did greatly affect the outlook of all those involved and drastically reshaped the political landscape.  For both African-Americans and women in the U.S. seeking voting rights and political equality, it served as an indictment of the then-dominant patriarchal white culture and raised issues of equality in the public consciousness, leading to increased activism, but also increased division thanks to the controversial war.  Without violent revolution, which did not have wide support in either group, success ultimately depended on white males voluntarily sharing their political capital.  As women had far more access to this group, they succeeded relatively quickly whereas African-Americans did not prevail for several decades.

Women’s suffrage was not a new cause.  Supporters had been an organized lobby since around the time of the Civil War[1], though levels of activism had been up and down with political circumstances. However, it took World War I for the suffrage movement to reach critical mass.  There were several reasons for this.  Part of the issue was economic.  Political activism was time-consuming and required a good deal of travel.  There was also no money to be made from it in any direct way.  This meant the movement was largely dependent on wealthy, influential white women as working-class women would not have the necessary time or resources for activism.[2]

Women already had a good deal of indirect political influence, but women’s activists wanted voting rights, putting them on equal political footing with men.  Beyond the obvious sway they held with husbands, sons and brothers, they also could lobby Congress and the President.  This had been effective at the state level.  Quite a few states had granted the franchise to women at this point, including some relatively recent successes[3].  Equal rights amendments and other attempts to write women’s suffrage into the constitution were attempted from time to time and invariably defeated.[4]

World War I greatly increased the stakes of political participation, necessitating decisive action rather than patience. This increased memberships, but also split the suffragists into two factions: the longstanding National American Women Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, Led by Carrie Chapman Catt  and the National Woman’s Party, or NWP, led by Alice Paul, which split off in 1917 after a history of disagreements on tactics. In theory, NWP was neutral to the war and NAWSA was for it, but this was more complex than it initially sounds. For instance, NWP had many socialists and pacifists and their number were growing due to concerns about the war.[5]

For pacifists, the war presented a moral imperative: it had to be stopped.  One of the more prominent pacifists, Jane Addams presented this in terms of the need to protect women from invading soldiers[6] and to protect men from the effects that killing would have on their own psyches[7].  Securing voting rights was critical to stopping the war and preventing future wars.

Alice Paul herself did not focus on the war so much as the issue of suffrage itself and advocated militant tactics, namely disruption of normal government activities until suffrage was granted.  Catt and others who broke away were either not radicals or did not consider their agenda to be a high priority, preferring a demonstration of political solidarity with the nation which would build valuable political capital.  They were worried about diluting the message and that this gave critics such as The National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage (NAWOS) a convenient narrative where they could attack the women’s movement by associating it with the unpopular communism[8].

NAWSA had a history of accommodation and setting goals narrowly in order to build a broad base of support, but the prospect of war caused something of a change in direction.  While the organization had a history of avoiding controversial issues like racial equality[9], Catt now suspended her previous pacifist response in order to support the war, hoping to make the suffrage concept more palatable to conservatives.

Paul, meanwhile, continued using aggressive and provocative tactics in order to force change.   The NWP had a membership of a mere fifty thousand, compared to about two million for NAWSA, but was highly dedicated to constant action toward their goal.  They had no official goals beyond suffrage.  The war was a men’s war and not their direct concern, though it did inform their messages. They operated on the official strategy of punishing those parties that did not support it.  This took the form of dramatic, though non-violent, demonstrations in front of the White House.  Banners often quoted President Wilson’s rhetoric on liberty and self-determination that had been used to justify U.S. entry into World War I, turning it around and asking why these principles would apply to Europe, but not apply equally to women.  This grew to more radical acts, such as burning President Wilson in effigy.  The protests lasted for eighteen months in 1917 and 1918 and many protesters were arrested, but this only aroused public sympathy for the cause[10], particularly as sentences grew harsher when demonstrations continued, hunger strikes meant the government had to resort to force-feeding the prisoners and rough tactics by police and guards led to many injuries.[11]

Eventually, public pressure forced President Woodrow Wilson and the congress to relent.  The House of Representatives reconsidered and passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in May of 1919, allowing women in all U.S. states to votes.  The Senate initially narrowly defeated it, but after further protests, passed it June of 1920.  Political pressure was then shifted to the states for their endorsement, where it went through relatively quickly and was ratified in August.  Unfortunately for African-Americans, their path would be much harder.

