Mary Church Terrell & African American Feminist Transnational Activism
Taking 'Race Work' from the Domestic to International Sphere
Mary Church Terrell
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Europe was an important site for African American activists: such prominent figures as W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Booker T. Washington, and Ida B. Wells studied or gave lectures throughout Europe. Terrell’s connection to Europe dates back to 1888-1890 when she studied abroad in France, Germany, and Italy to learn about European cultures and languages. Terrell is best remembered today for her career in the U.S. as an early civil rights advocate, an educator, a lecturer on rights for women and African Americans, and the daughter of the first black millionaire family of the South. Born in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Terrell was part of a pioneering generation of African American women. They earned college degrees, sought professional careers, challenged black male leadership on the basis of gender discrimination, and became a political force with the establishment of the black women’s club movement. While the turn of the twentieth century brought new opportunities, Jim Crow discrimination laws prevented many African Americans from taking full advantage. For Terrell, Germany served as a personal refuge from America’s racially hostile environment, and as a political avenue through which she developed relationships with European women activists.
African American Women's History
Black women’s commitment to political and social affairs affecting the progress of African Americans pre-dates the abolitionist movement. Yet, it was through the establishment of black women’s clubs in the 1890s that black women articulated a shared vision for uplifting their race, agreed on the fundamentals that shaped their daily activities in the larger community, and presented themselves as a respected and unified political body. Though not monolithic in their thinking, Mary Church Terrell and other prominent African American feminists held the shared belief that the elevation of the race hinged on the progress of its women.
Early Transnational Women's Movement
The emergence of transatlantic feminist organizing at the end of the nineteenth century provided leading feminists of the North Atlantic an opportunity to establish a more permanent transnational dialogue. For them, forging an international sisterhood was one strategy to overcoming the challenges that confronted their sex. Holding regular women’s conferences in locations as diverse as Paris, London, Zurich, and Washington D.C. made feminist transnationalists a force on the international scene. But practicing international sisterhood proved to be difficult, particularly when it came to matters involving race. African American women’s participation in the early transnational women’s movement often challenged white leaders to live up to the great principles the organizations claimed to uphold. Yet African American feminists are nearly invisible in scholarship on first-wave international feminist organizing.