The Vanguard: The Innovation of Black Women’s Political Participation

Last week the country held its breath as we waited for every vote to be counted. There was a collective sigh of relief after it became clear that Joe Biden was chosen as the president-elect and that his running mate, Kamala Harris, would be the first female, first Black, and Indian-American vice-president-elect. Harris has already achieved many “firsts” in her career, but as she declared, she “will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

While many of us were euphoric with the news, none felt this triumph as poignantly as Black female voters. Along the racial and sex dimensions, 91% of Black female voters cast their ballot for Biden and Harris. Not only did they overwhelming support the Democratic ticket as they habitually do, but Black women also turned out in droves to mobilize all eligible voters to exercise their right and to work the polls.

Despite Black women’s consistent support for the Democratic Party, they have expressed frustration with Democrats as party leaders continue to take Black women for granted as a reliable voting bloc while failing to deliver results and to answer Black women’s demands. Taylor Crumpton at the Washington Post clarified this view when she said “We’re not your political mules. We’re not your monolith – so especially now, after we turned out all over the country to sweep Trump from office, Democrats had better support and listen to Black women even in odd-numbered years.”

Crumpton’s statement refers to the ways in which this nation has always taken the labor of Black women for granted without allotting them due credit and recompense. There is a legacy of Black women being left behind by their natural allies, namely many White women. But this should not be the case, because when Black women work to raise the floor for themselves, everyone else is elevated. As such, it is important to view Harris’ nomination in light of this history. While Harris’ victory is partially her own, her achievement is founded on all Black females arduously advocating for change that prepared the path for her ascendency to this office.

For October, the NOW Book Club read Martha S. Jones’ new book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. The author weaves a complex narrative of  the lives of Black women leaders and their fight to overcome racism and sexism in the campaign for the 19th Amendment, equality and the vote. One such example is Maria Miller Stewart who was a teacher, journalist, abolitionist, lecturer and woman’s rights activist. She said, “Oh, ye daughters of Africa, awake! Awake! Arise! No longer sleep nor slumber but distinguish yourselves” (Jones 32). Stewart urged Black women to no longer remain complicit in their own subjugation. Instead, she demanded that they rise up and seize their own political power to defend themselves, as nobody else would. Another instance is the National Association of Colored Women’s and their motto “Lifting as we climb” (Jones 153). Their philosophy was that the work of a few Black women in associations and clubs would benefit all Black women by lifting them out of oppression. Nannie Helen Burroughs argued that Black women needed the vote to serve as “her weapon of moral defense” (212). For so long, Black women turned to their supposed allies and professed defenders to protect them, but they were always ignored or taken advantage of. Burroughs, among many others, demanded that Black women should not trustingly enable others to serve their interest. Rather, they needed to take charge because they were the only ones that should be informing and shaping their own futures.

The narratives of a neglected history reveal the ethos of this movement that rested solely on the shoulders of Black women. It reveals the extent that Black women were marginalized by their oppressors as well as other oppressed groups calling for the same rights and protections. It reveals the ubiquitous endeavor to ameliorate the circumstances for all. Finally, it reveals how much has changed but also how much seems uncannily the same.

Summing it up, author Jones writes that “the story of the Vanguard is still being written. Black women continue to innovate, challenge and lead American politics to its best ideals in our own moment” (268). Harris’ nomination is situated within this Vanguard, but she is only one of many leading the way. This Vanguard entails greater participation by women of color in creating a new vision of America that is more inclusive, gentle, and fair.

Follow this link for to see NOW’s Changemakers of the Centennial, where NOW profiles 100 suffragists and voting rights advocates that made history!

Also, you can view Martha S. Jones presentation about her new book by clicking on this link:

  • July 15th-Dr. Martha S Jones, Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and author of Birthright Citizens and the upcoming Vanguard; How Black Women overcame Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All.

*Quick plug: If you would like to join NOW’s Book Club and participate in our discussions, click here.

Blog by Alison Lo, NOW President’s Office Intern


Jones, Martha S. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. Basic Books, 2020.

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