While many African-Americans were also disenfranchised, these tactics were not an option for them.  Long-term protests were less viable for people who needed to work and it’s doubtful the public would have been terribly upset if the protesters had been arrested en masse, which was a large part of the problem.  African Americans were not just fighting for the franchise, but the most basic rights such as police protection and an end to segregation, which kept them out of white economic power far more thoroughly than the gender roles women were protesting because their whole family was excluded. While white women had access to privilege, they were just unable to make full use of it, blacks had relatively little social pull among the general white population, even if there were some broad similarities.

There were significant historical connections between campaigns for the rights of women and African Americans, but they also had a tendency to part ways when politically convenient.  NAWSA had, some years earlier, switched from pushing for a constitutional amendment granted suffrage to blacks and women to a state-by-state approach, which was seen as more pragmatic.  In the process, many of the Southern members dropped support for black women’s suffrage, instead arguing for literacy tests and the other measures that were being used to disenfranchise black men.[12]  The whites in the women’s movement had, by this time, largely gone from viewing African-American rights as a deeply connected cause to a liability that decreased their chances of success if coupled with their cause.  Despite a general lack of overt cooperation in this era, the factions split along similar lines.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, or NAACP, was one of the few lobbies for African-Americans that did have some access to white political capital.  At the time, it was a mostly white-run organization[13].  Like NAWSA, it was the largest organization of its kind and therefore dependent on broad political alliances to maintain itself and was not able to make terribly controversial stands.  W.E.B. Du Bois was, at the time, the editor in chief of the organization’s newsletter, making him their most prominent African-American member[14].  He was widely perceived as a militant at the time.  Like Catt, he made a decision to support the war which was perceived as being contrary to his established principles, though later historians have argued that Du Bois was a pragmatist and had earlier supported Booker T. Washington, who advocated improving the lot of blacks within the existing system and trying to build up the strength of a parallel economy rather than fighting segregation[15].  Washington died in 1915, several years before the U.S. entered World War I, but his philosophy was at issue and his name was frequently raised by people on all sides of the issues.

As with women, one of the key points of disagreement was support for the war.  For women, support for the war was something of an abstraction, having largely to do with voting intentions, for black men, supporting the war meant actually joining the armed forces, which Du Bois did when offered a captainship in the Army.  He had previously been a vocal opponent of accommodation, but saw this not so much as an opportunity to pander to whites, but to demonstrate solidarity both with white Americans and the black African soldiers fighting for America’s allies and to build political power and respect at home[16].  This appeal to universal brotherhood had some common ground with Addams, though he reached the opposite conclusion.  There is dispute over to what degree he believed his argument and to what degree he was merely hopeful, but there was an implicit undercurrent of fear of reprisal if blacks did not support the war[17][18].  Some of his more militant contemporaries saw the position as a bribe.

Du Bois had also earlier been an ally of William Trotter, who was in many ways Washington’s opposite, but they had parted ways sometime earlier over numerous disagreements over personnel and organizational goals which the war only made worse[19].  Trotter was a militant and by this time a vocal opponent of Du Bois.  He was the founder of the National Equal Rights League, or NERL.  He emphasized that it was an all-black organization that served black interests.  He was suspicious that heavily white groups served white interests and perceived World War I as a white civil war that had nothing to do to with blacks.  He argued African-Americans needed to keep their goal of desegregation at the forefront and not kowtow to white power by supporting their war and hope for some reward later.[20] He would not be distracted by irrelevant side considerations. In this way, he was somewhat similar to Paul, though there were important distinctions.  Due to wildly different public sympathies and economic realities, sustained non-violent protest was not an option for NERL.  He had supported Woodrow Wilson during the election, but found little reciprocity.  After taking office, Wilson allowed segregation of the Federal government.  Trotter confronted Wilson personally and while unlike Paul, he avoided arrest, he was banned from the White House after losing his temper and shouting.[21]  Not everyone had an easy counterpart in the women’s movement, however.

