The National Council of Negro Women has been there even when our story has not been told...

Ashley J. Finigan

Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain, “...the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s...experiences.” [1] As such intersectionality is the central organizing theory for my dissertation in which I ask how black women activists contended with their multiple identities while working toward racial empowerment during the long struggle for civil rights. Black women are not often seen as integral to the Civil Rights Movement, often relegated to second class status in favor of men they often closely cooperated with such as Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin and John Lewis. Similarly, when studying feminist history, women of color are often pushed to the margins, with their activism understood in conjunction to their ethnic identities and not standing at the nexus of race, gender and social class.


With my dissertation, "The National Council of Negro Women has been there even when our story has not been told..." The NCNW and the Creation of an International Black Women's Movement, 1935-1975, I endeavor to address this gap with an organizational history of the National Council of Negro Women, a black women’s civic group founded by educational activist Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935. The NCNW occupied a distinct position as a group for black women committed to racial and societal uplift both at home and abroad, providing entree for their socially committed, working and middle class members onto the global stage. Through the generous support of an SSD Research Grant I spent a month this summer visiting the Madam C. J Walker Papers at the Indiana Historical Society, the Dorothy Height Papers at Smith College, Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune Papers at Princeton University and accessed some of my family papers on the Council in Brooklyn, New York for the first two chapters of my project.


While I have often thought of the women of my study as being feminists, I balked at labeling them as such without official documentation that they themselves used this language to self-identity. As a historian it is not my job to place my own thoughts and ideas on the archives but to rather let them speak for themselves. Therefore I was thrilled when I discovered while pouring over her papers at Smith College, that Dorothy Height president of the NCNW from 1957-1998, in a 1977 interview to the New York Daily Challenge declared, “If there is a feminist in the world it’s the black woman.” That the president of a group dedicated to black women and their communities would call herself and the women of her race the epitome of feminism has rich implications for my work and casts a new light on my understanding of their lobbying efforts on behalf of better access to white collar jobs, education and health, particularly reproductive rights.


[1] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review Vol 43:1241(1993): 1244

Ashley J. Finigan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.