While Du Bois and Trotter focused on how to improve the lot of African-Americans in the U.S., Marcus Garvey had a completely different idea: using the opportunities created by World War I to start a new black society by recolonizing Africa[22].  Garvey had been born in Jamaica and did not move to the U.S. until 1917, well after the disagreement between Du Bois and Trotter was established.  He promoted a sort of separatism, though not the same sort as Washington, who he respected.  He founded The Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, which was the largest all-black organization to date and proudly wore its militant label.  Garvey himself frequently went around in uniform.    UNIA supported the idea of blacks trying to building their own economy, but unlike Washington, Garvey wanted to use this new capital to return to Africa, leaving blacks and whites each with their own continent and distinct sovereignty[23], not interfering in one another’s affairs. This largely avoided conflict with white political goals[24], which he was quick to point out, but was not a concession to white racism. He demanded concessions of his own.  Primarily, he wanted The African colonies than Germany had lost in the war turned over to African Americans along with French colonies to satisfy France’s war-debt to the U.S.[25]  He also wanted assistance in getting there from white philanthropists.  Regardless of the feasibility of this plan, it was never to come to fruition.

Without supporters in the government, black leaders in general were unable to significantly advance their goals.  While Du Bois was successful in getting many African Americans to join the military, they were for the most part put in unprestigious support roles returned home to find their situation unchanged.[26]  Du Bois found himself denied a visa when he attempted to hold an international council to promote the universal African brotherhood he had espoused[27], but was successful in getting Wilson to condemn lynching[28]. The fact that was considered a victory does not speak well of his successes.  Trotter found himself without an audience in the Oval Office, his earlier support having come to naught and Garvey was imprisoned for fraud over financial irregularities in the companies he had founded to finance his group’s return to Africa[29].  While they didn’t exactly start with an advantage, the lack of a united front probably did not help. Unlike the women’s suffragists, who despite their difference, were unanimous in their goal of suffrage and increased influence in society, black leaders had large and very public disagreements as to their goals.

While suffragists like Addams acknowledged the legitimacy of their opponents and used it to show demonstrate political independence rather than slavery to their sex and leadership, African-American leaders had very public and personal fights.  Du Bois called Trotter “needlessly violent.[30]”  Trotter and Garvey criticized the Du bois for being beholden to white interests.[31]  Garvey added that Du Bois was lazy[32] and that black leaders in general were illegitimate.[33]

So, while women and African-Americans both entered the World-War I period disenfranchised in many states, they were not on equal ground.  Women were already a part of white society and were trying to increase their influence, whereas blacks were excluded from that society and had much disagreement as to how the relationship was supposed to change.  Thus, while women were successful in a few years from this point, African Americans were only able to achieve marginal improvements and were not able to achieve full legal equality until much later.


[1]    Allison L. Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question: 1870-1929 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5

[2]    Leila J. Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) ch 1

[3]    Sneider 119

[4]    Sneider 118

[5]    Paul Kramer “Women and Men, War and Peace” 10/9/2008

[6]    Rupp 86

[7]    Jane Addams.  “Personal Reactions in Time of War,“ in The Jane Addams Reader ed. Jean Bethke Elshstain (Basic Books), 318

[8]    Christine Erickson, “So Much for Men,“ American Studies 45, no. 45 (2004): 87

[9]    Sneider 97

[10]  Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, 2005, <> (23 October, 2008)

[11]  The Library of Congress: American Memory: Women of Protest: Photographs from the  Records of the National  Woman’s Party  <> (22 October 2008)

[12]  Sneider 96-97

[13]  Paul Kramer: “Crucible of World War” 10/2/2008

[14]  Paul Kramer: “Crucible of World War” 10/2/2008

[15]  Paul Kramer: “Crucible of World War” 10/2/2008

[16]  W.E.B. Du Bois, « Close Ranks » The Crisis 1918

[17]  William Jordan. « ‘The Damnable Dilemma’: African-American Accommodation and Protest during

World War I,” The Journal of American History 81, no. 4 (1995): 1565

[18]  Mark Ellis.« ‘The Damnable Dilemma’: African-American Accommodation and Protest during

World War I,” The Journal of American History 81, no. 4 (1995): 1584

[19]  William Jordan 1570

[20]  Paul Kramer “Crucible of World War” 10/2/2008

[21]  PBS: American Experience: Woodrow Wilson: Wilson- A Portrait <> (23 October 2008)

[22]  Paul Kramer “Crucible of World War” 10/2/2008

[23]  Paul Kramer  “Internationalism in Black and White” 10/14/2008

[24]  Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (Dover: The Majority Press) 35

[25]  Garvey 40

[26]  Paul Kramer  “Internationalism in Black and White” 10/14/2008

[27]  Wilson- A Portrait

[28]  Jordan 1575

[29]  Paul Kramer  “Internationalism in Black and White” 10/14/2008

[30]  Jordan 1567

[31]  Jordan 1570

[32]  Garvey 43

[33]  Garvey 49

From → history

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